In June 1999 during the Kargil War, the over 5000m high complex of bare rugged mountain tops in Kargil Sector of J&K known as Tololing was captured which became a turning point of the War. This was obviously at a cost as many brave Indian soldiers embraced martyrdom. Martyrdom instantly makes a person immortal; He stops aging while his parents and colleagues age with time and wither away. His young profile adorns many halls of fame, memorials and unit messes. His name lives on forever on the marble, granite or basalt walls of war memorials.
On 07 Jun 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid a wreath at the premier American war memorial at the Arlington National Cemetery, the ‘Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’. Last year on 24 Dec 2015 Prime Minister Narendra Modi started off his visit to Russia by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow. On 11 Apr 2016 Prince William and his wife visited Delhi. An important event in the itinerary was laying a wreath at India Gate, the National Memorial for India’s soldier martyrs. The card on the wreath laid by them read “Never forgetting those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice for India”.
It is a long standing custom that the itinerary of a visiting heads of state, if he has come on a State visit, invariably includes laying a wreath at a national war memorial or tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Why is this done when there are many others who lay down their lives in the line of their public duty?
All citizens of a country make sacrifices in their respective spheres of activity. However, the death of soldiers evoke particular emotions regarding sacrifice, which those of other armed forces of the Union, the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs), local police, firemen and emergency services do not. This is a tradition set across the globe where soldiers are associated with National Sacrifice. The reason for this is that the soldier exemplifies the spirit of a nation. He is also the only one whose primary duty is defence of the nation against external threats.
The nature of war is such that many a time sterling acts of sacrifice for the nation and acts of courage go unrecognized due to there being no witnesses. In major wars some of the bodies of the fallen may never be recovered. A war memorial or a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a symbol of the ultimate sacrifice made by identified or unidentified fallen heroes for their country. A visiting dignitary gets a glimpse of the resoluteness of the spirit of a country from the pride with which he is conducted to the National War Memorial, the dignified way he is made to lay a wreath there and standard of maintenance of that memorial. Through convention which has matured over ages, he does not draw the same inference when he visits other memorials.
The soldier’s status in society is also reflected by customs such as according a military guard of honour and a 21 gun salute to a visiting head of state if the visit is of the most formal category. Another custom alluding to military honour being the highest of honours, is the practice of transporting the body of a departed great leader on a gun carriage to its last resting place. A funeral accorded by the military is the ultimate honour because of the military exemplifying the highest standard of fidelity and honour.
The absence of major conventional war at the borders leads to the diminishing of the importance of the armed forces in the eyes of the government and the people. This leads to the armed forces being relegated in the allocation of resources as well as in stature. The way the grassroots civil administration treats the serving and retired personnel who go to them with their problems is also a reflection of this. This phenomenon is not new or unique only to India as is borne out by the lines written by Rudyard Kipling in 1890:
“In times of war and not before,
God and soldier we adore.
But in times of peace and all things righted,
God is forgotten and the soldier slighted.”
In times of peace the standing of the policeman goes up in society. He is the entity who affects every facet of a person’s peacetime existence. He provides day to day security and order while the soldier remains in his barracks out of public view or contact. The policeman can get things done or dispense favours, whereas the soldier’s periodic training activities are viewed as frivolous and unnecessary expenditure. This is regardless of the truism that a honed sword deters enemies and threats to national security, which in turn enables the society to live in peace and create wealth. Absence of war is a result of an effective military. The Swiss and the Swedish examples allude to this. Their strong militaries backed by robust diplomacy kept them out of both the world wars and ensured peace and prosperity for their people.
Compared to the soldier, the policeman is a later entrant to the field. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria is credited with establishing the first personnel with policing tasks in 1780. Napoleon is credited with having formalized national police with a task of maintaining internal law and order which hitherto had been done by diverse officials, invariably with the strong arm of the army. Since Napoleon wanted to have the army concentrate on his campaigns he instituted a central police, a lightly armed or unarmed force which was cheaper to maintain, to free the army. It is because of the long tradition of the army (and in modern times the armed forces comprising the Army, Navy and Air Force) being the strong arm of the state and of being ready to sacrifice themselves, that the military gets the official recognition that police, firemen, coastguard or other vigilance organizations don’t get.
