If everyone is done with the chest thumping, sloganeering and points-scoring over recent military actions, I have some sobering thoughts for you.
2019 has gotten off to a terrible start for Indian forces. Though the IAF redeemed itself through some spectacular air strikes, our losses cannot be shrugged away lightly.
It started with the 14th Jan 2019 fatal crash (read here) of a Mirage 2000 during an acceptance test flight at Bengaluru’s old HAL Airport. An impromptu wave of anti-HAL/PSU/DRDO sentiment rose into the air along with acrid smoke from burning debris of Sam & Sid’s fighter jet. Both test crew died. Overnight, HAL became ‘enemy’ for many Indians.
Then Valentine’s Day turned into one big blast in Pulwama. 40 CRPF personnel were blown to bits by a suicide bomber, plunging a nation into deep sorrow with angry cries for retribution. A tripwire, long ignored by a nation that preaches peace in a volatile neighbourhood, was breached. Now Pakistan became ‘Enemy No. 1’.
The irony that 3 kgs of beef stored in a poor man’s house attracts mobs & lynchings while 350 kgs of high explosives slipped past our security and intelligence networks got lost somewhere in the din. A blue polythene screen covered the sombre remnants of what was an official vehicle conveying security personnel to their duty / home stations.
By the time embers of the Mirage crash and Pulwama cooled, another fireball from midair collision of two Hawk AJTs from Surya Kiran Aerobatics Team (SKAT) rose high into the skies over Yelahanka. Wg Cdr Sahil Gandhi soared into blue skies forever on 19th Feb 2019, doing what he loved most.
That tragedy was soon overtaken by the glitz of Aero India 2019 which opened next day. I put out a gentle reminder: must the show must go on unchecked? Yes, said most. Some called me out for asking that question.
Aero India 2019 ran with great fanfare for next five days. A nation tuned into television, Facebook & Twitter drooled over majestic Rafales, Su-30MKIs and F-16s, little realising that the real thing would soon play out over the skies up north.
The MiG 21s would never be on parade in an airshow like Aero India. They are ancient relics in an airshow where arms dealers strut their stuff, eyeing millions of dollars in orders. Hordes of ministers, bureaucrats and officials trooped down to Bengaluru on opening day, logged their presence, made lofty statements, and returned to Delhi like ‘baraatis‘ after a family wedding.
Perhaps as nature’s grim reminder of all that could go wrong if we continue our chalta hai attitude & ignore potential tinder boxes, a flash fire swept through the Aero India parking lot, gutting over 200 vehicles. We dismissed it as ‘minor’; even complementing authorities for their alacrity in response. Across the national highway, Aero India continued unhindered.
Then IAF’s historic air strikes on JeM camps in Balakot, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa happened on 26th Feb 19. Sam, Sid, Sahil and their families soon lost national attention to notional gains.
Then Abhinandan happened. A national hero emerged from the unlikely stable of old Mig 21 Bisons that till recently were slandered as ‘widow makers’ & ‘flying coffins’. An F-16D from PAF was shot down by our Bison even as Abhinandan went down in a tight air to air combat.
An IHQ MoD full of indifferent babus with band-aid fixes for our military won’t sign for any expensive ‘toys for the boys’ unless they have a choice. Abhinandan’s ‘half-million’ maps and ‘survival pamphlets’ are there for everyone to see.
The very next day (27th Feb 19), as an aerial skirmish between IAF & PAF unfolded in the skies over Kashmir, an IAF Mi-17V5 crashed under mysterious circumstances near Budgam in J&K, killing all six crew members onboard. For a nation spoon-fed by media and Twitter handles, this tragedy got but a mention-in-passing, soon disappearing into the vast ’emptiness’ of cyberspace.
Don’t forget their sacrifice, people. Six families were destroyed. We don’t even know how or why yet.
Wd Cdr Abhinandan’s pictures and videos circled the world a million times while we are still speculating if a certain PAF officer called Shahaz Ud Din ever flew that day. Have you seen any evidence or dossiers from the other side? Claims, counter-claims and propaganda fly thick and fast while official accounts from our side surface after interminable delays. That should tell you something about our processes and what kind of adversary we are up against.
Are we turning into a nation full of rabble rousers, Twitter handles and propagandists? Can this turn the tide of war? Or are real heroes needed? And are they created overnight like social media would have us believe?
You, dear citizens, have to answer that. There’s a price of war. There’s a cost for peace. Are you prepared to foot the bill?
We are a nation with amazing grace & patriotism during times of crisis and a convenient, volatile memory during extended periods of peace. That must change. How soon we forget Mumbai police who fought the 26/11 attackers with batons and .303s. Top cops of Mumbai Police, including chief of the elite anti-terrorist squad Hemant Karkare, additional commissioner Ashok Kamte, and Inspector Vijay Salaskar fell to bullets from terrorists’ AK-47s, wearing ill-fitting, third-grade bullet proof vests. It took 167 lives in 2008 for us to realize that we need better equipment? And how well is the average policeman on the street kitted up now in 2019?
