One cold morning early this month, Krishna Lal Sinha curled himself on a willow bench inside a bunker, his rifle pointing at the slow, melancholic movement on the Srinagar-Jammu national highway of all kinds of private and passenger cars and buses, heavy trucks and an occasional VIP or forces' convoy. Life seems frozen by the bitter winter chill of January.
Chillaikalan — the harshest, 40-day spell of winter beginning December 21 — is the most difficult period of the year for millions of people living in Kashmir. Soldiers serving in the Valley, be they from the Army, CRPF or BSF, are no exception. From them, however, the difficulties of winter come at a cost both in terms of their physical as well as psychological well-being.
Sinha, a resident of Bihar, looks to be in his fifties — barely a few years away from retirement in the Central Reserve Police Forces (CRPF). A chilly wind sweeps the paddy fields where the small bunker has been set up. Sinha is visibly shaken by the cold. He gets up from the bench; his frail body is shivering involuntarily, the signs of old age visible on his wrinkled face, protruding eyes and streaks of grey in his mustache and hair. He looks tired. The posting in Kashmir, the third in his career, has only multiplied his miseries. While serving in other states was no easy job, it was relatively better. At least there were safer working and better weather conditions.
Like that of other jawans, Sinha's day starts at 5:30 am when most of Srinagar city and other parts of the Valley are in deep slumber. Before he gets ready for the morning patrol, he has to wait for his turn in the common washroom complex to wash his face or bathe, sometimes with icy-cold water when the warm water supply runs out. A short walk in subzero temperature from the dormitory to the washroom complex and back is the first of the many daunting tasks he carries out throughout the day: prayers and exercise follow if weather permits.
“An Indian soldier lives a sub-standard life,” Sinha told me as we sat near the bunker. “To beat the subzero temperatures, our dormitory is supplemented with a traditional coal heater. During the night, I often wake up in fits of coughing. I am suffering from a chest ailment,” he said, sipping tea from a steel glass.
“Look at the soldiers in developed countries. They live the life a soldier deserves for his sacrifices,” Sinha says. “Then look at us. Tea in a steel glass. Half burnt roti. Unhygienic dal. No portable heaters or bottles. Cold food on patrol. Long stretches of duty. If this isn't humiliation, what is?”
Sinha says the five months of unrest in Kashmir put extra burden on them. “Some people sometimes didn’t even get a place to sleep," he says, referring to the summer unrest of 2016 when paramilitary soldiers brought into the Valley from other states at the peak of the crisis were ferried from one place to another at night because the police stations lacked space to accommodate all of them.
The Srinagar-Jammu national highway has emerged as one of the easy targets for militants in the past few years. Militant groups like Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba have killed dozens of soldiers in multiple deadly strikes on Army and paramilitary convoys on the stretch from Qazigund to Srinagar. These surprise attacks by militants make the job of soldiers like Sinha and his colleagues stationed along this strategic road life-threatening.
Other threats include the freezing winter. Last week, while collecting wood for a bonfire from the nearby willow plantation, the owner appeared and had a fight with soldiers for taking his wood without permission But then, after seeing their condition, he was ‘kind enough’ and gave it away, “It was humiliating and touching at the same time,” said Sunil Kumar, a colleague of Sinha's who joined the conversation.
“We don’t know what to do when it snows. We have no means of warming up our bodies,” he added.
Sinha asks Kumar to show me the video clip of Tej Bahadur Yadav, a BSF soldier, who posted videos on Facebook, complaining of poor quality food served to them. Heralding a wave, other soldiers have followed in Bahadur’s footsteps by complaining about their “sub-standard” life. This was followed by strict instructions from Indian Army Chief Bipin Rawat about the use of social media by soldiers for voicing their complaints.
One morning early this week, I travelled to Poonch where Yadav was posted in the 29 Battalion, which gets its rations supplied by the Field Supply Depot (FSD) of the Army’s 93 Infantry Brigade, because it comes under the operational command of the army.
In Khet, a BSF base 8 km from the battalion headquarters at Mandi in Poonch, Yadav's colleagues admired his courage in complaining of corruption against his own officers. His series of videos about half-burnt parathas, dal that is “more of turmeric and salt”, and allegations of corruption, shook the nation.
BSF soldiers who spoke in whispers, claim that from 1 January to 28 February, most of the food served to them at forward locations is packed because snow cuts off the road leading to a post, a normal practice in a challenging situation. “However,” a soldier in Khet told me, “Yadav sahib showered exemplary courage. How many of us will dare to do that?”
