On the one hand are those that journalist Ravish Kumar famously refers to as ‘Colony ke retired WhatsApp Ankil (Uncles)’ – avowed supporters of the Modi regime who see themselves as Hindutva’s “warriors” and who seldom pass up an opportunity to forward WhatsApp messages that promote bigotry and bogus history,
On the other hand are those who have actually fought for their country, at its borders and elsewhere. These men today, however, feel abandoned by their government. They are ex-servicemen who have served in paramilitary organizations like the Border Security Force (BSF) , the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Indo Tibet Border Police (ITBP) and the Assam Rifles.
The second group of men gathered at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on September 25 under the banner of ‘Confederation of Ex-Paramilitary Forces Martyrs Welfare Association’ or the COEPFMWA, and put forth a list of long-unfulfilled demands to the Union government.
There is something heart-wrenching about the sight of ex-soldiers sitting on the street, holding the national flag, and asking for something as basic as a fair pension.
I asked V.S. Kadam, an office bearer of the association to explain why they were gathered here.
In a surprisingly calm voice he explained, “The Delhi High Court ruled in January 2023 that India’s paramilitary forces be considered ‘Armed Forces of the Union’ as well and be given their pension under the Old Pension Scheme (OPS) within three weeks, but the government appealed in the Supreme Court and the matter has now been put off till 2024! Why are they delaying this?”
“Also, we would like a Paramilitary Welfare Board in every state. No such Board exists for us. Because of this, we don’t get jobs after retirement and if we take early retirement, there is no safety net for us. We serve in extremely tough conditions, but without any benefits or privileges. It’s taking its toll on the jawans. Thousands have left the force. Many have committed suicide!”
Kadam also wanted to know why a proper enquiry had not been conducted into the ghastly Pulwama attack of 2019 despite many requests to the government.
“The 40 jawans killed in Pulwama in 2019 were CRPF jawans but they have not been recognized as martyrs. Why? For about three days after the attack, the VIPs landed up at the homes of the deceased jawans and made a great show of mourning, and after that they never went back to enquire about the well-being of the jawans’ families. This was all a political game…”
Conspicuous by its absence at the protest is the national media.
Dadamani, a former serviceman from Chikmaglur district in Karnataka, makes a bitter observation, ”We have served our country faithfully and today we are surviving on very small pensions. We don’t have money to pay media houses to cover us. We have staged such a big protest and no national channel has come forward to cover it! If you love the armed forces like you say you do, I ask you with folded hands to talk about our cause!”
Ram Kumar Sharma from Hissar, Haryana, who retired as head constable from the CRPF takes the mike from Dadamani and says, “We serve for 18 to 24 hours at a stretch at the borders. We guard the VIPs with our lives but they don’t care about us. I have served all over India for 24 years – Nagaland, Manipur, Punjab, you name it. But we have no benefits from the government. Even the Home Guard is better off than we are. They have 10-hour shifts and then they get to go home. We on the other hand sometimes don’t get to go home for two years at a stretch. Even our small children stop recognizing us after a while.”
Chandrashekhar, a 48-year-old BSF jawan from Gulbarga, Karnataka, who took early retirement five years ago, says with tears in his eyes, “My father served in the army as did his brother. The armed forces are my life. I was part of the BSF that fought alongside the army in the Indo-China war. I have served at the same border but still I have no medical benefits. My daughter has no educational benefits. Did I make a mistake serving my country? It certainly feels like it.”
His words stunned me. I put my hand on his shoulder, but I didn’t really know what to say to him, so I walked away, sat under a tree nearby and watched the protest from a distance under a blazing September sun.
I think about the Colony WhatsApp ankils who would have likely finished their morning walk by then and were probably scrolling through their social media feeds, forwarding the latest bits of BJP IT cell propaganda to all and sundry.
One thing is clear to me. The next time one of them talks to me about ‘Hindu pride’, ‘vishwaguru’ or ‘amrit kaal’, I will talk to them about Dadamani, Ram Kumar Sharma and Chandrashekhar.
Rohit Kumar is an educator. He can be reached at [email protected]