‘We were soldiers', recounts Sainik Vihar residents from Kochi

TNIE reporter Mahima Anna Jacob and lensman A Sanesh spend a day at Sainik Vihar, a unique shelter home for military veterans

Published: 21st January 2023 08:42 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st January 2023 08:42 AM   |  A+A-

Sainik Vihar

Sainik Vihar

Express News Service

KOCHI:  Walking down the steep road that leads to Sainik Vihar in Kakkanad, Kochi, one can see a cluster of brick-red houses from afar. Upon entering the compound, a frail, old man with a walking stick greets me with a feeble smile. He sports a ‘KEXWA’ cap – it stands for Kerala Ex-Servicemen Welfare Association. 

Sainik Vihar is a shelter home for forgotten military veterans, many of whom broke ties with families, and don’t want to be a burden on their loved ones. Reasons vary and are deeply personal for many. First, I head to ‘A1’, the residence of Colonel K B R Pillai, the man behind the quaint, quiet space that is now home to 32 ex-servicemen. The 83-year-old veteran beams, with a radio on one side, and a few medicine packs on the other.  

‘Pillai Sir’ points to the veteran who welcomed me into the compound. “That’s T Bhaskaran, he could be more than 100 years old now,” he says. “He was part of World War II.” Bhaskaran was one of those 12 WW II veterans who first came to Sainik Vihar. In fact, Pillai started this shelter home for these men. They were among the 25 lakh troops from the Indian subcontinent that fought under the British command, along with Allied forces. 

Colonel K B R Pillai

“They gave the best years of their lives to the military. But were eventually left destitute as their units were dissolved when the British left,” notes Pillai.

Pillai, who served in the Indian Army, recalls regularly visiting the Naval Base to meet his doctor in the 1990s. Each time, he used to see a group of old men gathered under a shed.  “It seemed like a protest, a silent protest, I would say – something unusual to see in Kerala, where protests were all about slogans and flags,” he says. 

“I was curious to know who they were. I learnt they were WW II veterans. They were ‘protesting’ to secure some financial support. Servicemen who visited the base would give them some meagre amount. All some of them wanted was to have quality food at the nearby canteen.” 

The soldier in Pillai wanted to do something for them. In 1998, he rented a space to accommodate them. He named the place ‘Sainik Ashram’. 

“It was not practical to support them with just my pension, so I started a private security service. Later, the British Commonwealth Ex-service League members gave about `10 lakh. with which I bought this land,” he says. 

In 2001, Sainik Ashram was shifted to its current space in Kakkanad. The shelter home was renamed Sainik Vihar. Pillai moved the Supreme Court, seeking financial support for the veterans. “The court ordered the government to provide financial help every month,” says Pillai, adding that at least 750 men from Kerala joied the Allies in WW II. 

Today, Sainik VIhar is home to several post-Independence veterans and their families. One big, warm family. I walk to Bhaskaran’s residence next. I sit next to him, hoping to hear some war tales. However, the Thriprayar native, who was part of the Royal Corps of Signals, doesn’t remember any of it. He keeps muttering how he reached Sainik Vihar. “I saw a write-up about this place in the newspaper, that’s how I reached here,” is his reply to every question. Maybe it was a bigger battle for him.

Operation Bluestar 
Havildars Babu Pisharody (Central Command Signal Regiment) and P K Rajan (Intelligence wing) were part of Operation Bluestar. “I was a gunner operator then,” says Rajan. “The Army went to the Golden Temple with the Vijayanta tank. The militants were well-armed.They even had Chinese-made grenade launchers, which inflicted a lot of casualties. The officer who was supposed to give us the firing order was a Sikh. Since he didn’t, he was replaced by Major K P Ramesh, who gave us the green signal. As we opened fire from the four sides, the militant ammunition dump, too, went up in flames, and we apprehended the militants.”  

Babu, who worked as an operator in the Corps of Signals recalls the subsequent assassination of Indira Gandhi and the anti-Sikh riots that followed. “I witnessed the death of many Sikhs on my way to 17 Assam Rifles camp,” says the veteran, who has been to several remote parts of India, including Siachen. Having lived in lodges and hotels for years, the 65-year-old Palakkad native is now at peace in Sainik Vihar. “The solidarity and brotherhood we military personnels shared still exists here,” he says.

Memories of Bangladesh, son 
Captain N P T Venugopalan has travelled to many parts of India, along with his wife Rathi Menon. The couple is still grieving over their only son’s untimely death in 2005. Originally from Kodungallur, the 84-year-old veteran is excited to talk about his days in Bangladesh as an engineer. “When we go for duty in Chittagong and Comilla, vehicles tend to break down. It is our team members who promptly repair them. We were the backbone of the troops on the move,” says Venugopal.  

‘I still remember the smell of the air after war’ 
Captain A Rajashekhara Menon, an electrical and mechanical engineering department veteran, is content spending his retired life at Sainik Vihar after serving the Army for 32 years. The veteran participated in the 1962 India-China War, and the 1965 Indo-Pak wars in 1965 and ‘71.  “After the war, in Walong, the sight that I saw still sends shivers down the spine. Bodies of several soldiers lay on the icy ground. Because of the cold, it was hard to remove some bodies, to remove their shoes and watch. In some cases, their hands and feet had to be chopped. I still remember the smell of the air after the war.”

Military wives 
Rajamma J and Shanthamma G are in their seventies. These wives of the ex-servicemen have found solace at Saikik Vihar. Rajamma’s husband, Havildar K G Nair, died while in service, whereas Shanthamma’s husband, G Sivaraman Nair, breathed his last at Sainik Vihar. Been here for over a decade, both reminisce the good-old days. “We live on our husband’s pensions. We have travelled across India; now it’s time to rest,” they say.


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