In what is paraded as nationalism – indeed, the only true nationalism – in the bitterly divided times we inhabit, one trademark, one essential badge of patriotism is reverence for the soldier.

The soldier is supposed to define the essence of love for the country. Illustratively, days before I started writing this piece, I received a post on a social media group I share with my former Indian Administrative Service batch-mates. The post celebrated the Indian soldier:

“The average age of the army man is 19 years. He is a short-haired, tight-muscled kid who, under normal circumstances, is considered by society as half man, half boy. Not yet dry behind the ears, not old enough to buy a beer, but old enough to die for his country… He is five or seven kilos lighter now than when he was at home because he is working or fighting the insurgents or standing guard on the icy Himalayas from before dawn to well after dusk or he is at Mumbai engaging the terrorists. He has trouble spelling, thus letter writing is a pain for him, but he can field strip a rifle in 30 seconds and reassemble it in less time in the dark. He can recite to you the nomenclature of a machine gun or grenade launcher and use either one effectively if he must… He can march until he is told to stop, or stop until he is told to march. He obeys orders instantly and without hesitation, but he is not without spirit or individual dignity… He has learned to use his hands like weapons and weapons like they were his hands. He can save your life – or take it, because that is his job.

“He will often do twice the work of a civilian, draw half the pay, and still find ironic humour in it all. He has seen more suffering and death than he should have in his short lifetime. He has wept in public and in private, for friends who have fallen in combat and is unashamed. He feels every note of the Jana Gana Mana vibrate through his body while at rigid attention, while tempering the burning desire to ‘square-away’ those around him who haven’t bothered to stand, remove their hands from their pockets, or even stop talking… Beardless or not, he is not a boy. He is your nation’s Fighting Man that has kept this country free and defended your right to Freedom. He has experienced deprivation and adversity, and has seen his buddies falling to bullets and maimed and blown. As you go to bed tonight, remember…”

The patriot act

In May, the Ministry of Human Resource Development launched the Vidya, Veerta Abhiyan (Education, Valour Campaign) to encourage universities to install a “Wall of Heroes” with portraits of soldiers who have been awarded India’s highest gallantry award, the Param Veer Chakra. This was originally the brainchild of Jawaharlal Nehru University Vice-Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar, who felt that portraits not just of these men who demonstrated extraordinary courage to defend their motherland but also of tanks used in war would instil nationalism and patriotism among students (who presumably display too little of these sterling qualities with their protests and rebellion). The ministry had in February prescribed, with the same objective, that every university must install the national flag in a prominent location at a height of 207 feet (why precisely this height remains an unsolved mystery), and illuminated at night, so that it remains always in the students’ line of vision as they traverse their classrooms, hostels, library and canteens.

Respect for the soldier is demanded every time citizens protest any policy that causes civic distress. In queues that formed outside ATMs across the country after the government’s shock-and-awe note ban in November, if anyone grumbled, chances are that someone in the line would remind them sternly of the sacrifices made by India’s soldiers guarding India’s border on the icy Siachen glacier. “If they are sacrificing so much for the nation, can you not even stand cheerfully in a queue for the good of your country?” If you argued that the note ban ultimately yielded on none of its promises (curbing black money, for instance) and instead caused unprecedented suffering to people in informal employment and outside the formal banking system, this too was dismissed as unpatriotic because it questioned the wisdom of the supreme leader.

The narrative of the soldier cheerfully guarding our frontiers cracked briefly when a Border Security Force constable uploaded a series of Facebook videos in January complaining of the quality of food soldiers got and accusing his superiors of selling the food supplied to them (he was later dismissed from service). Copy-cat videos by a few other soldiers followed. The work of one cartoonist portrayed a young soldier being scolded by his superior, “Look at you grumbling about food, when civilians are standing in lines outside banks across India for the good of the country.”

Border Security Force Constable Tej Bahadur Yadav's viral videos about substandard food for soldiers was the only break in the narrative of the Indian soldier cheerfully guarding our frontiers.

The good and the bad

I have no doubt that many soldiers love their country. My father joined the army when he was 18 and served in it until he was handpicked to join the Indian Frontier Administrative Service in the North-East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh), under the direct tutelage of Jawaharlal Nehru and the British anthropologist Verrier Elwin. He loved his country when he served it as an army man – he recalls picking up bodies from the streets of Calcutta during the bloody riots around Partition, and of his time in a turbulent Nepal – and he loved it when he served in the mountainous regions of the North-East Frontier Agency where he had to trek for four days to reach his headquarters, and among the indigenous people of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. My father-in-law was a doctor in the armed forces. He wore the uniform of all three forces, and was loved by the soldiers he led.

I have met many soldiers who look upon their work as a calling. But there are several others for whom this is a job. When more than 3,000 youngsters turn up at an army recruitment centre in Kashmir, it cannot be assumed that they were all burning with love for the Indian nation. And there is nothing dishonourable about looking to the armed forces as an avenue for honest, reasonably remunerated and secure employment. If you are not a pacifist, then why not? There was no reason to troll Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Nivedita Menon when she made this point while addressing college students in Jodhpur in February.

