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An ode to the Indian soldier
March 10, 2011 10:38:12 AM

Manvendra Singh

While India has chosen to forget the sacrifices of its soldiers in foreign land, Sri Lanka has erected a memorial in honour of the IPKF’s fallen heroes.

I was on the lookout for Harpal’s name. Like all those who knew him I too had been devastated by the loss of the Ropar Khalsa. He had that infectious persona. I had last seen him at his unit mess, during the 1987 cricket world cup. Even as the country partook in its cricket craze, there were those who didn’t have that luxury, as they were at war for India.

Harpal didn’t want to remain in the rear, looking after his unit ladies and children. An officer of 1 Para Commando, Harpal lost his life during Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka. His battalion, like countless others, had been part of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force that ended up fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam when they had gone to keep the calm in the island.

Nothing captured the irony and the idiocy of the situation more than an officer injured early in the fighting telling me later, “I was injured by the LTTE who were using arms and ammunition supplied by India, and saved by the Sri Lankan Army who had been supplied by the Pakistanis.” But it is not for the soldier to question political decisions, however bizarrely they may turn on their head.

A dear friend, Harpal had been the subject of the first article I had written about the IPKF in my early days as a journalist. It was on ode to Harpal, by name, and through him to all the others of the Indian Army who had fallen in a battle they had hardly prepared for.

So when I learnt of the memorial to soldiers of the IPKF, a visit there became inevitable. To bow my head, say a prayer, pay respect, and search for names that carried memories of fondness. And there it said — Capt H Singh PARA. Touching, and I was grateful.

Standing at the foot of the memorial I gazed in awe at its beauty and solemnity. Officers and jawans etched in perpetuity, white on black, and from across the country. There are Kashmiri names, just as there are Naga names. All casualties of a political decision to battle those they had gone to protect.

Every infantry regiment, and more, was recorded there. Tank men who volunteered for infantry duties, and didn’t come back to India are remembered for their valour. I saw the name of Col Chabra, whose son now dons the same uniform of the same battalion as he did while fighting for his country. It was humbling to stand before them, all together in memory, for posterity.

When the awe and pain of going through the names subsided, I couldn’t believe myself that there was, finally, a state inspired and funded war memorial to Indian soldiers. The fact that a Government-created memorial could be so beautifully made was as hard to believe as seeing one constructed in the first place. It is not a citizen’s initiative like, for example, the memorials in Chandigarh and Bangalore. It has been inspired by a national Government, funded and constructed by its agencies.

But, alas, in this case the state is not the Government of India, and the agencies that created it are not its PWD or MES. The credit is owed only to the Government of Sri Lanka, and the construction has been done entirely by the Sri Lankan Navy. And it has been done strikingly well.

Even as the Government of India resists the pressures of its soldiers and citizens to make a post-independence war memorial, Sri Lanka has recognised the significance of the Indian soldiers and sailors who died for its integrity from 1987 to 1990. The memorial has been made entirely from Sri Lankan funds, architectural consultants, and the contracting agency is the Sri Lanka Navy. Creditable when one considers the absence of any Government-made war memorial in India.

A plaque reads in English and Hindi: “This monument is dedicated to the members of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force who made the supreme sacrifice during the peace-keeping mission from 1987 to 1990 in Sri Lanka.” Another plaque says: “Indian Peace-Keeping Force — Valiant were their deeds; Undying be their memories.”

The IPKF memorial resides in the new capital of the country near Colombo, Sri Jayawardanepura Kotte. Past the Sri Lankan Parliament, the IPKF memorial is but a stone’s throw from the Sri Lankan national memorial for their own war heroes, rows upon rows of names etched in eternity. They fought to the bitter end with the LTTE, losing hundreds of brave soldiers in the process. And it is touching the level at which Sri Lanka values the contribution of the IPKF, for such is the pride of place which they have given to, and erected a memorial for, the sacrifices made by Indian soldiers.

I recall vividly the coincidence of dates in 1995. In the space of a few weeks there would be the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 30th anniversary of the 1965 India-Pakistan war. I remember formally asking the Ministry of Defence as to how India was going to mark the events, both of which cost precious Indian lives. A bureaucrat replied, without any trace of irony or humility for the dead, that India was a peaceful country and did not believe in marking events like wars. The classicahimsa line.

I was aghast, especially since the British Government was taking all Indian Victoria Cross and George Cross winners to London for the big celebrations. And India was silent on its own contributions. That attitude persists even today.

India’s attitude towards its soldiers, sailors and airmen can be gauged from the fact that a black plaque bolted on the IPKF memorial remains unlettered, blank. The Prime Minister of India was meant to inaugurate the memorial and have his name etched on this plaque. The inauguration was put off on account of political sensitivities within India, so the plaque remains bare and black.

Votes and political alliances are more important in India than respecting the memories of those 1,200 soldiers and sailors who lost their lives on account of the follies their rulers. The bare black plaque stares back at visitors, conveying a message of ingratitude, insensitivity, and disrespect. As true a reflection of Indian attitudes to fallen soldiers as there can be.

In the meantime, Sri Lanka honours Indian soldiers and sailors just as well as they honour their own.