Know the unknown soldier

24 04 2008

Know the unknown soldier

April 18, 2008 Courtesy : Hindustan Times

Ask us increasingly cynical and notoriously fickle Indians to name something or someone we still have deep and abiding respect for and chances are we will all have the same answer: the Indian Solider. We may have lazy scorn for our politicians, historic resentment of our bureaucrats and deep-seated envy of our industrialists. But show us those landscaped images of a lone jawan stoically standing guard on an icy, barren, mountaintop, throw in a few strains of AR Rahman’s Vande Mataram and watch our tears turn into a flood of empathy.

We push our military into duties that were never really part of its job description. So, apart from and in addition to fighting wars and terrorism, we count on our soldiers to play roles as varied as building bridges when the tsunami hits, keeping the peace during religious riots and even managing the now-epidemic condition of saving children who mysteriously end up at the bottom of borewells.

But if we are a country that really cares so deeply for its military, why is it that a monster called apathy is in serious danger of devouring the future of the Armed Forces?

This week, while we were all consumed by whether the Olympic torch would make its way safely past India Gate (built by Edwin Lutyens to honour the 84,000 Indian soldiers who died in World War I), the Army Chief was making a trip down the same road. He was on his way to meet the Urban Development Minister, probably wondering — as many of his predecessors had before him— whether he would have any luck convincing this government to do, what the British had already done as far back as 1921. He was carrying a file that has now travelled through multiple ministries for seven years: the plans and architectural designs for a National War Memorial.

For the last two years, different government bodies including the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) and the Heritage Conservation Committee have squabbled like recalcitrant children over whether the designs for the memorial are tenable. Could anything be a more shocking illustration of the stranglehold of red-tape around what should have been a flagship project for any government?

The designs for the memorial (the proposal is to build the structure around the canopy at India Gate) have been created by Charles Correa, easily one of India’s most venerable architects. Yet ask officials what has held up the green signal, and they will tell you it is a “lack of consensus” over how high the walls of the memorial should be. Have you heard of anything more ludicrous?

Admittedly, India Gate is a heritage building, and any new construction within its circumference would have to be aesthetically sensitive. But that is not even the point. Surely the question to ask instead is why military chiefs should have to implore different mantrijis to sign on the dotted line for something that should be a matter of intuitive national pride. We like to think of ourselves as self-confident nation, a global powerhouse that is hard to beat. And yet, a file to create a national memorial for soldiers who die in conflict has gathered cobwebs and dust for seven long years, and we aren’t even angry enough to ask why.

Perhaps it’s time to admit that cocooned in the embrace of the new economy and the surging sensex, we may like to be believe that we care about the ordinary Indian soldier, but at best, our solidarity is notional and feeble. We have passionate opinions on whether India is a ‘soft state’ or whether our governments are ‘tough on terror’. But beyond the sound and fury of drawing room debate, soldiering is something that happens to other people. We respond to stories of valour and tragedy with applause and tears but as the moment passes, so does our interest and engagement. It’s almost like watching a movie — for those three hours we are transported enough for celluloid emotion to tug at our hearts, but as the popcorn winds down and the lights beam up again — we know that our lives are elsewhere. Our engagement with the plight of the Indian Soldier is similar — ephemeral and maudlin, but essentially indifferent.

The PLU (People like us) brigade would no longer consider the military as a career option and many of those who did are now lining up and pleading for the freedom to leave. Ask the Generals and Admirals unofficially, and they will concede that they have to reject resignations, because the shortfall would be too dire to deal with. In Kashmir, there are already reports of ordinance and artillery units doubling up for infantry duty, because of the numbers crunch. And for the first time in years, the Army is actually considering a one-time emergency, short-service commissioning of officers to fill the ever widening gap. That’s how serious and morale weakening the situation is.

Like any other wing of the government, the military knows it can’t compete with the big bucks of the private sector. But, no matter, what your view is on the recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission, can you think of a single reason why the military has never had a representative on any pay board? Or why the military shouldn’t just have its own wage board?

The carpers will ask where it will all end. Tomorrow, the police and the paramilitary, they say, will ask for the same. The liberals will hurl phrases like ‘jingoism’ at you and say far too much fuss is made about soldiers. But chances are that they have never had to stand upright and tearless to salute a coffin draped in a flag. And the rest will say we are on the side of the soldier and forget all about it with the turn of this page.

In the meantime, the old school soldier will try and tell a generation that doesn’t care that everything is not about money. He will say that there are such things as romance and respect for which there is no other substitute. He will then open the newspaper and read about a country that has been debating whether we need a war memorial since the 1960s. And he will be silent.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24×7

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Fundamental issues: Burqa dutt, Selective appliance of Freedom of expression

24 11 2007

As ironies go, it probably doesn’t get any better than this. A panic-stricken Marxist government bundling up a feminist Muslim writer in the swathes of a protective black burqa and parceling her off to a state ruled by the BJP — a party that the Left would otherwise have you believe is full of religious bigots.