There are many decent men and women in the armed forces. But as in any walk of life, there are disreputable people also in their ranks, people who dabble in corruption, commit sexual and other crimes. There are many soldiers who firmly hold India’s constitutional secularism as their creed, and accord equal respect to every faith – this is why we rely on the army as the last resort to act fairly and decisively in dousing large communal conflagrations. But I have met too many senior defence personnel who are fervently and unapologetically communal and anti-Muslim, and who dismiss human rights.

The point is that there are many honourable soldiers, attempting to do a difficult job honestly, often in testing terrains, far away from their families, sometimes risking their lives. I may, and do, disagree with a muscular military approach in many cases, including of internal conflict, in Maoist-affected regions, in Kashmir and in the North East. I also favour friendship and peace with our neighbours and much lower investments in defence. These can be debated. But I do not hold the soldier responsible for these policies, which emerge (as they should) from the country’s civilian political leadership. And so I grieve when soldiers are killed, in Maoist attacks in Chhattisgarh as much as in militant raids in Kashmir, or on the border, as much as I do when civilians are killed.

The other heroes

My problem is when we are told that we must revere the soldier above all others, that they epitomise patriotism in a way no other profession does, because they defend India’s freedom. Perhaps some of them do. But it is important to recognise that there are women and men in other vocations who also defend India’s freedom – and its constitutional values of justice, equality and fraternity – again often at great personal cost and sacrifice, sometimes risking or losing their lives. It is only a militarist and illiberal kind of nationalism that celebrates the army alone as the pinnacle of public service and patriotism, and excludes those who fight injustice, suffering, want and hate, sometimes only with the weapons of compassion and courage, and mostly unknown and unsung.

The number of people I know who have fought hate and caste violence, hunger, illiteracy, disease, the exploitation of workers, human rights abuse, violence against women and children, the neglect of children on the streets, unjust displacement and the ravaging of the environment could fill many years of my column space.

I could also write of an ageing Zakia Jafri and an unlettered Bilkis Bano – the former’s husband was killed in the 2002 Gujarat riots while the latter was gang-raped by rioters who also killed 14 members of her family during the same communal violence – who have fought state power and intimidation to ensure innocent people are not slaughtered or raped in future as children of a lesser god. Police officers such as Hemant Karkare, Vibhuti Narain Rai, Chaman Lal, Rahul Sharma, Rajnish Rai and Satish Verma who fought institutional prejudice and their own colleagues in uniform, and accepted the rout of their careers to hold to account those who perpetrated hate, violence and extra-judicial killings. Judges such as JS Verma, Jyotsna Yagnik (who convicted Gujarat minister Maya Kodnani in a 2002 riots case) and SP Tamang (who courageously concluded that Mumbai teen Ishrat Jahan was not killed in an encounter but in cold blood by the Gujarat Police) who resoundingly spoke truth to power. Human rights defenders like Mukul Sinha who frontally fought state injustice. Mohammad Aamir Khan, who passionately defends secular democracy even after spending 14 years in jail for crimes he did not commit – he was accused of carrying out terrorist attacks and multiple blasts in Delhi and acquitted in the majority of these cases. I could write of Sister Cyril who allowed hundreds of street children to live and study in safety in her school, of Bezwada Wilson who is helping manual scavengers fight caste discrimination, of Shantha Sinha who has helped free several thousand child labourers, of Prakash Amte and Yogesh Jain who have been extending precious health services in India’s deep rural interiors for years. The list could go on and on.

There are heroes like Gujarat riots victim Bilkis Bano, who fought state power and intimidation to ensure innocent people are not slaughtered or raped in future.

And for all the names we know, there are several thousand names we will never know. I illustrate here, with three stories, iridescent acts of love that I encountered where I least expected it.

Saviours in Kolkata

In the dusty crowded streets of Kolkata, a non-profit organisation, the Iswari Sankalpa, has crafted a unique way of helping homeless, abandoned mentally-ill persons. Men and women perched on piles of waste, covered in grime, their hair matted and unkempt, nearly naked. Name forgotten. Family forgotten. Muttering inscrutable words. Wandering aimlessly. Solitary. Profoundly lost to the world. We see many such people in the cities we inhabit and turn away from them. Iswari Sankalpa decided not to.

Medical science may not yet have found a cure for severe psychoses but medicines can control nearly all of the debilitating symptoms, limiting confusion and chances of self-harm. But who would provide medicines daily to these people who have no one in the world? The audacious answer Ishwari Sankalpa proposed was that surely, there are caring people in every community who, if identified and educated, could become the proxy families of these lost, forgotten souls. They first surveyed the city and found 466 such homeless mentally-ill patients. They also found that these people often have a sense of belonging, such as to a particular stretch of pavement. Eight young men and women then set about looking for caring people in these stretches. They soon affirmed that indeed there is no shortage of compassionate people. They found them mostly among working-class street vendors, and a few even among the middle classes.

