The indomitable spirit of the Indian soldier
Journalists tend to suffer from a complex. They feel that their credibility depends upon their ability to criticise. Praise falls in the realm of propaganda and no senior journalist worth his or her byline would be caught praising a subject. That is the job of upcoming feature writers who are relegated to do the fluff-stuff. It is safe because they are not likely to offend anybody by praising them, hence avoid all ‘get the facts right’ and ‘contempt’ issues. Seniors or respectable journalists have a term for this kind of reporting: breathless.
No different from my peers, I also found myself being programmed to look at the ugly side. To disbelieve and question. To scratch till the nails hurt. Given my line of work, my target of criticism perforce has been the security people of all hues and uniforms. When you have a huge number, finding black sheep or rough edges is not very difficult. And it has not been difficult, especially when it comes to ground forces in Kashmir. Given the sheer density of the troops, there is a story waiting to explode every day. Even if nothing new happens, there is a mine-full of old statistics about disappearances, human rights violations, torture and custodial deaths, that writing on Kashmir can establish any journalist’s reputation. And indeed the 20 years of insurgency has made many careers.
Armed with these figures and opinions, I participated in a seminar on human rights violations in Kashmir organised by the Indian Army at Pattan. By my reckoning, I had a good and a balanced paper, which projected the ground realities in the state even as it gently rapped the security forces on the knuckles for not doing enough to secure the human rights of the ordinary people. In the open house discussions that followed, I realised that I had completely overlooked a very important aspect of this entire debate. The realisation was brought about by a young officer in the audience. He said, though not exactly in the same words, that these academic discussions on human rights are all very well, but somebody also needs to think about the guys who man the check points, do sentry or road opening duties. These guys do their daily job, irrespective of the weather, with the full awareness that they are sitting ducks for sniper fire, grenade or a terrorist attack. When they wave a vehicle to stop they don’t know that all inhabitants of the car will not be terrorists. So many times these guys do their jobs even without their meals as the meal vans get delayed.
As he went on in this vein for a while, I stopped listening as my mind wandered to my first encounter with the army in Kashmir. The year was 2003 and I drove into the Valley from Udhampur. All along the National Highway, lone soldiers patrolled, in some lucky pockets they would patrol in pairs. True, the scenery was lovely as I crossed the Banihal Pass, and I was tempted to get off the car and walk along too. But the breathtaking effect of the scenery lasted only for about an hour after which a sense of sameness crept in. I got engrossed in my book or conversation and only occasionally glanced out. It occurred to me how bored, lonely and anxious the pacing soldier would be. It didn’t occur to me then that he would be uncomfortable too. I learnt much later that the bullet-proof jacket and the helmet simply added to his woes by their sheer weight and archaic design. I wondered about their meals till I saw a meal van, which delivered cold food.
This was before the ceasefire and the situation in the Valley had just about begun to improve. But on the LC it remained difficult, especially in the higher reaches. I remember a few officers in Tangdhar joking about some soldiers who were discovered missing one day, till it was realised that the bunker in which the men were sleeping had collapsed on them due to very heavy snowfall at night. Fortunately, the bunker fell at an angle thereby creating an air pocket, which helped the men survive the two-day ordeal before they were rescued. At that point, the joke seemed in poor taste. It was only later I understood that what else can one do in the face of adversity, except laugh.
I was determined then that one of the articles that I would do after returning would be on the indomitable spirit of the Indian soldier. Unfortunately, this soft subject was superseded by the more serious issues of war and strategy. And over time, like the landscape in the Valley, the life of the soldier became routine. I accepted the monotonous patrolling, the uninterrupted vigil in freezing cold or rain, the unsophisticated personnel gear, lonely and solitary nights in the wilderness, violent death of colleagues and friends as part of the life that they have chosen. Till that afternoon in Pattan, when I realised that humanness has nothing to with intellectual and physical capabilities. And praise need not always be propaganda.