The message was loud and clear: The Army is family, our soldiers are our brothers too.
There was Textile Minister Smriti Irani tying a rakhi on her jawan brothers in Siachen. Six other female ministers of the Narendra Modi government also spent Raksha Bandhan holding the hands of soldiers in various encampments. It is all of a piece, the hardline on Kashmir, the strong words to Pakistan, the insistence on the Armed Forces Special Protection Act (Afspa), the sweets to our fighters.
The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad's (AVBP) determination to teach respect for our armed forces, if necessary by force, fits well into this pattern too. While the ministers busied themselves to garland their brothers in arms, the BJP’s student wing took out demonstrations in various parts of Karnataka to protest what they saw was the denigration of the Indian Army in Bengaluru by Amnesty International India. Sedition charge levelled at this human rights body the day before was apparently not enough. A political campaign had to follow.
Amnesty’s fault was it had organised a symposium on “failures in accountability for human rights violations by security force personnel in Jammu and Kashmir,” where a few Kashmiri families affected by these depredations related their heartrending tales and a few Kashmiri students raised slogans of azadi. To the AVBP, this amounted to “trying to project the Indian Army, which was trying to curb terror activities in Jammu and Kashmir, in a bad light,” and that meant the organisers had “indulged in anti-national activities.”
This is not the first time the AVBP has come out in defence of our armed forces. Those momentous events in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) earlier this year had at its root the AVBP’s objection to “anti-national slogans” that, they felt, not only threatened the country’s unity but also belittled the sacrifices made by the Army.
It even organised, “An evening in memory of the martyrs” on the JNU campus on 24 February, where former Army officers contrasted the sacrifices made by soldiers to protect India’s geographical integrity with the calls for the dismemberment of the country allegedly made by unidentified sloganeers on the campus on 9 February. Words that were echoed by many BJP ministers and leaders. Evidently, nationalism equals Army worship in the BJP’s lexicon.
Yet, for all the talk of honouring the sacrifices made by our military men, as a nation we have learned to successfully separate the warrior from the war. We do not really feel the pain of 36-year-old Havildar Hangpan Dada’s young wife and two kids who lost him at Kupwara last 27 May nor the pride when he was awarded the Ashok Chakra on 14 August for his bravery in warding off terrorists trying to sneak in across the Line of Control at the cost of his life. In fact, 82 Gallantry Awards were handed out by the President this Independence Day eve, something he does every year, but how many even noticed, leave alone applaud?
Nor, despite all the vociferous condemnation of anyone expressing any reservation about the actions of the Indian Army in Kashmir, the North East, wherever, is the Army a desired career option for our best and the brightest. Rather, irony of ironies, in a land brimming with nationalistic fervour, the Indian Army is critically short-staffed, desperately seeking men (some women too) to fill yawning gaps, especially in the Army and the Navy.
“The Army is grappling with the maximum shortage of 73,042 personnel, including 10,218 officers,” Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar informed the Lok Sabha on 13 August, through a written reply.
The major reasons for the shortfall, he explained, were “increases in authorised strength due to new accretions of posts from time to time, availability of other attractive career avenues, stringent selection criteria coupled with perceived high degree of risk.” In short, patriotism may be running high in the country but not high enough for flag-wavers to forego lucrative careers that do not explicitly ask its workforce to make the ultimate sacrifice.
The desh-bhakts’ default reaction to military service is hero worship – but from a safe distance. Young jingoists with better things to do are happy to leave the fighting and dying to those with lesser opportunities in life while they stick to cheering from the sidelines in their spare time. But, surely, the truest form of patriotism is serving, not making others serve.
To add insult to injury, even those who are joining the Indian Army are jumping ship before time. The Times of India report dated 14 August said, “The number of officers who opted to hang up their boots before reaching the age of superannuation has gone up in all the three services this year.” Yet again, pay, perks and hardship are the reasons for the disenchantment it is said.
Undoubtedly, now is the time for all patriots to come to the aid of the Army, especially given the Modi government’s deafening sabre rattling in recent days. Then their nationalistic outpourings wouldn’t smack of political expediency, and the politics of war would be shaped by the blood, sweat and tears that would be expended by the defenders of the faith on the front lines.
So, shouldn’t the BJP, the ABVP and other constituents of the Sangh Parivar walk their talk, go beyond words and express their ardour for the Army in more concrete forms? Like, say, enlisting immediately and replacing face-offs on streets and campuses to facing fire at the front. That is, graduate from gau-rakshaks to desh-rakshaks? The nation wants to know.