Sunday, January 3, 2016

As Captain Ram Pratap sheaths his saber

It doesn't matter that Capt. Ram Pratap is fictional. Nearly a million of our standing defence forces will bash on regardless, with a smile on their faces and a hope that the nation recognises their efforts beyond platitudes. At the start of 2016, Lt General Bhopinder Singh (former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry), ruminates on the life and times of the men in green.

Tepid tea in a white mug brings temporary relief to Captain Ram Pratap's scraggy, frozen face as he squats on a bunker top on a 17,000 ft. picket overlooking the LoC. There's a shortage of nearly 12,000 army officers, and not surprisingly – given his battalion's deployment on the active border – his and many of his platoon boys' leaves were cancelled.
Hopefully the old warhorse of a helicopter, Cheetah, will continue belying his service age of over 40 years and drop some 'fresh greens' to usher in much-needed cheer to these hardy men from the Thar desert, sick of canned food. Why complain about the flying bird, he thinks. Even the weaponry and equipment can do with upgrading – there's only so much spit-polish and old-fashioned scrubbing one can do to retain the glint on the bayonet. He wonders if the civilian babus around Rajpath really understand the conditions in which the fauj operates, yet get to decide everything for them.
With snow covering the passes, they had hoped cross border infiltrations would cease, but no such luck. Down in the valley, Colonel MN Rai had been shot dead leading an attack on terrorists. Thank god for such heroes, he thought. Word had spread in the paltan, and they all felt honoured to be part of an outfit where officers still led from the front.
Later, Colonel Mahadik, the spirited Maratha, had put himself in the line of fire. Despite all organisational cribs, it was stories like these that kept the olive-green chins up. All the thundering braggadocio by pot-bellied politicians about bringing enemies to their knees hadn't helped on these pickets; infiltrations by terrorists and 'friendly cover-fire' by enemies still continued. Then suddenly, the mind raced to the super-awesome, real-time action in Myanmar, where they were sent to settle some scores by his Para Commando buddy, Captain Shyam, the 'devil's-very-own', and his band of toughies who had inadvertently helped further inflate the chests of thekurta-pajama folks in Lutyens' Delhi.
Shouldn't be complaining about these civvies, he thought. Maybe things aren't as bad as they seem. Previous battalions who thought they were getting out from this hellhole to salubrious 'peace stations' like Chennai and Rishikesh didn't enjoy 'peace' much. One was drawn into rescue operations in the Chennai floods, and the other was up and running doing flag marches in out-of-control, riot-stricken Saharanpur and Muzzafarnagar.
Maybe this minus-15 degree temperature with canned food was a better option. Best to stay back and do what one had joined the army to do, not be running errands for sarkari chappies, who are supposed to handle situations but never do and invariably throw in their towels to call in the forces to do their bidding!
Whatever happened to the much-promised appointment of Chief of Defence Staff even after so many years? Surely his position in the warrant of precedence must have made few dhotiwalas nervous ? Interestingly, even they had questioned the organisational perception with, 'Respect for army is diminishing as the army hasn't fought a war'. That wasn't fair. What did they think this active LoC was? What was Manipur then, where we had lost 20 men? What was Kargil all about? Captain Pratap remembered that his village of grand old soldiers had voted en masse to bring in what they thought was a more nationalistic, pro-military party. He looked forlornly at the men earnestly cocking their weapons for the evening drill. Such innocence. We were taught about honouring a given word. But did the nation really care about these spirited faujis?
He remembered his dad, a second-generation soldier and battle-decorated Infantarian, who had oscillated from sadness to confused in Jantar Mantar for another failed promise: OROP. Captain Pratap had initially told him to go easy, but thinking that he too would be a veteran in a few years, and with TV screens blaring the need for veterans to 'adjust' made his blood boil too. We never 'adjust', 'compromise' or 'bargain', whatever be the conditions or the dangers to lives.
His father had dug in his heels even more after an imperious statement that most veterans had agreed to the government's watered-down version of OROP, and that only a minority was holding out. This was a commitment to people who had given their lives and limbs. Ram's dad had moist eyes whenever he narrated the story of the 86-year-old whose shirt, emblazoned with war medals, was torn apart when he was protesting peacefully. No one had apologised. There was no mention in rallies or on Twitter. Maybe that was because OROP was less important an issue, than say, the national day of Mozambique. His old man was further saddened when told about the 'double-whammy' – seems defence forces had been 'done-in' yet again, this time in the seventh pay commission.

Suddenly, Ram heard the call for the 'evening stand-to' and dropped his now-cold mug, standing ramrod straight in solemn deference. He made a sharp turn, walking on the swampy, white blanket of snow to the platoon bunkers where the weekly snail-mail was to come, and irrepressible Rajasthani men had unusually-broad smiles on their fiercely-mustachioed faces. It was that time of week when one wants desperately to hear from home, via the 'duty runner' who arrives at the lonely picket.

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