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  • Desh ke liye marna acha hei

    Posted On July 12, 1999

    By Karan Thapar

    Watching the dead bodies return from Kargil I started to wonder what sort of person chooses to be a soldier. I’d be too scared. More than that I don’t think my heart beats to the right sort of patriotism. Of course, I’m proud to be Indian and I would gladly defend India at any verbal forum of anyone’s choosing. But I don’t have the inclination to die for India, at least not voluntarily, consciously and, as soldiers do, unhesitatingly. Those qualities are unique to soldiers and, quite frankly, I’m not good enough to be one.

    What’s true of me is, I suspect, true of most of you as well. We middle class Indians are not the stuff our jawans are made of. In fact, I’m sure most of you would accept that. But will you also agree with me when I start to identify where the difference really lies?

    A little but telling incident has brought the truth home to me. My elder sister has a twenty year old Kumaoni servant. Harish is tall and gangling and his ears stick out. He’s a terrific worker of the strong but silent type. He does everything quietly, efficiently and promptly. He never needs reminding. Last week Harish approached Premila with a special request.

    “Bibiji mein ja raha hoon.”

    “Kahan?”

    “Mein bharti hoonga. Mujhe chithi mili hei. Mera number aya hei.”

    “Lekin Harish”, Premila cautioned, “ladai chal rahi hei.”

    “To kya hua?” he replied. “Desh ke liye marna acha hei.”

    It silenced her. When she repeated the story, with tears in her eyes, it left me speechless too. What can you say? It’s an awe-inspiring sentiment. It’s also very humbling. And it’s obvious that none of us are capable of the same feeling.

    Each night as I watch the TV stories about the thousands in Bihar, Darjeeling or Ranikhet hoping, even pleading, to be recruited I realise how special are people like Harish and how different to the rest of us. Not one of my friends, none of their sons, in fact not a single person I know has rushed to join the army. Not just that. It wouldn’t even have occurred to them. And that’s not surprising. It would not have occurred to me either.

    Yet it not only occurred to Harish, he also acted on it. And he wasn’t showing-off or pretending or trying to create an impression. He was just doing what he thought was right. He was doing what he wanted to do. That’s why it’s so special. That’s why he’s so special.

    But when it’s over – and if he lives – how will our society welcome him back? How will we thank him? Will he get the respect he deserves? Will he be a special honoured citizen? Or will he revert to being a servant? In the answer to those questions lies the difference between Harish and us. I don’t have to spell it out. You know it – or you can sense it – for yourself.

    In peace time we live along side hundreds of thousands of soldiers but we don’t even notice them. Perhaps on Republic Day we might praise their marching, occasionally over a drink some may admire their discipline and joke about how different things would be if the army takes over the country and, of course, when there are floods or emergencies we hand over the crisis so they can clean up the mess. But it’s always from a distance, without personal connection and little involvement. They do a wonderful job and we applaud as they do it. But the barrier between them and us remains unchanged.

    Today, during a war, our conscience is pricked and we appease our guilt by donating. Oh, no doubt the sums have been generous. Unprecedented even. But have they bridged the divide? Or re-inforced it? When the war is over, the dead cremated and the injured forgotten, what then? Will we remember the widows, the orphans, the disabled once their images have passed into television archives? Will we, this time, honour them as the men who saved our country, our liberties, our lives? Will they still be heroes?

    Do I need to answer the question? Is it possible there could be two answers? May be for Harish but surely not for you and I.

    The last refuge of a scoundrel

    Sadly, there is much that masquerades under the name of patriotism which is nothing more than vindictiveness. A prime example is the treatment of Dilip Kumar by the tub-thumping, loud-speaking ‘patriots’ of Bombay. Their demand that he should return the award given by Pakistan is as unnecessary as it is unjustified. It’s unnecessary because it won’t matter a jot either way. It’s unjustified because it’s a decision he – and he alone – must take. Who are we, or they, to advise him leave aside demand it of him?

    By making an issue of it they have both presumed to judge his behaviour and to embarrass him by whipping up popular feelings.

    Dilip Kumar is perhaps our greatest actor ever and I, for one, respect his right to either keep or return the Nishan-e-Pakistan. He richly deserved it when it was awarded to him. The fact that the recognition came from Pakistan took away nothing from it. And if he wishes to keep it, it is his right to do so. On the other hand if he returns it, it will be a personal decision and no more. Either way let him make it. And let the rest of us hold our peace.

    Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear

    I admit defeat. Whenever I think of something clever to say, a pretty turn of phrase, a subtle bon mot, a little witty sting in the tale, I find my efforts frustrated. Somehow The Hindustan Times printer gets advance wind of my efforts and scuppers them. So, as often as not, my jokes fall flat, my emotional outbursts deflate, my anger doesn’t attract attention and my cleverness or subtlety passes without recognition.

    However, never before have the printer’s devils played havoc with a correction. That has been considered sacrosanct territory. After all if you are going to put right a mistake then it’s best done without adding to the error.

    Last week was different. It happened when I wrote to point out that my opinion the BBC was ‘unbeatable’ had been transformed into the comment that it was ‘unbearable’. The little letter ‘t’ had been altered into a little ‘r’ but the change in meaning was enormous. My aim was to laugh away the mistake whilst also setting the record straight.

    Unfortunately that’s not what happened. Those little devils got into action once again and did their worst. What emerged was the following sentence : “If you think the BBC is good – and it is, in fact at its best it’s uneatable ...”

    Well, what can I say? If the BBC is a dish it would be my first choice every time! Oh yes, and if I may, can I add that I’m delighted that when Mike Woolridge gets a respite from Kargil, and catches-up on the reading he has missed, old editions of Sunday Sentiments are at the top of his must-read list.


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