Did Pulwama Teach India to Humanise Its Soldiers Instead of Only Hero-worshipping Them?

Social Commentary

Did Pulwama Teach India to Humanise Its Soldiers Instead of Only Hero-worshipping Them?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Last month, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India tabled a report in the Rajya Sabha that made some concerning observations about the state of India’s defence forces. It stated that in high-altitude areas like Siachen and Leh, soldiers are without essentials, like snow glasses and multi-purpose boots. The report says that even the calorie intake, critical for survival at high altitudes and cold temperatures, was not being met – in fact the deficit was a staggering 82 per cent. The absence of snow goggles can expose soldiers to harmful sun rays, whereas without good quality boots they can barely function.

I’ll leave it to you to contemplate whether the CAG itself is anti-national to table a report that points to the abominable status of provisions our soldiers have to work with. Because it is a far cry from the mainland, where well-fed, warm bodies wax eloquent about sacrifices these men make on a daily basis. A year on from the attack in Pulwama that killed 40 CRPF troopers, this condemnatory report proves that despite the patriotic fervour that followed the tragedy, our soldiers continue to face astounding systemic apathy.

Roughly three years ago, a BSF jawan by the name of Tej Bahadur Yadav shared a video on social media in which he expressed concern about the quality of food being given to soldiers patrolling our borders. Three months after his video went viral, an internal inquiry of the BSF, which lasted six days, dismissed his claims and declared it an act of insubordination instead. Yadav was thrown out of the BSF. A couple of years later, he turned to politics, choosing to stand against PM Modi in a lost battle from Varanasi.

The manner in which Yadav appeared and disappeared from India’s conscience like thin air is proof that men who don the uniform are as quickly forgotten as they are hoisted by the drafts of patriotism. It is also evidence of the fact that these drafts are momentary, exclusive, as they disallow even the notion of reflection. Soldiers are therefore better off keeping their mental and physical trauma to themselves.

Rarely do we mourn our jawans the way we amplify them.

Pulwama was a shocking attack that floored the country. In a zone as heavily militarised as Kashmir, there is still little clarity on how such a lapse came to transpire in the most-watched corner of the country – and soon, our attention moved to an air-strike. The jawans who died, to whom we owe both memory and concern, were again, brushed away like inconvenient truths. If we can use “soldiers are at the border” as a comeback in any conversation, it is inhuman to not consider the ways that can help them live better.

We have all read about the bodily extremes jawans have to go to to defend this country (and if you haven’t read about, a zealous Facebook commenter must have told you anyway). But how can we take pride in their service to the country, yet be almost indifferent to their plight? It would be contradictory to crown the soldier as the emblem of India’s bravery, and its resolve, yet deny them some basic human currency like empathy and concern. Our soldiers are happy to front our battles, yes, but they do so at tremendous personal cost. It is only natural and just, that that is the only price they are asked to pay.

It is of course hard to cast a critical lens on something you’d rather just believe is flawless. Such is denial, that it makes it easy to invoke those who stand on the border, but difficult to stand alongside them. From the comforts of our homes, we demand retribution, even revenge. Rarely do we mourn our jawans the way we amplify them. We are unable to humanise them.

Like any social or professional group, the defence forces face structural, social, and systemic issues. Questioning the government for this passive handling of the defence forces must therefore become the natural prerogative of everyone who considers themselves a patriot. Yet, for multiple reasons, neither has this scathing report by the CAG been as hotly debated as, say, a Shaheen Bagh; nor did Yadav, when he shared that infamous video, receive institutional attention. It tells you that while we love identifying with the strengths of our soldiers, when it comes to weakness, we’d rather look the other way.

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