My name is Sep (Sipahi) Bhoop Singh. I am a soldier in the Indian Army. I’m from somewhere in India – it really doesn’t matter where exactly, because that’s not relevant. My identity is now that of an Indian soldier rather than a resident of some state. Let me share a secret with you. It wasn’t patriotic thought of serving and dying for my country which made me join the Indian Army. It was more of a matter of pragmatism. My father’s meagre land holdings were not enough to support all of us four brothers and our families that would come along in due course of time. So joining the Army seemed like a good option. Not as good as joining the police or some other government job. But my father couldn’t afford the bribes required to pay my way through. And I was always very fit. So when the faujis came to our district to recruit, I signed up. And despite the rumours I had heard, we didn’t have to pay a penny!
Four years down the line, here I am. My life, and the way I look at life, has changed a lot in the past four years. I told you that I didn’t join the Army out of any great sense of partiotism. And even now, I really don’t identify with all this vande mataram and all that. Yet I do feel proud of being an Indian. You know, in the village I was (we all were – and a lot of my friends there still are) like a frog in the well. During my four years in the Army, I have developed a strong pride in being a soldier, being a part of the Army, and I am specially proud of my ‘paltan’. I have forged a special bond with my fellow soldiers, and today they are as much my family as my own brothers back in the village. I have come to understand why soldiers like me fight in wars and risk their lives. It is not really for the sake of the country – well maybe, but I don’t think that is foremost on our minds when faced with danger. What actually motivates us is the thought of upholding the ‘izzat’ of the paltan, and of not being seen as wanting in the eyes of our comrades.
I don’t know much about politics, nor am I interested. I do read the newspaper and watch TV, but have never voted in any election. Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me which party gets elected or who forms the government. My life is more affected by my Senior JCO, Company Commander and CO – and unfortunately you can’t elect them. But by God’s grace so far they have all been decent people. But then, I have also never done anything to cross their paths. My discipline is good, I always follow orders, and am never late in getting back from leave. Nor do I ever sleep on guard duty. So I have had no reason to fear them.
Discipline is the bedrock of the Army – this is what is drilled into us right from the time we get our first haircut as recruits in the Regimental Centres. We used to have an ‘ustaad’ (instructor) at the centre who told us that in the ‘fauj’, there is a laid down way of doing everything, and we can’t go wrong if we follow it. So whether it is the way I have to fold my blanket, to the way I hold my rifle, everything is laid down. It’s good, because that way you don’t have to tax your brain too much about what to do and what not to.
This is why I have been very puzzled for the last few days. I saw on the TV that in Kashmir soldiers like me who were on duty at a check point are in trouble because they opened fire on a car which refused to stop at three successive barriers. I saw lots of people arguing about it on news – about how the soldiers were wrong in opening fire on innocent boys – apparently they were very young, and two of them died. I know it’s sad, loss of life always is. I sympathize with their parents – it must be terrible to lose a child like that. I heard the defence minister saying that strict action will be taken against the soldiers in this case. I was a little disturbed and quite puzzled.
Weren’t the soldiers deployed there on the governent’s orders? Weren’t they deployed there because there is a terrorism problem in that state? And weren’t they just following the laid down procedures when they opened fire on a vehicle which crossed three successive barriers and didn’t stop? I was trying to imagine what I would have done had I been in their place. How would I know whether such a vehicle is being driven by innocent but mischevious boys or by dangerous terrorists? What if I let it go, and the car is laden with explosives, and it goes and blows up at a crowded place, killing hundreds of innocent people? How much time would I have to weigh these factors and take a decision? I came to the conclusion that under similar circumstances, I would have probably done what these poor soldiers did.
I was discussing this with some of my friends in the langar. They all felt the same. Someone said, “the soldiers are not going there on their own, for a holiday. They have been sent there by the government. And they have been sent because it feels things are not normal there. The Army’s job is to defend the nation in war and war-like situations. So by deploying the Army the government believes there is a war-like situation there. Otherwise, wouldn’t the police and para-military forces be enough to deal with the situation? And if there is a war-like situation, how can it be tackled only by the peacetime laws? Isn’t that the reason why the area has been declared as ‘disturbed’ and Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) been imposed there?”
One informed comrade told us that the AFSPA is meant to allow us to operate in the disturbed areas where we need to react quickly to deal with terrorists. If you are chasing a terrorist, and he goes and hides in a building, you can’t go looking for a warrant to search that building. Nor can you wait for an order from a magistrate to open fire on him, like we need to in when dealing with riots etc where AFSPA is not in force. Any delay in such situations would result in the terrorists escaping, or worse, killing civilians and our own comrades. “Then why is the Chief Minister of the state asking for removal of AFSPA?” someone asked. “He should just ask for the army to be removed and he will take care of the law and order with his state police.”
Nattha Singh, the wizened old havildar gave the final word. “Saala I don’t care AFSPA shafspa. After this one thing is clear to me. When the paltan goes to the valley, I am not going to stick my neck out for anything. Let bloody terrorists kill as many people and escape. No one is going to hang me for that. At least that way there won’t be any risk – either of getting killed or killing someone, getting court martialled and going to jail. After all, this is their problem let them deal with it – I will spend my two years there doing nothing and retire peacefully to my village.”
There were nods of agreement all around. But I wasn’t so sure I agreed. “What about the paltan’s izzat?” I asked. “That won’t be at risk too”, Nattha said. “We won’t risk tarnishing it if we avoid doing anything. That way we will make no mistakes like those chaps did.”
I’m still not too sure. Maybe Nattha is right.