Monday, 30th October 2017

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Honour begets honour

It is necessary to sustain the morale of the armed forces

  • Published 23.11.15
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On the day that Colonel Santosh Mahadik, the commander of the 41st battalion of the Rashtriya Rifles, was killed in an encounter with terrorists in the Kupwara district of Jammu and Kashmir, displaying qualities of true leadership by leading from the front, the electronic media were awash with debates of leadership of an altogether different kind - of which more later.

Mahadik is not the first such leader to die this year. In January, Colonel Munindra Nath Rai, the commander of the 42nd battalion of the Rashtriya Rifles, also made the supreme sacrifice while leading his men in an operation in Tral in Jammu and Kashmir. The similarities extend further. Mahadik had been decorated with a Sena medal for gallantry during similar operations earlier in 2003 and Rai had been awarded the Yudh Seva Medal on this year's Republic Day, again, for such operations, ironically just a day before he laid down his life.

In a gesture of sagacious political leadership, the defence minister chose to be present with the family for the last rites of Mahadik in his native place in the Satara district of Maharashtra (picture). As per the military tradition of honouring the honourable, Mahadik's coffin would have been draped in the national Tricolour with his medals and peak cap atop, the significance of the medals being that these national honours bestowed on him accompany him on his final journey.

Not many may remember the poignant scene at the Delhi cantonment cremation grounds in January, when the last rites of Rai were performed and his daughter, Alka, all of 12 years old, spontaneously gave out a war cry, before bidding her father a final adieu. The officers and soldiers of her father's Gorkha regiment who were present, instinctively followed suit. It was perhaps this touching scene that prompted the Congress president to write to Rai's wife, Priyanka, saying, "I know what it is to lose a beloved husband to a terrorist attack, and for children to be robbed of the love and guidance of their father at a young age. You must draw strength from the fact that your husband died fighting terrorism and defending his country till his last breath, and that his supreme sacrifice and martyrdom will always be honoured." This personal missive from a senior political leader not only displayed the best traditions of our democracy, but also conveyed a deeper message to the rank and file that they are truly cared for. The defence minister's presence in Satara imparted the same message. But, clearly, not all our political leaders are as sensitive, as later examples will show.

It is not this writer's case that these are the only two brave sons who have given their lives amongst thousands who stand vigil day and night, so that the rest of the nation can get on with their lives. Indeed, in eight and a half years (from 2006 to mid 2014), a total of 2,574 personnel of the security forces have been killed in anti-terrorist operations, of which 713 have been in Jammu and Kashmir alone (source: the South Asia Terrorism Portal and the Institute for Conflict Management, 2014), where a ruthless Pakistan has chosen the cowardly route of a proxy war. That we take the selfless service and the deep risks that this entails for granted is borne out by the fact that our men and women in uniform have few sympathizers in the higher echelons of political leadership, to which they must report in our healthy democracy. Two examples merit mention. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is often painted by states, which need the services of the armed forces in aid of civil authority, as one used by the services as shield for human rights abuses. Neither the lawmakers who have made the law nor the state governments that implement the law choose to dispel this motivated notion, preferring to remain ambivalent for political convenience. Similarly, peaceniks often blame the army for stalling the peace progress in Siachen, when all that the army suggests is for the 110-kilometre Actual Ground Position Line, held at great human cost, to be authenticated by Pakistan before withdrawal, which the latter is unwilling to do for reasons all too well known to those who know better.

In sharp contrast to the leadership qualities displayed by Mahadik and Rai, the debate in the electronic media that night was about two political leaders of a different mould. These leaders, both of whom have held senior cabinet ranks, appeared to have been attempting to win popularity contests with Pakistan's audience whilst being hosted in that country. One praised the Pakistan prime minister and blamed the Indian government for making things difficult for him. More specifically, he is reported to have said, "India has not responded to Pakistan's overtures for peace in South Asia the way it should have".

The other erstwhile minister went a step further. When questioned by a Pakistan television anchor on steps to end the stalemate in Indo-Pak relations, he responded, "The first and the foremost thing is to remove Modi. Only then can the talks move forward." He added, "Bring us back to power and remove them. There is no other way. We will remove them, but till then you have to wait."Clearly, the Pakistan anchor was so delighted that he even taunted him by interjecting whether he meant that the Inter-Services Intelligence is to remove Modi!

This debate about the conduct of two senior political leaders behaving as they did on Pakistan's soil was especially jarring because the death of both the colonels, as indeed of the 713 mentioned earlier, is directly linked to terrorism emanating from across the borders. The message that the colleagues of Mahadik and Rai are receiving, when they hear the likes of these political leaders, is clearly one of their commanders and colleagues having sacrificed their lives in vain.

In the rarefied atmosphere in which many of such hollow political leaders live, all this may make for intellectual and political debate, but in the trenches and foxholes of the Jammu and Kashmir border, where memories of their commander's funeral pyre are still fresh, the message that the political leadership is either not serious about the threats or simply does not care, is stark and the anger palpable. The image that they will construe of the general political leadership is one that is so engaged in power politics and political gamesmanship that even national security has become a partisan game. In such a scenario, the need to nurture and sustain the morale of our fighting men and women will be the farthest from their minds. This is unhealthy for the civil-military relations in our democracy. Had the two leaders, in the midst of their praise for the hosts, ventured to ask why is it that the army chief calls the shots in Pakistan and not their prime minister, they may well have realized that the Pakistan army does not trust its political leaders with national security. But considering the fact that they were grovelling in the presence of their hosts, this idea was conveniently overlooked.

It is noteworthy that in their respective last journeys, the two colonels have touched senior leaders from across the political divide. If this mirror of severe fault lines - visible within our political class in general when dealing with sensitive matters of national security - makes us pause, reflect and aim for political consensus where the morale of our fighting forces is concerned, there may still be room for optimism.

There is yet another mirror that the two colonels have presented to our nationhood, to which we must pay heed. This relates to the respect that we as a nation accord to the national honours and awards system, which is recognition of excellence in a particular field. An organization or a government body may determine the awards themselves, but their significance lies in the nation bestowing honour on those chosen for their excellence. Any disrespect to an award can only mean disrespect to the nation.

Whilst an individual or an organization may have reservations and personal beliefs and be justified in not accepting an award, once such an award has been received and acknowledged, its return amounts to dishonouring the nation. That is why one believes that whatever grievances some of the armed forces' veterans may have had regarding the pension issue, the returning of medals should not even have been contemplated, let alone followed. That very eminent personalities from fields as diverse as literature, arts, sciences, films and others have also chosen to return their awards is an even bigger slap to national honour as intellectuals form the national soul. They also need to reflect.

Mahadik and Rai had both been honoured by the nation through its honours and awards system prior to their untimely deaths. These medals occupied the pride of place atop their national flag-draped coffins when they made their last journey. Both the colonels repaid this national honour by sacrificing their lives when national interest so demanded. In turn, the nation reciprocated by honouring Rai posthumously with the Shaurya Chakra and will no doubt do so to Mahadik too. It is a case of honour begetting honour. If all those military veterans and intellectuals who have chosen to return the national awards get inspired by the life and sacrifice of these two ordinary men and rethink their emotional decision, then national honour will be redeemed, and the colonels may be said not to have died in vain.

The author is a retired air marshal of the Indian Air Force