While making a round of Kolkata’s streets at night in 2007, the team met a near-naked man beside a garbage dump near Khidderpore flyover, chanting verses from the Quran. They recall that “it was difficult to differentiate the filth from the human heap amidst it”. Investigating further, they learnt that a grain shopkeeper, Mohammed Nihal, gave this man lunch every day, shared his morning tea with him, even gave him clothes. Nihal readily agreed to become the man’s caregiver and persuaded him to attend a medical camp. In the camp, the man identified himself as Abdullah. The team members bathed him and a barber cut his hair and shaved him. The doctor diagnosed him to be suffering from hallucinatory schizoaffective disorder.

Within a month, Abdullah appeared more relaxed, though he still communicated in sign language. After five more months, he began to speak. He also started helping Nihal in his shop. As time passed, he recalled that his name was Suresh Kamble and that he had worked as a radiologist in Mumbai’s Nanavati Hospital. But he insisted he did not want to return to his family, and wanted to stay with Nihal. I met them seven years later. I found that Kamble was like a member of Nihal’s family, his friend and his most trusted shop assistant. Nihal insisted his children gave Kamble the respect due to any family elder. His only worry was what would happen after Kamble’s death. Kamble insisted he be buried as a Muslim. But Nihal felt he was still a Hindu and should be cremated according to Hindu rites. It is one argument the friends have not resolved.

In another part of Kolkata, a fierce-looking homeless man in his 30s, his malnourished frame clad in tattered clothes and his hair and beard long and tangled, restlessly roamed Bijon Setu, the flyover near Ballygunge Railway Station. When field worker Swapan initially approached him, he refused to speak to him or accept food or water from him. It took Swapan several weeks of steady and gentle persistence to win his trust. Finally, he agreed to let Swapan take him to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with schizophrenia. Swapan then started looking around for willing caregivers. Sunil Babu, who sold soft drinks from a roadside stall, and Kanan Mondal, an ageing widow who sold tea under the flyover, agreed to help the man. The street barber agreed to cut his hair.

In the absence of a name, the man came to be called Bijon, after the flyover. He gradually accepted medicines, food, hygiene care and counselling and slowly regained his memory. He remembered his real name, Mohammed Asif Iqbal, and that he once lived in his maternal uncle’s home in Rajabazar. A visit to his home revealed Bijon’s melancholic past. He lost his mother at an early age and was abandoned by his father, who left him in his uncle’s home. Uncared for, he befriended some boys who initiated him into hard drugs. This aggravated his mental health distress. He was beaten and berated by neighbours and family members, and once arrested by the police.

When I met him some months later, I found Bijon clean, shaven and calm. He still lived under the flyover as he was unwilling to return home. His memories of the abuse and neglect still haunt him. But he had grown to like and trust his new friends Swapan, Sunil Babu and Kanan Mashi (or aunt, as he called the tea-seller). The afternoon I met him, I found him sitting with them between their stalls. He told me he was waiting for another friend. This friend turned out to be Anirban, a volunteer with Ishwari Sankalpa and an employee at an information technology company nearby who visited him during his lunch break every day. Anirban arrived soon after, with a packed box of biryani he had brought to share with Bijon.

I met another caregiver, 18-year-old Sanjay who sold tea by the pavement in the commercial area of Dhakuria. A middle-aged mentally-ill man roamed his pavement and Sanjay agreed to give him medicines with his tea twice a day. As the man recovered, he refused to return to his home. Sanjay spoke with an acquaintance who hired out cycle-rickshaws and asked him to rent one out to Bapida, as he called his new friend. The rickshaw owner was sceptical. What if he damaged the rickshaw? But the owner came around when Sanjay stood guarantee for Bapida, and mollified him for early damages to the rickshaw. In time, Bapida settled down. He drinks tea with Sanjay, and sleeps on the pavement near his hand-cart at night. I spoke with Sanjay as he poured steaming tea into cups and expertly handed them around to his customers. I asked him why he did what he did. He smiled a little, then only said, “Bhalo lage.” (I like doing this).

I recall Mother Teresa’s words: “Not all of us can do great things. But all of us can do small things with great love.”

Hierarchy of patriotism

Our soldiers love their country. I will not take that away from them. But surely Mohammed Nihal, Sunil and Sanjay love their country no less. I fight against this hierarchy of patriotism that privileges the soldier in an olive green uniform above all others. I can wear a khaki uniform of a policeperson instead, or the white coat of a doctor or a nurse, or the black robe of a lawyer, or the proverbial jhola of the activist, or I can wear no uniform at all. I can be a student who rousingly calls for true equality and azadi for all, I can be a woman who fights violence inside my home and outside it, I can be a man who travels hundreds of kilometres every year in search of back-breaking work so that my children can eat and study, spared the life to which I was condemned. All of these and a million others love their country in their own way. Who can tell them that the only true – or at least the purest – way to love your country is to wear a green uniform and pick up a gun?