A Stone with My Name
Some soldier with a funny bone at 102 Infantry Brigade (Base Camp) will tell you that Siachen means ‘Rose Garden’. Its true. Maybe its funny, in a self-deprecating sort of way. Most soldiers crack jokes, which only they can understand.
It’s been a violent year, both emotionally and physically. Never was the Indian Army attacked by those that they loved. Except for this year. We won the wars fought on the Line of Control and across. We lost those fought inside our country, because those who attacked us were our countrymen.
When I was in the army my Commanding Officer told me that we must never fear death. He told us that dying for the nation was a unique honor, which was accorded to a lucky few. He told us that when we went home wrapped in the tricolor, the nation would weep. And, he told us that they would remember our names forever. We would become immortal.
My CO was a simple soldier. He had fought wars and shed blood. For him, dishonorable conduct was unthinkable. He would often admonish us and say “This conduct in unbecoming of an officer of the Indian Army”. To him, life was simple. You defended your country and its people, and if you were martyred, there would a stone with your name at the Kumaon Regimental Center at Ranikhet. That was all that we aspired to. A stone with our name at Ranikhet.
When the situation seemed hopeless, he would simply say “Yeh Major Shaitan Singh aur Major Somnath Sharma ki Regiment hai”. These words were enough. 17 Kumaon would pick itself up, bleeding and bruised, and launch itself again into battle. It was always about “Izzat”. Honour of the nation, the regiment and our forefathers who had been martyred before us in countless wars and insurgencies.
Rezang La. Badgam. Walong. Bhaduria. Names, which ordinary Indians had never heard of, were temples around which our lives ceaselessly revolved. After all, what was life without honor?
2016 has been a different year. Movie actors say that the soldier signed up to die. Politicians want proof that we hit terror camps across the border. The expert, that Lutyens Delhi breed, so adapt at passing judgment wants to know how the army ‘allowed’ itself to be attacked at Uri, Nagrota and Pathankot. Opportunists, who never once so much as looked in the direction of a soldier, have shed crocodile tears over an unfortunate suicide. Bureaucrats have an opinion on the appointment of the army Chief. This year, the Indian Army has been constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons, and none of it for its own doing.
I want the experts, politicians, bureaucrats, TV anchors and sundry actors to know that what they say in public damages morale of the soldier. It denudes and degrades the soldier’s will to fight. It shatters his self-esteem. It dishonors him. A soldier without honor is not a soldier. It is a dead body.
I am an unknown soldier. I have fought for over a hundred years, killing and dying. In unmarked graves across Europe and in the fetid and humid jungles of Burma, you will find my memories. In desolate, wind swept mountain passes and in the bone-bleaching furnace of the Thar, you will discover that I could not be defeated. Across the salty seas and terror-infested landscapes, I was mostly the hunter and sometimes the smell of the dead body on the third day.
Why do I do what I do? I don’t know how to explain. In this mad world of smartphones and Twitter, undefined relationships and loneliness, I inhabit a world that smells of cordite and warm blood. It’s a different world. It’s a world in which people will die because you ask them to, sometimes for the flag, sometimes for the anthem, and often for the fallen heroes of battles fought eons ago.
If you honor me, I will be grateful. If you don’t, I will still fight. If you give me nothing, I will fight with my bare hands. Major Shaitan Singh lives.
That is all that I aspire to; a stone with my name at Ranikhet.