Abhinandan Varthaman is now the toast of the nation. His name is on the lips of our Prime Minister down to the road side tea vendor. Why are we like this? Only during war time or war like situation, we seem to remember our Armed Forces and feel proud of them. At normal times, we don’t seem to care. Do we?
There appears to be a cultural disconnect among us, as a nation, in our DNA, that we do not regard and respect our true heroes who guard our borders. We care for Bollywood and Kollywood heroes far more. Why?
There is an undeniable construct that men and women of defence forces are no different. They too join the services to eke out a living, just like any of us in the civil services. But there is a huge difference in their willingness to sacrifice their lives in the higher calling of national duty. Have we not heard derisive comments after Pulwama when 40 brave hearts of Central Reserve Police Forces that, “What is so unique about their killings? Did they not willingly join knowing fully well that they may die on duty and after all it is meant to be so for they get paid for it and may even be entitled to martyr’s pension and even solatium from Government/s”. How mean can we get?
And when mild hostilities broke out and Abhinandan exited from his MIG 21 Bison after downing an F-16 – if reports are true – on a chute and landed on the soil of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir side, our hearts swelled in pride even while agonisingly seeking his safe return. And when the video of his being thrashed and found with a bloody face, went viral, our rage knew no bounds. At the end of the day, when a video surfaced on Dawn, with his answering queries from a Pakistani Major with total confidence and dignity, while sipping ‘fantastic tea’, we prayed harder for his return.
His parents were quickly identified and his father found to be Varthaman – also an Airforce man and his mother a doctor and his wife a helicopter pilot, we were convinced that it was a true hero’s family, devoted to the cause of Bharat Mata.
Suddenly, social media was full of displays of public appreciation for personnel from the forces and persons offering their seats on public transport with ‘love’. What changed? Why did we never do it in normal times? Why is it not part of our normal practices? Why should tension with Pakistan alone trigger such acts?
One is not complaining about such expression of love and passion. Not in the least. It is most welcome. Surely for the better. The grievance is why do we not as citizens always regard and respect men and women from the defence services recognising their daring and willingness to sacrifice their lives and limbs, the highest sacrifice, for Mother India, so that we may all live our lives in peace.
Just look at the acts and conduct of those in the US of A, the oldest democracy to our largest. There is immense respect and regard for persons in uniform and a salute to their sacrifices to the country all the time, on a daily basis. When Donald Trump was found trashing his Republican colleague as not a hero in Vietnam, the late Senotor John McCain, Trump was visited with a tonne of bricks. Serving and retired personnel are always addressed by their official designations and all conversations start with thanks and commendation to their service to the nation. Thanksgiving is part of their DNA, it would appear.
And when body bags return from war fronts or from duty in service, there is a respectful mourning and the State goes out of its way to keep the families well cared for. News of demise in action is kept under wraps until the near and dear ones are put on notice first. They respect the privacy of the families of service personnel. We are so different and so distant from such practices and it is such a shame.
Solution. May be time for us to consider Drafting into the forces on compulsive mode to infuse the necessary dose of respect for the services. We need to be part of their lives as otherwise we run the risk being totally oblivious to their trials and tribulations.
Of course, the one genuine grouse of defence personnel is that civil division never respects their distinct services and treats them like any other in their parsimonious ways in the matter of grants. Why should 40 CRPF personnel have become sitting ducks, in Pulwama, on a Bus, when they could have been ferried on flights, which has now been allowed. Even in the matter of salaries and pension- One Rank One Pension included- there is no admiring recognition but only grudging concession. Why? Why? Why? Do we not need to change forever for better? And why wait for the capture and release of another Abhinandan please? Please.
(Author is practising Advocate in the Madras High Court)