The Indian armed forces represent the country. Its soldiers come from each part, extending from Arunachal to the Andamans. They represent every religion, caste, creed, profession and strata of society. They speak every language and dialect of the nation. The soldier joins considering it as a profession, not as a calling. His outlook changes once he wears the uniform. The training results in his being imbued with nationalistic spirit, discipline and love for his countrymen. He is exhorted to even sacrifice what is dearest to any human being, his life, without thinking twice. In sum, the armed forces have been created from within us, to serve and support us.
The soldier through his service is taught to believe in all religions and respect each of them. It is possibly only the Indian soldier who has participated in major occasions of all religions, visited every religion’s place of worship and respects each. He has never considered caste or creed as dividing society. For him, all his colleagues, irrespective of belief, caste or creed are equal and dependable. The soldier who forms part of the armed forces is as common an Indian as any of us, however mentally conditioned to be the best the nation has.
This change is not brought about overnight but through a process of training, regimentation and by making them aware of the sacrifices of their predecessors and the glorious history of their regiment. This is the making of the Indian soldier. It is this simple soldier who makes the nation proud on every occasion.
The nation’s heart swells with pride when the armed forces march down Rajpath on Republic day in all their finery. Tears flow down the cheeks of every Indian and there is pin drop silence when a brave widow slowly walks up to the dais on Republic Day, to receive recognition from the President, who is also the supreme commander of the armed forces, for the ultimate sacrifice made by her husband in the line of duty.
The nation lauds the success of the armed forces in operations. It proudly celebrates victories of 1965, 1971 and Kargil. The town stands in unison every time a brave soldier belonging to the area lays down his life either securing Kashmir from terrorists or facing hostile action along the active border with Pakistan.
There is a choked feeling amongst all those present when family members accompany the remains of a soldier on his final journey. It is difficult to hold back emotions when the national flag is handed over to the family as a mark of respect and those in uniform give him the traditional military salute as a final farewell. This is the Indian army which we all know and have observed.
The nation also looks towards the soldier when faced with a law and order crisis or a natural disaster. There are numerous examples when the soldier has left his own troubles and losses behind while rushing to rescue others. The soldier has never considered religion, caste, creed or gender when carrying out rescue or providing security in times of restoring order. In most cases, it is the soldier who the public seeks, rather than men from multiple other agencies created for the same purpose.
The soldier has acted with the same spirit whether it be rescuing tourists stuck in Sikkim, floods in Kashmir or Kerala and riots in Haryana. In Sikkim and Kashmir, they ignored their own comforts or losses as they rushed to rescue others. It is the soldier who sets up canteens to help stranded passengers during monsoons in Mumbai and constructs foot overbridges when other agencies have failed.
For the soldier, Indian citizens are his family and it is his responsibility to care for them. It is for this reason that the armed forces remain the most respected institution in the country.
Internationally, the Indian soldier is regarded as professional and capable. There is an ever-increasing demand for the Indian soldier in complex United Nations missions. His professionalism is well recognized, and nations are rushing in for joint training with the Indian armed forces. The soldier is aware that he represents the culture, ethos and soft power of the nation, hence ensures he never lets the image of the country down.
When they are ignored by the government and denied their rightful dues, it is the common Indian who comes to the soldier’s support. The flak on social media against the government for its anti-armed forces decisions is led by Indian society, which is aware of the gratitude the nation owes to the soldier.
It is this soldier who is left to fend for himself once he sheds his uniform. The government has issued multiple notifications granting vacancies to the soldier in his second career, however neither states nor even its own central organizations honour them. The soldier who served the nation with dignity now struggles to make ends meet with his meagre pension.
On many occasions he becomes a security guard, possibly the only job which the civilian world finds him suitable for. If governments claim to care for the soldier, then they must look beyond his service, to the time of his retirement and ensure that he has the wherewithal to support his family. He has devoted the best years of his life to ensuring the security of the nation and now when he is alone, it is the government which must stand by him.
It is common Indians, from every walk of life, whom the armed forces convert into law-abiding, caring, selfless, disciplined and respectful citizens. They cannot be dumped after they finish their service. On this forthcoming Republic day, let us as a nation honour the soldier and salute his dedication, sincerity and sacrifice. Let us decide to ensure his well-being after he has hung up his uniform.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)