I’m no military historian, but I can’t think of a single modern year in which more searing moral damage has been dealt the armed forces than 2008. And as the year recedes (with good riddance), there’s a cataclysmic irony of the flavour it leaves lingering in the air.
On Saturday, I visited the “protest road” outside Jantar Mantar in Delhi to cover the “fast unto death” by a group of ex-Servicemen. Veterans of our wars, sitting on the roadside, on an indefinite hungerstrike. A lady doctor from an ECHS clinic saunters in to give the strikers a once over — blood pressure, pulse, the usual — and leaves after carefully noting down their condition in a register notebook. Sepoy Sulaiman Khan. 8th Day. Pulse normal. Weak. Blood pressure normal. A retinue of General officers, including former Deputy Chief of Army Staff Lt Gen Raj Kadyan linger with the fasting group.
A retired JCO from Bareilly takes the microphone and spends 10 minutes calling upon his retired colleagues to abandon the Congress and BJP and to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs, but politically. The widow of a jawan who died in the Kargil operations tearfully appeals to the crowd to never stop hoping, never stop fighting. It’s not a particularly large crowd. I would urge anyone who lives in Delhi to visit the protest. It isn’t spectacular. Nor is it loud or obtrusive. But it has a story to tell that should mortify us as a nation, each and every one of us. You may or may not agree with the demands that the ex-servicemen make of the government. But you always — always — leave with a stark, biting sense of injustice.
Remember, this is at a time when vengeance for the Mumbai attacks has rallied the nation like few recent events have. But that’s just it. Here it is plain and simple. The very folks you need to fight your wars if you’re ever have to enter one, are embittered, stricken and severely depressed. The damage that the 6th Pay Commission alone has caused would suffice to define the overriding sentiment among the armed forces in 2008. One of suspicion, a sense of treachery and betrayal. And most importantly, an utter and absolute loss of faith in the government. The semblance of silent respect is gone. Politicians are now perceived simply as self-seeking, heartless villains. And bureaucrats, only worse. All the decades of silent reproach that the forces have nursed for babus have come flooding out these last few months.
So damaging, as a matter of fact, has the 6thPC been on the larger psyche of the forces, that an amazing number of officers are convinced that the Malegaon probe (and its detention of an Army Lieutenant Colonel) is the UPA government’s sinister way of telling the country that the armed forces are not the bastion of good that everyone thinks they are, and therefore, they don’t really deserve what they’re asking for. That may sound far fetched, but you’d be truly surprised how many folks in uniform staunchly support that theory.
If the Prime Minister now announces (as he is reportedly expected to) an acquiescence to the armed forces demands from the 6thPC, it may be too little, but it would definitely be too late. A great big chunk of the command and control respect that is the synapse between executive and military is gone. And needlessly.
2009 does not portend great things. But it does promise elections and change. Here’s to better things.