As the Indian citizenry gears up to celebrate the 70th Independence Day, it seems prudent to take a pause and evaluate the relationship that Indians have with the Armed Forces of the country. When one uses the term ‘Indians’, one refers to the 1.3 billion people who live in India and call it home. We are talking of people like you and me—those working hard to provide a better life for our families, finding happiness in small joys of life … in short, the ‘common man’ of this country.
Most of us revere the Indian soldiers; our popular movies romanticise them; we shed a tear or two when we read of their ultimate sacrifice, and realms of newsprint and airtime are spent on eulogising their bravery. Yet, has anything changed on ground for the soldiers? Is there any tangible change in the nuances of the relationship the citizen shares with the soldiers. Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Once the collective hysteria over a soldier’s martyrdom is over, we go back to leading our own lives. Most of us do not even think of the soldier as a man of flesh and blood, having all the complexities and frailties of a human being. We think of him as a superior being, who is divorced from the harsh realities of life—an ethereal superman with superhero powers.
In times of peace, do any of us spare a thought for these men, or for their families—parents needing medical attention, kids wanting a stable education, spouses who often sacrifice their own careers to help the soldier focus on his?
In our zeal to put the Armed Forces on a pedestal, we are doing them a great disservice. We forget that Gods are meant to be worshipped, not people. The act of worship is based on the principle of inequality—you are far greater than me; so while you take care of me, I am not responsible for you in any manner. That is the manner in which we interact with our respective Gods—a unidimensional relationship based on God’s benevolence and our perceived inferiority when compared to him.
India’s relations with its soldiers follows a very familiar trajectory now. Most of the time, we are oblivious to them.
An incident at the border or in the insurgency-hit areas leads to a few days of outrage. Days like Independence Day and Kargil Diwas lead to heightened feelings of patriotism and we enjoy a visual diet of war movies that our media channels feed us. Radio stations play programs dedicated to ‘our fauji bhaiyon’ and kids are urged to write letters to the soldiers stationed at the border.
Yet, when the euphoria is over, the soldier goes back to leading his mundane, lonely life … at some remote outpost … far removed from kin. Nobody remembers him or his family now. I call this the ‘worship-ignore’ model—either I will worship you as if you are God or I will forget that you exist. There is no middle path in our relationship with our soldiers.
In contrast to this ‘worship-ignore’ model that we follow, there is a formal covenant that has been signed in the UK. The Armed Forces Covenant is an enduring covenant between the people of the UK, Her Majesty’s Government and all those who serve or have served in the Armed Forces of the Crown and their families. In a nutshell the Covenant states that:
1) The first duty of the Government is defence of the realm. The Forces fulfil that responsibility on behalf of the Government, sacrificing some civilian freedom, facing danger, sometimes suffering serious injury or death as a result of their duty.
2) The families also play a vital role in ensuring the operational effectiveness of the Armed Forces.
3) In return, the whole Nation has a moral obligation to the Armed Forces and their families – they deserve respect, support and fair treatment.
4) The Covenant details out the parties involved in the Covenant, the Scope, the obligations that arise thereof
This Covenant has actionable targets set out for each year and an annual report in presented to the Parliament to update on progress achieved. As per the 5th Annual Report presented in 2016, a snapshot of some key achievements are:
- Over 1,300 UK organisations are signatories to the Covenant
- 100 per cent of local authorities in Britain have signed it
- The Department for Education provided £22 million to support over 73,000 children from Service families
- The four largest mobile phone providers committed to allow Service personnel and their families to suspend their contracts when posted overseas
- Forty seven of the UK’s largest banks and building societies committed to allow Service personnel and their families, who rent out their homes when posted overseas, to avoid having to switch to buy-to-let mortgages
- 86 per cent of the UK’s motor insurance industry committed to waive cancellation fees and preserve no claims discounts for up to three years for Service personnel and their families posted overseas.
None of the above is rocket science or impossible to achieve. All it needs is a dedicated central unit, empowered with the right set of committed people and a sensitised bureaucracy and populace. By easing some of the issues which our soldiers and their families face—due to the nature of their jobs—we can do much more service to them, than by eulogising them after they are dead.
The PM has asked that 15 August 2017 be dedicated as a ‘Sankalp Prava or the Day of Resolve’. Can one sankalp be that henceforth we will not worship the soldier? By worshipping him, we are abdicating all our responsibility towards him. That is the way cowards and selfish people behave, not the way a mature, responsible India should behave. It is surely not too much to ask that we learn from the UK Covenant and develop a similar one here. Let it never be said for Indians that … “At times of war, and not before, God and Soldier, we both adore. When all is righted, God is forgotten, And the Soldier slighted.”
IIM-C alumnus and a corporate professional