Don’t add insult to injury
Anil Kaul says inclusiveness should extend to disabled soldiers, army widows and POWs
ON SUNDAY, 10 June, while airing Episode 6 of Satymeva Jayate, Aamir Khan, his producers, content writers and researchers were oblivious of a section of our perfectly healthy citizenry that joins the ranks of the differently abled on a regular basis. Soldiers!
In the National Defence Academy (NDA), there is a small round table, all by itself, with the table set for one. The chair is tilted forward. This is a special table, set in the honour of those missing in war, believed to be still Prisoners of War (POW) somewhere. The table set is small, for one, symbolising the frailty of one prisoner against his oppressors. The single rose reminds us of the families and loved ones of our comrades-in-arms who keep their faith awaiting their return. The red ribbon on the vase is reminiscent of the red ribbon worn upon the lapel and breasts of thousands who bear witness to their unyielding determination to demand a proper accounting of those missing in action.
The candle is unlit, symbolising the upward reach of their unconquerable spirit. The slice of lemon is on the bread plate, to remind us of the bitter fate. There is salt upon the bread plate, symbolic of the families’ tears as they wait. The glass is inverted, they cannot toast with us this night. The chair — it is empty. They are not here.
Like Lt Joe Swittens, who on 3 December 1971 shouted ‘Ayo Gorkhali’, jumped out of a foxhole with three other men and charged. They caught the Pakistanis, who were brewing or sipping tea, completely by surprise. One of the Pakistanis jumped up, climbed his tank, fired. They grabbed rifles and formed a ring around Joe, 20 to one. Joe raised his hands in surrender. He was made to kneel. His hands were bound behind his back. They played ‘Russian Roulette’ with his own revolver, and poked him with a bayonet several times.
After about half an hour, a Pakistani officer came by in a jeep. “Stop it,” he ordered. “Put him in my jeep.” Joe was then taken for interrogation. He was also given field dressing by a Pakistani mo who stitched up 64 bayonet wounds without the use of any morphine.
He was just 20 years old, and he probably was the first Indian POW of 1971 war.
After a day he was put on a local bus, handcuffed to a policeman, and taken by road to Rawalpindi jail. He was incarcerated there along with common criminals. Around the 7-8 December, because his name was not announced on Pakistani radio as a POW, he was declared ‘missing believed killed’. Army HQ sent a terse telegram to his father. ‘Your son/ward missing / believed killed in action’.
Seven months later, on 2 July 1972, the Simla Agreement was signed by Indira Gandhi and ZA Bhutto. Sacrifices, blood sweat and tears were soon forgotten and in diplomatic circles mushairas resumed. There was acclaim internationally for how well India had handled the handing back of 93,000 POWs. No one asked how many Indian POWs were still in Pakistani jails. However, only 617 Indian POWs were returned by Pakistan. Where did the rest go? Nobody cared. Everyone was celebrating, writing their own citations and congratulating each other in Delhi.
Surprisingly, no official figures are available with any government department or the plethora of non-government think-tanks of the number of casualties (killed, wounded with disability or taken POW). Some estimates put the figure of dead from 1947 to date as 20,000. After the 1971 war, 2,238 Indian defence personnel were said to be missing.
Similarly the 1987-90 IPKF experience in Sri Lanka cost the nation at least 1,500 dead and more than 6,000 wounded. I know this well because I suffered combat injuries that have left me 80 percent disabled for life.
The 1999 skirmish in Kargil brought more accurate figures:
Killed: 29 officers, 23 JCOs, 475 Other Ranks. Total: 527
Wounded: 66 officers, 60 JCOs, 1,085 Other Ranks Total: 1,211
The fate of the oft-mentioned 54 POWs in Pakistani jails comes up once every few years and then dies a natural death. As do they.
THEN, CONSIDER the fate of NSG commando and Shaurya Chakra awardee PV Manesh. He was paralysed and left wheelchair-bound in his selfless service to the nation while saving the lives of 40 persons from Hotel Oberoi during the Mumbai terror attacks. For the past two years, Manesh has been undergoing Ayurvedic treatment which has helped him walk around 100 metres. He needs the treatment for the rest of his life. Army Headquarters has categorically informed the Delhi High Court that the forces could not consider reimbursement for treatment under any medicinal system other than allopathic, since they could not bend the stringent medical audit rules of the forces.
Incidentally, defence minister AK Antony has for the past 15 years undergone regular annual treatment for his spondylitis-related problems. To add insult to injury (pun intended), whereas civilian employees are entitled to alternative forms of treatment, defence personnel are not. It does not stop here. Non-availability of pension or any kind of monthly financial allowance to disabled members of the armed forces who are invalided out / discharged with disabilities that are declared non-service connected (neither attributable to, nor aggravated by service) is in stark contrast to provisions applicable to other government employees who are protected under section 47 of Persons with Disabilities (Equal opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act 1995.
Just like their husbands, the sacrifices that the wives make are immense. Yet when it comes to pension, rules are strictly followed. Hundred-year-old Pritam Kaur cannot comprehend why the government is not ready to pay her the pension of her second husband. When Naik Arjun Singh died in Burma in 1942, Pritam Kaur was remarried to Sohan Singh, her dead husband’s younger brother. “We had been married for just three years and did not have any children. Sohan Singh was Subedar in the Corps of Engineers. He died in 1985 after completing service,” she says. “While I get Arjun Singh’s pension, the government does not allow me the pension of my second husband, and I do not know why.”
Late Naik Pratap Singh’s 85-year-old widow Ganga Devi got pension after 56 years of appeals...
Can the welfare state spare a thought for these people?
Kaul, a retired officer, is the author of Better Dead Than Disabled. The views expressed here are personal.