By Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi (Retd) : Today is the 39th anniversary of the greatest victory India has won, not just since Independence but also in the last hundreds of years. It was on this day in 1971 that the Indian Military won resounding victories in all theatres of that war, with the crowning glory being the capture of East Pakistan; the birth of Bangladesh; and taking more than 93,000 Pakistani soldiers as prisoners of war. It is on this date that the victory is celebrated as Vijay Diwas, but sadly only by our armed forces.
On this day, in military stations, onboard ships and at airbases, military personnel remember the officers and jawans who had fought wars for the nation, some sacrificing themselves and others their limbs. It is a day of rejoicing and jubilation, as also of reflection and remembrance. Yet only 1.3 million souls who don the uniform, nearly three million veterans and their families commemorate this important day. The rest, comprising over a billion Indians, are not even aware of it, thanks to the government that has no time to even commend the soldiers for their sacrifices. What a monumental shame!
Most European and Commonwealth countries, celebrate November 11 as Remembrance Day, while in the US it is Veterans Day. On November 11, 1918, an armistice (truce) was signed that ended World War I. On this day these countries honour their men and women in uniform. Grateful nations, led by the governing elite, recall the gallantry, sacrifices and the selfless spirit of their soldiers.
Similarly, most nations have days or weeks earmarked for felicitating their soldiers and veterans. All military personnel who had fought, died and lost limbs in wars and battles for their nations are honoured. It is a treat to see how proudly nations place their military men and women on pedestals, recall their exploits and honour them. There are parades with heads of states presiding, where the populace cheer and express their gratitude for the soldiers of yore. There are memorial services; visits to the sites where great battles were fought; escorted tours for the veterans still living, where much is made of them; and speeches extolling the bravery of soldiers and how the nation is beholden to them.
What do we do in India? Practically nothing, because our leaders are not bothered with such niceties as honour, sacrifice and national pride as it distracts them from their favourite pastimes, which are too well known to be reiterated. The Commander-in-Chief of our republic, the President, remains ensconced in the hallowed precincts of Rashtrapati Bhawan, instead of meeting a selection of military personnel at an “At Home”; the Prime Minister does not visit jawans guarding our inhospitable borders, or meets and discuss the problems of the war disabled; and governors and chief ministers do not even know it is a special day for the nation, not just for the military. A few years ago, political leaders stooped to the lowest levels possible when they dubbed the two recent wars as the “Congress War” and the “BJP War”!
Then there are the bureaucrats, the intimate advisors to political leaders. They are past masters at ignoring or playing down sentiments and coming up with ingenious arguments as to why there is nothing to celebrate! At one stage, they stated that any such celebration may upset the dialogue we were then having with Pakistan. They also had the temerity to question the need to celebrate something that happened decades back!
On Vijay Diwas, the defence minister makes an appearance at the Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate to lay a wreath. He does so oblivious of the fact that he is laying a wreath at a place constructed by the British when India was a colony. He does not even feel the incongruity of having no war memorial for soldiers who have made sacrifices in the wars fought bitterly in the post-Independence era, even after six decades of Independence. What a monumental shame!
After Independence the government decided that instead of following the Commonwealth, India will have its own day for commending soldiers. On August 28, 1949, a committee chose December 7 and christened it as the Armed Forces Flag Day. However, the significance of the day, viz. “commemorating the sacrifices of the soldiers” was soon forgotten. It became just a day for collecting funds, ostensibly for the welfare of the soldiers. The status today is that state governments are unable to collect even the small targets laid down and the bulk of the funds are contributed by soldiers, seemingly for their own welfare! How ironical in an era when nine percent rate of growth of the GDP is announced with much fanfare every other day. Is the nation still in penury that collections are needed to provide some welfare to the soldiers?
Over six years ago, a Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare (ESW) was created to give focused attention to welfare programmes for ex-servicemen and their dependants. In reality it was a cosmetic exercise as three existing entities of the Ministry of Defence merely started reporting to another set of bureaucrats. Even after six years, except for garnering additional vacancies for their cadre, the department is yet to come out with a single programme for the welfare of veterans. They also commenced looking after the pensions of veterans and the mess they have made post–Sixth Pay Commission is too well known.
Here is a department tailor-made to make much of the soldiers’ sacrifices by conceiving a comprehensive and long-term plan to commemorate their valiant deeds, not only on Vijay Diwas, but also on other such occasions. The need is for vision, empathy and dedication, which requires staffing this department by military personnel. They know what soldiers want and how best to meet their needs. The incongruity of welfare of soldiers by the bureaucracy needs immediate burial. Let us do so without delay and start honouring our soldiers.
The writer is a former Vice Chief of the Indian Army