On May 3, 2020, five security personnel – Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, Major Anuj Sood, Naik Rajesh Kumar, Lance Naik Dinesh Singh and sub-inspector of Jammu and Kashmir Police Shakeel Qazi – were killed in action in Handwara district of Kashmir. According to the press statement issued by the army public relations officer, the commanding officer of 21 Rashtriya Rifles had entered a house in a bid to rescue the civilians who were taken hostage by two militants. In the gun battle that followed, all the civilians were rescued and the two terrorists were killed.
Two days later, three Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel came under fire in the same district. Two died on the spot and one on the way to the hospital. The terrorists escaped. Subsequently, the dead body of a mentally unstable adolescent was found a little distance away. Apparently, he was killed in retaliatory fire, in a case of mistaken identity.
In early April, five Indian Army Special Forces soldiers were killed in action in the snowy slopes of Kupwara. They were air dropped there to intercept a group of infiltrators who had come across the Line of Control (LC). The five SF troops, split in two squads, moved to hunt for the infiltrators. One squad, comprising two soldiers, accidentally slid down the slope exactly at the same spot in the gorge where the terrorists had taken cover. In the ensuing fire-fighting, including hand-to-hand combat, four of the terrorists died. One more was killed while trying to escape. Success, however, extracted the cost of 5:5.
It is still early days of summer. The snow is yet to melt on several ingress routes. Yet, the blood has started to congeal. According to the South Asia Terrorist Portal (SATP), since January 2020, 25 security personnel have died in Jammu and Kashmir. In the same period, 74 militants have died in the state. Civilian deaths stand at 10.
Yet, despite the red summer in the Valley, no questions are being asked about the unusually high price that the Indian military is being forced to pay for maintaining a semblance of control. “It is not the right time,” the cheerleaders and the mourners, led in huge number by the ex-servicemen, say sanctimoniously. Actually, it is never the right time to ask uncomfortable questions. Because if the questions are uncomfortable, the answers will be more so. Yet, the questions must be asked; because the life of an Indian soldier cannot be lost so cheaply.
Apart from the loss of the brave soldier’s life, each casualty has a permanent impact on the lives of those he leaves behind, possibly a young widow, small children, elderly parents and a huge financial liability. After the Handwara encounter, a video of Major Sood’s mourning wife surfaced on news media. The headline of the accompanying article read: ‘Photo of Handwara Braveheart’s Mourning Wife Chokes Up Thousands.’ Without even realising, we have turned grief into a spectacle.
And this is the reason the cheerleaders do not like questions; because they don’t want to miss the spectacle, which also reinforces nationalist narratives that the government has been spinning for the last few years. Serving officers cannot ask questions because of service rules. Also, to be fair, they have a lot at stake. The only community that can, and should ask questions, are the ex-servicemen.
A decade ago, Indian ex-servicemen started a campaign. They wanted to be called veterans, as their counterparts in the United States armed forces are called. Two arguments were offered for this: One, it is a more respectful way of referring to someone who dedicated his youth to the nation; and two, a majority retire while in the prime of their productive lives and hence, can still make a meaningful contribution to the nation. A decade later, the ex-servicemen have become veterans, but, with some notable exceptions, many of the more vocal ones have mortgaged their intellects and voices to the government in exchange for better post-retirement benefits.
Nothing exposes their collective absence of conscience than their overzealous nationalist sloganeering on social media. While many have become voluntary mouthpieces of the government, some have become card-carrying members of a political party and most have reduced themselves to a herd, ready to be led wherever their chosen master decides to lead them.
While in service they didn’t read much—‘where is the time to read’—and after retirement they don’t read much either—‘I have worked enough in my life, now I just want to enjoy myself’. As a result, the capacity to think, which was not exercised in youth, is allowed to atrophy in middle age. This is a monumental tragedy for a nation where a huge human resource choses a vegetative existence when actually it can make enormous contribution to not only the military it once served, but by extension the nation.
If only they read and think. If they do, then they would know what is happening in other militaries, how the thinking on war-fighting is changing, how technology is setting new terms of engagements, how geopolitical dynamics are evolving, how India’s neighbourhood is transforming and why what may have worked in the past is no longer useful. One does not need to be officially briefed on these issues. The internet is full of both free and subsidised resources like articles, research papers, YouTube videos, podcasts and so on. Then there are books, written by western veterans, especially from the US.
Of course, writing books is not possible for everyone. Not many can write articles either. But what stops them from uniting themselves into a lobby, which can keep the government of the day on its toes. If they can come together for their personal interests like One Rank, One Pay, Disability Pension etc., what stops them from coming together for the good of their own service? And those who are able to must write on subjects other than history and media management (the media can manage itself, thank you).
This article began with the recent encounters in Kashmir for a reason. The tragic killings of army personnel deserved the outpouring of grief and condolences that flooded social media. But they also deserve to be stopped. The senior military leadership has to obey orders from the government. But at least the veterans can raise their collective voices and ask for how long young lives will have to be sacrificed for government’s lack of policy. What holds the veterans back from saying that the time for rhetoric is over; that we need to have an end-state in Kashmir; that it is not enough for the prime minister to avenge a few deaths by dramatic ‘surgical strikes’; that the macabre dance of death must stop; that raising the issue of cross-border terrorism at every international forum has yielded nothing and that we need a different approach.
Service to the nation doesn’t start and end with nationalistic sloganeering—that’s the politicians’ job. Concerned patriotic citizens have to make governments accountable. And for that, they must start asking uncomfortable questions.
Ghazala Wahab is executive editor of FORCE magazine