The veil on her head must have caused Taslima Nasreen almost as much discomfort as the goons hunting her down. She once famously took on the ‘freedom of choice’ school of India’s Muslim intelligentsia by writing that “covering a woman’s head means covering her brain and ensuring that it doesn’t work”. She’s always argued that whether or not Islam sanctifies the purdah is not the point. A shroud designed to throttle a woman’s sexuality, she says, must be stripped off irrespective. In a signed piece in the Outlook called ‘Let’s Burn the Burqa’, Nasreen took on liberal activists like Shabana Azmi (who has enraged enough mad mullahs herself to know exactly what it feels like) for playing too safe on the veil.

So, does that make some of you feel that she’s only got what she asked for?Or do we need to shamefully concede that the public discourse on creative freedom and individual liberties has got horribly entangled in a twisted version of secularism and political hypocrisy?

Nasreen may well be an attention-seeker who is compulsively provocative and over-simplistic in her formulations on Islam and women. Her literary worthiness could be a matter of legitimate dispute and her eagerness to reveal her personal sexual history a complete turn-off. Many of her critics condemn the Bangladeshi writer for her propensity to ‘seek trouble’ in a country that has been generous enough to offer her asylum.

But when confronted with India’s larger claim to being a democratic, free society, none of that is really the point. All great art is historically rooted in irreverence and disbelief. And all open societies must permit absolute freedom to individuals — artistes or not — to question and reject inherited wisdom. Nasreen has been reduced to living the life of a fugitive on the run all because some fringe Muslim group decided to mix up the carnage in Nandigram with literary censorship and because the CPI(M) government was too nervous to question the bizarre juxtaposition of the protestors.

The Taslima Nasreen controversy is not as important for what it says about her as it is for what it says about us — as a country and as a people.

We may want to brand Nasreen as an ‘outsider’ who is not worth the turmoil she causes. But we aren’t qualitatively different when it comes to our own people either. Much the same arguments and adjectives (publicity-hungry, insensitive, arrogant, childishly provocative, etc.) were used to justify the forced exile of India’s most celebrated painter, M.F. Husain. India’s elite may trip over itself to own one of his frames, an aspiring middle-class may invest in him like they once did in gold and starlets may twitter incoherently at the possibility of being immortalised on the great man’s easel. But it hasn’t moved any of us into campaigning for a 92-year-old man pushed out of his own country.

Joking with me recently, Husain said he was living the life of a global jetsetter — dividing his time between London and Dubai. Then, suddenly, the quivering voice dropped to a faint whisper, as he said, “I don’t think I can come back home till the BJP is willing to change its mind.”

And so, these are the befuddling contradictions of India’s political establishment.

The BJP is upset at the writer being tossed around from state to state like a “football” and wants India to grant Nasreen a permanent visa and political asylum. In other words, it’s quite happy for Islam to be brought under the microscope of literary scepticism. But if Husain wants to interpret Hindu goddesses in his characteristically iconoclastic style, that’s not just unacceptable. It’s reason enough to send him to jail.

The Congress, with quintessential timidity, wants to offend no one. So, it’s worked out a piecemeal arrangement wherein every few months, it nervously tiptoes around the issue and extends Nasreen’s visa, hoping that no one will really notice. Its state unit in West Bengal has called Nasreen’s autobiography a “piece of pornography” and supported the West Bengal government’s decision to ban it.

If the BJP is comfortable in politically exploiting radical Islam to its advantage, the Congress is careful to not offend its practitioners for exactly the same motivated reasons. If you remember, the Prime Minister made it a point to take an official position against the Danish cartoonist who allegedly disrespected the Prophet. And it’s a matter of some irony that it’s under this government’s Home Ministry that Husain was slapped with court notices.

And finally, the ‘progressive’ Marxists not just banned Nasreen’s book (this in a state where the Chief Minister sees himself as a poet and literary philosopher), their party leader declared without any embarrassment that if Nasreen was going to be “so much trouble” she should just pack her bags and leave. The Left has treated the protests by the Muslim Right as worthy of response, but shown only reflexive contempt for the same sort of complaints from the Hindu Right.

So, what about the rest of us?

Have we been less hypocritical than our political leaders? Or have our positions, too, been coloured by prejudice?

Do we show the same anger for the ‘liberal’ politicians who push a writer out of her home as we do for the goons who vandalised the fine arts faculty in a university in Gujarat? Does a twisted notion of secularism make us respond to censorship differently when it applies to the Hindu majority? We are quick to condemn the lunatics who wield trishuls and wear saffron. But isn’t it time that the skull-capped and long-bearded version of fanaticism and hooliganism receives our contempt in exactly the same measure?

Creative freedom cannot be applied selectively. Otherwise, our self-image of being an open and proud democracy will need another look in the mirror.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24X7
barkha@ndtv.com