Since the video surfaced, Yadav has been shifted from the base at Khet to another unit at Rajouri, around 110 km away. “Aap to Kashmir se hain, aap ko to pata hoga humare officer kaise taeel bechte hain din dahade (As you are from Kashmir, you must be knowing how our officers sell fuel in broad daylight),” another soldier said, before hurriedly boarding his truck.
“As long as we give our lives for India, our bosses and politicians are happy with us. But when we have genuine complaints to improve our lives, they start choking our voices,” Kumar, the soldier in Kashmir, told me in a disappointed tone.
“If this doesn’t shake the conscience of our ministers, officers and general Indian public, who always want us to go to war, nothing can,” he said.
In this open-air bunker in Srinagar, Sinha and Kumar battle the cold and the fear of death for 8-10 hours every day, taking turns to sit on a bench made of willow sticks. A vehicle serves “tasteless food” from time to time but nobody bothers about the heating arrangements. “We can't survive on food alone. My body freezes in this chill,” Sinha said.
“I’m old now, I cannot stand on my feet for hours every day. This routine has to stop for every soldier. There have to be shorter rosters so that we can carry our duty effectively. There is no dearth of manpower in Kashmir,” he says.
“Every day before going into this bunker, we have to clear dog shit from the floor. This may not sound true to our officers and ministers. Is this what an Indian soldier deserves?” Kumar asked.
In 2016, India spent more of its budget on defense than Russia and Saudi Arabia and is likely to spend more than the United Kingdom in 2018. Despite a huge spending of 2,46,727 crores in 2015-16 by the Government of India, soldiers like Kumar and Sinha still complain of being ill-equipped.
“We literally have to dodge bullets and bricks every day. All we have got is this bullet-proof jacket to protect our chest and a helmet for our head,” Sinha says. “You know why we overpower militants easily? Because they are more ill-equipped than us,” he provides the answer mockingly, looking down at his INSAS rifle. He contrasted this with the gear possessed by soldiers in Hollywood movies his son showed him last summer, when he was on vacation.
“My son told me what America and Russia discards, India buys it for its soldiers,” Sinha says, recalling the Hollywood movie Hell and Back Again shown by his son, who doesn’t want to be a soldier in India but in the US.
Kumar and Sinha say the working conditions often lead to mental disturbances which sometimes end up consuming the lives of soldiers. Many Indian soldiers have committed suicide in past few years, the reasons of which aren't known or addressed so far by the authorities.
“There is bureaucracy even in sanctioning leave. Don’t you read the news of soldiers committing suicide or killing colleagues?" Kumar says, angrily. A colleague who served with Kumar in Punjab, shot a fellow solider before turning his service rifle on himself last year in Poonch.
“The mental wellbeing of the soldiers, particularly BSF and CRPF, surprisingly never receives attention, while the Army has its own psychiatry facilities. The BSF and CRPF have general line doctors but they still don’t have psychiatry facilities," Dr Arshad Hussain, an associate professor of psychiatry at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS) Srinagar, says.
“And mind you, they reach out to us only when the illness is very severe, which actually tells us that mild or moderate illnesses get either overlooked or are not seen as a threat. That indicates the emphasis is not on mental health, but physical health. And that is disturbing,” Dr Hussain added.
Ashok Kumar Sharma, a retired BSF soldier and a resident of Samba district in Jammu, was sitting on a roadside pavement when I met him on Wednesday afternoon. A tall, thin man in his late 50s, Sharma served in a majority of the conflict zones in India, before completing his tenure honorably and is now a happy man living a retired life. He says he has regrets.
“Isn’t it an irony?” Sharma says, "We all have to be Tej Bahadur to not live a life-so-ordinary. While the children of soldiers serving in the Army have quotas in Army schools, paramilitary forces don’t have that. They (the Army) have canteen facilities, we don’t. They have medical facilities after retirement. We don’t. The Jammu and Kashmir government publishes jobs and there are quotas for ex-servicemen but paramilitary forces can't apply.”
“The 'Indian soldier' is not only (from the) Army but para-military forces too, and the story of an Indian soldier is that of a man who everyone wants to use for different purposes, but no ones wants to put himself in his shoes,” Sharma told me. “It is the story of every soldier, including (from the) Army — who have better funds but not better working conditions.”
“So if Tej Bahadur talked about the bad food, what is wrong in it?" he asks. "If the system has to change, people like him should be rewarded, not punished.”
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Updated Date: Jan 22, 2017 10:03:17 IST