The primary task of the policeman is policing which by definition means seeing to it that the laws made by the government for maintaining public order are enforced, people are protected from criminals, and law breakers of even the most heinous nature are preferably caught alive and punished as per the law. In course of enforcing law, lethal force is used only in self defence. On the other hand the primary task of the military is to destroy the enemy; the killing of the enemy is inherent in this task. On army training grounds and firing ranges, slogans like ‘ek goli ek dushman’ (one bullet one enemy) exhort trainees to kill most efficiently. For the police such a slogan would be an anti thesis as the prime duty of the policeman is to protect and preserve.
The military person by duty and ethos is expected to sacrifice his/her life, if required to achieve the aim. The policeman may have to sacrifice his life in the line of duty if criminal or unlawful elements resort to lethal violence. However, if unable to control a violent situation especially where he is outnumbered, he can disengage and this is not taken as unacceptable failure. For a soldier to withdraw without orders, even if outnumbered, is an offence which can be punishable by death.
Paramilitary forces or CAPFs may at times have to assist the armed forces in guarding the borders. In the army lexicon there are two prime operations of war, these are the ‘Attack’ and the ‘Defence’. The defining characteristic which separates the army from the CAPFs is that only the army is trained and equipped to attack and destroy. There are a large number of army and police casualties that take place in counter-insurgency/counter terrorist operations. In the encounters that take place the personnel involved never in their consciousness believe that they may die in course of an encounter. Psychologically we all feel that we will come out of an encounter or a dangerous situation unscathed. A chance encounter with criminals where a policeman may lose his life is danger, into which invariably he has not thrust himself consciously. An attack operation of war is a different thing; in fact it is something which is unique to the army. To walk/run from a start point which may be from half a kilometer to two kilometers up to an objective while going through a minefield, under intense accurate fire from every conceivable weapon including artillery, requires a different kind of courage.
The letter written by Capt Vijayant Thapar to his parents (with instructions to be given in case he did not come back alive) exemplifies the courage required and the covenant with death inherent in an attack operation. The young officer died in the attack on the Hump feature of the Tololing Complex in Kargil on 29 Jun 1999. The courage which shines through the words of his letter which is available on the internet comes from factors like training, faith in comrades, pride in the unit and zeal for the honour of the country. Such factors cannot be built up in a short time. They require long times to mature and are sustained only by the importance that a country gives to the robustness of the institution of the armed forces and the care that it takes of its soldiers, while in service and when they are veterans.
The armed forces are the ‘Ultima Ratio Regis’, the last line of a country’s defence. They are the final answer that a country can give to a threat which other means at the disposal of the state cannot counter. If this bulwark is not kept strong the country will suffer. Specific laws under the Army Act are made to enforce discipline and obedience in the armed forces. The provisions of these laws become more stringent in wartime. This is an imperative to keep the armed forces effective. India is one of the very few countries in the world which has unresolved disputes with very strong neighbours. Until these disputes are resolved we cannot let our sword to get dulled and lose its sheen. The ability to wage war offensively or defensively is as much a symbol of being a State as is to have a city classified as the National Capital, a National Airline or a Separate Currency among many other similar symbols. A society which has no military tradition has something lacking in its national character. It can be a follower, a vassal state but not one of the great nations of the world.
Late in the evening when looking down from Vijay Chowk in New Delhi, the magnificent illuminated India Gate, which can be called India’s only National war memorial, gives an iconic look that symbolizes India. As you walk down Rajpath the memorial fills one with pride. Every evening especially on weekends there is a huge crowd of people in the lawns around the Gate. If you reach a little later in the evening the sight next to the India Gate is appalling. Around the gate, especially on its sides, the litter is piled up right up to the foot of the India Gate. There are used paper and plastic plates and cups, broken flowerpots, cigarette stubs, filth, scraps of paper etc. Vendors sit almost next to the memorial selling their wares including eats. These include tea vendors who carry a stove in a bucket and brew fresh tea!
The fumes of the kerosene stove add to the chaotic undignified ambience. There is no other country in the world which permits its National war memorial to be subjected to such sacrilege and filth. When foreign dignitaries come to India and lay a wreath at India Gate the area is spruced up. However, many foreigners including diplomats who must be visiting the Gate on normal days must be drawing their own inference about our national character from the respect we pay to our War Memorial. Frequent references are made by the media to the hollowness in our army on account of various arms, equipment and ammunition shortages.
A motivated and well trained military will be able to compensate for that hollowness to some extent. However, intangible factors which hollow out the esteem and morale of the Armed forces cannot be compensated in any manner and must be addressed.