At a little past 11.30 pm last Saturday, an SMS came from Sudheendra Murali, a friend in Bangalore: “Kargil Forgotten.” To a South Indian with not a single member of the family in the fauj, and therefore without that emotional connect with matters military, the message made little sense.
Truth to tell, with one beer too many at a restaurant called ‘It’s Greek to me’, the message seemed all too Latin.
A Google search the next morning cleared the haze in 0.13 seconds. The day gone by, July 26, was the ninth anniversary of the Kargil triumph—the day ceasefire was declared in the war against Pakistan in 1999; a day since then observed as ‘Kargil Vijay Divas‘.
What my IT friend was saying was that in between Blasts A and Blasts B—while we were selfishly, shamelessly, secretly wondering when and where a bicycle might knock us dead—an ungrateful nation had forgotten to salute a famous victory against Pakistan.
A victory in achieving which 562 soldiers had bravely, selflessly, unquestioningly laid down their lives for their country and countrymen, i.e. us, in the cold heights of Kargil.
Even for a “leftover liberal” with scarcely any militaristic sentiments, it seemed too obvious an event for the political class to miss, especially given the rap they had received for their disgraceful sendoff to Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw in June.
But the Sunday papers provided little proof that old habits die hard.
For starters, there was not a sentence about ‘Vijay Divas‘ in 78 pages of the world’s largest selling English daily. Not a word in its competitor with historic links with the Congress. Not a word in the house journal of the BJP. Not a word in the emerging (unofficial) mouthpiece of the CPI(M).
What little notice the Delhi media took, it took through the lens of its photographers.
The Asian Age had a single-column picture of BJP president Rajnath Singh offering a floral tribute to the martyrs at the party headquarters. The Indian Express carried a five-column picture of a solder in front of the flame at India Gate in its Delhi Newsline supplement. And The Hindu had a 3-column picture of the army chief, the navy chief, and the vice chief of the air staff paying homage.
Only The Sunday Tribune, had anything by way of text accompanying a six-column picture (above) of a Network18 cameraman filming naval officers lined up to pay tribute to the martyrs at India Gate, along with an accompanying story form Dehradun.
From a media point of view, the poor coverage was understandable, indeed even justifiable.
There was nothing newsy, nothing sexy about the anniversary, which had been overshadowed anyway by a dastardly attack that killed so many in two big cities. Television and newspapers cannot keep filling their time and space with something so maudlin, can they?
But if, after 11 years, they can still squeeze their lachrymal glands enough on June 13 every year for the 59 who perished in the “Uphaar Fire Tragedy” in 1997, how difficult is to remember the 562 who died for cause and country In 1999?
But our crib is not with the media, it’s with our netas.
Where were our “leaders”, the people who, by the nomenclature thrust on them, are destined to lead us, to show us the way, on Saturday, July 26?
Where was the President and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Pratibha Patil? Where was the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh? Where was the defence minister, A.K. Antony? Where was the chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dixit?
Yes, there was a celebration in the BJP office with Rajnath Singh in attendance, but was there any commensurate celebration in the Congress office? Was Congress president Sonia Gandhi present? Was there any celebration in the CPI or CPI(M) headquarters? Were Prakash Karat and A.B. Bardhan there?
And so on.
If the leaders and their parties did observe Vijay Divas, their media minders have done a splendid job of hiding it from public view. If they didn’t, the nation is entitled to ask why: Has the Kargil victory become something to be ashamed of for most of our political parties?
The Ahmedabad blasts cannot be offered as an excuse because they happened long after sunset on Saturday. The Bangalore blasts cannot be offered as an excuse because it killed but one (or two). Even so, since when did “national pride” fall victim to “national mourning”?
Or, has the Kargil victory, like so much else, fallen prey to petty, partisan politics?
Those who cover the defence beat say the Kargil victory is now viewed as “an NDA/BJP victory” with which the UPA/Congress wants to have no part. “The Congress has its 1971, the BJP has its 1999,” says one award-winning reporter.
(That the Congress which does not want to remember 1999 could not even remember the hero of the 1971 victory properly tells its own story.)
But if true, how pathetic as a people can we be getting, that we view the triumph of the nation, the sacrifice of our soldiers, not through a wide, collective prism, but through a narrow, constricted aperture of the government of the day?
Certainly, critics, sceptics and cynics in the military, media and polity have plenty of questions over how the Kargil victory was achieved: The intelligence and strategic failures, the antiquated techniques in capturing Tiger Hill (the site of most of the casualties), etc.
Plus, there is the coffin scam over which the Congress walked out of the House each time then defence minister George Fernandes got up to speak.
Much as those questions may be important and need to be answered, how do they take the gloss away from a great victory? And how do they make a meaningful observance meaningless?
What kind of signal is such peevishness sending to the jawan in the field, and to potential recruits? What kind of impact does it have on their morale and motivation to be reminded that they are not fighting for the nation at large but for the coalition in power?
Is this something over which our parties should try to score silly points?
Is this how we show how much we value the armed forces?
This is not to suggest that the President and Prime Minister and Defence Minister and Congress president must drop everything and break out into a bhangra every July 26 for the benefit of the television cameras. But what do they lose by gracefully acknowledging Kargil’s place in our contemporary history?
Especially at a time when insurgency, homegrown terrorism and cross-border terrorism are on the up?
# At the first anniversary of the victory, the then President K.R. Narayanan, vice-president Krishan Kant, prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, defence minister Fernandes, and the three chiefs of staff were all present.
# At the second anniversary, in 2001, the vice president, Prime Minister, defence minister, minister of state, service chiefs and defence secretary were slated to pay homage at Amar Jawan Jyoti.
The gracelessness and tactlessness are obvious. What is not so obvious is the window something like this offers on our hopelessly polarised politics—and the manner in which the liberal-left is ceding ground to the right by turning patriotism and the national interest into the sole proprietorship of the BJP.
If TV channels can realise the benefits that can accrue to their TRPs by carting cinema and cricket stars for the benefit of the jawans, how difficult is it for our political parties and politicians to realise the jump their TRPs might see if they are seen and heard making a rousing speech or gesture?
Parties and politicians are divided the world over, and our country is no different. But does only the party which was in power in 1945 Britain celebrate V-E Day? Does the Labour Party boycott it because Winston Churchill was in charge?
Hopefully, this August 15, the BJP won’t return the favour and boycott Independence Day, just because that victory was achieved by the Indian National Congress.
This piece also appears on rediff.com
Photograph: courtesy The Sunday Tribune/ Chandigarh