First Person | Soul of the Nation

India is one of those rare countries which loses so many of its soldiers without a war

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

In December 2015, responding to a query, the ministry of defence (MoD) presented the following data to Lok Sabha: since 1984, when the India Army was first deployed on the Siachen glacier to pre-empt the purported occupation of the glacier by the Pakistan Army, a total of 869 troops have died, not fighting the enemy, but unable to cope with extreme altitude and climactic conditions, including avalanches.

Two months later, in February 2016, another avalanche rolled down the icy wasteland of Siachen taking 10 more precious lives, one of whom, Lance Naik Hanumanthappa Koppad, managed to stay alive for nearly six days buried under the snow at the temperature of -45 degrees. Hailed as a national hero — Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited him in the army hospital — Koppad died in the hospital due to multiple organ failure.

The national media followed the story of his survival and subsequent death with a pathological frenzy. His name became synonymous with courage and was used for several days to beat lesser patriots into submission on primetime news. Lost in the cacophony were two grim truths.

One, Koppad did not stay alive under 35 feet of snow in -45 degrees; he was simply dying slowly and painfully. Interested readers can look up any number of literary/ medical accounts, even online, to see the havoc sub-zero temperature in high altitude causes to the human body. Two, there was no heroism in his death; only abjectness topping misery. He left behind a widow and a two-year-old child who didn’t even have the comfort of the knowledge that their loved one died in a battlefield, fighting the enemy for the honour of his flag and his country.

In the end, desperate soldiers like Koppad simply add to the statistics. According to the data website, IndiaSpend, on an average two soldiers a month have been dying at Siachen since 1984.

Here are some more numbers to think about. South Asia Terrorism Portal has been tracking the number of victims of terrorism since Nineties. According to its website, since 1994, a total of 10,041 uniformed personnel have died in various parts of India without a war. Incidentally, the portal started tracking deaths in the Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) districts only after 2004. Hence, the actual figure would be higher than 10,041. State-wise breakdown of the data shows that the highest deaths have occurred in Jammu and Kashmir from 1994 to 2004. Thereafter, it’s been neck to neck between Jammu and Kashmir and LWE, with the years 2006-2014 showing a sharp dip in the Jammu and Kashmir numbers and a huge increase in the LWE theatre. The trend started to reverse in 2015. In 2017, while 83 security personnel died in Jammu and Kashmir, 74 died in LWE. As an aside, in this period (1994-2018) 25,041 civilians have died too, majority in Kashmir and LWE of course.

These numbers should shake the soul of any government. Not Indian though. Here, the numbers are used to pile guilt on ordinary people who have no role in the aforementioned casualties. What’s more, the government absolves itself of all responsibility for this loss of life by according the status of martyr to the killed as if that takes away the burden of responsibility.

All over the developing world, governments are investing huge amounts in defence research and development to ensure minimal harm to their soldiers. From unmanned systems to robotics and artificial intelligence. Even one loss of life shakes them. In fact, Indian analysts often joke that the United States does not have the stomach to receive body-bags, as if body bags are trophies! They do not understand that no civilised democracy should have the stomach to accept body bags, even one is one too many.

India perhaps is the only country in the world which aspires to sit at the high table as a leading power and loses so many trained soldiers every year without a war. Our service chiefs claim war-preparedness, not on the basis of technology or strategy but on the valour of their soldiers. And we all, government downwards, take pride in the fact that our national power is built on the bodies of poor, hapless people who have no choice but to queue up to join the uniformed class. In this macabre dance of death, we have now roped in celebrities for good measure.

But at least once in a while our conscience should wake up and see the truth for what it is. These men are not dying in a war fighting enemy soldiers. Worse, they are dying not for the nation, but for an insensitive, indifferent government (irrespective of the political party) which uses their supreme sacrifices for electoral rhetoric.

In this nation of abject inequality and unemployment, human life is amongst the cheapest and the most dispensable commodity. As we are never short of willing lambs ready to die at the altar of nationalism, our governments feel no compulsion in trying to resolve outstanding conflicts, both internal and external. In the last 70 years, with the exception of Punjab, we have not been able to resolve any conflict. Pumping our collective chests in shameful bravado we abjure unconditional peace talks because we know we have lives to spare.

Great power entails greater responsibilities. And a nation’s first responsibility is towards its citizens, soldiers included. Everything else will follow.