When Sam & Sid’s Mirage went down inside Bengaluru’s old airport, horrific videos of burning, mortally wounded test pilots surrounded by clueless onlookers and curious first responders filled our phones. Equally tragic videos of the SKAT crash went viral while even a basic ‘Police Line. Do Not Cross’ cordon to keep away trigger-happy public from a crashed aircraft was missing. Netizens and Twiteratti gushed over a ‘hand-in-glove’ photo without asking the real questions – how did this happen? Why did this happen? And what should have been our response to such accidents other than taking epic photos? Do our fallen heroes deserve to be paraded like this on social media?
I was mortified and heartbroken to see videos of the burning Mi-17V5 that crashed at Budgam with hundreds of onlookers staring insensitively like it was some bonfire. Don’t forget, there were six souls in there. Bengaluru to Budgam, we haven’t come a long way, isn’t it? Our emergency response and collective insensitivity to such accidents would be beyond comprehension in a more civilised society.
Fighter planes, air combat, propaganda and viral videos again overtook us. The other side now had a POW. A nation rooting for war just a day ago now prayed for Abhinandan’s safe return. Everything else seemed to have become insignificant.
Recall how we caved-in after the IC 814 hijacking in 1999 where families of hostages shouted slogans outside PM Atal Behari Vajpayee’s residence in Delhi. One evening, widow of Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja and father of late Lt Vijayant Thapar (both Kargil martyrs) pleaded with them to put national interest over personal. As former aide to PM Vajpayee and writer Kanchan Gupta writes in his chilling account, someone from the crowd heckled Ahuja’s widow “she has become a widow, now she wants others to become widows. Yeh kahan se aayi?”. Result? We capitulated and brought back the passengers by new year’s eve, trading Maulana Masood Azhar and two other terrorists who went on to raise the JeM.
Abhinandan is a war hero, there’s no denying that. And this is not about who is better or worse or who is alive or dead. But for a moment, stop and spare a thought about what we have become. A nation full of social media warriors led by pied pipers from the media and political parties who have no appetite for the long haul? And what chance do we have of winning future wars with this outlook?
But win we will. At a terrible cost. Expect body bags galore. What’s worse, we’ll gloat endlessly about how we achieved the impossible. It’ll be Kargil again after 20 years.
When Abhinandan was in enemy territory, you rooted for him. How about rooting for millions of Abhinandans, many of whom never returned home and those who fight with outdated equipment? How about putting your money where your mouth is? You want to pound Pakistan? How many of you asked why the Abhinandans of today have to prostrate themselves in front of an recalcitrant bureaucracy each time to get even basic survival gear? Instead, even educated folks choose to glorify the antiquated Mig-21 Bisons as ‘Falcon Slayer’ and gloss over the substratal lessons.
Political opportunists and keyboard warriors, please wake up and stop twirling your fake moustaches like Amol Palekar in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Golmaal (1979). You never bothered when decades of decadence blunted our military edge. You never bothered for two decades after our soldiers fought an impossible war in Kargil, dislodging Pakistani regulars occupying commanding positions with well-equipped, well-entrenched bunkers without acclimatisation and ECC (extreme climate clothing).
A Union Minister from the ruling dispensation recently even questioned “what is the navy doing in Colaba? They should be on the borders”. Now your cronies are putting up these posters in the same corner of Mumbai? This is how low we have stooped.
It just proves one point I have belaboured endlessly in many of my writings. Our nation survives on heroics, fights with what we have (which is very little), and when our soldiers achieve the impossible, we pat ourselves on the back and return to deep slumber. Sudden, episodic waves of patriotism ripples through oceans of indifference. After all is said & done, more is said than done.
The collective brunt of all this ignominy is borne by the soldier, sailor & air warrior on the frontline. They deliver the impossible, even as IFAs and babus checkmate them over financial minutiae and pour scorn on them during peacetime.
I am fed up with the jingoism and chest-thumping of petty politicians, party spokespersons, frothing generals and self-styled defence experts who partook in this sodomy of our military preparedness.
When a media brief did come, three serving senior armed forces officers read out from a script no doubt vetted by many MoD bureaucrats, none of whom were around to take questions. That, in sum, is what it’s all about today.
If you don’t have the appetite for war, don’t pick up the guns. Get the processes in order. Build consensus on what kind of capabilities our armed forces truly require. Then get them that capability without making your ‘10%’ or dancing over their graves. If you cannot do that, keep away from policy making or at least shut the hell up.
And yes, definitely keep our armed forces out of your political campaigns. Maintain the dignity of our soldiers. You ain’t getting my vote otherwise.
(An edited version of this article first appeared on The Quint. You can read it here. Feel free to share.)
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal.