YESTERYEAR AND HOPE
As the warm summer breeze drifted in and the few drops of rain disappeared into the earth, the dry and sultry weather was unbearable once again. Only the brave hearted ventured out in this god awful weather and that too at some unearthly hour of four in the afternoon. But this did not deter a mixed group of people sitting together on the benches in the central park of a small town. The heavy boughs of the neem tree protected them from the sharp sunlight but yet it was in no way pleasant enough to be sitting there. The group were oblivious to all this and their incessant chatter drifted into all corners of the park.
The war veterans recalled Kargil war that is also referred to as Operation Vijay and happens to be one of the most recent examples of high-altitude warfare in mountainous terrain. The cause of the war was the infiltration of Pakistan soldiers and Kashmiri militants into positions on the Indian side of the LOC. This took place between May and July 1999. Tiger Hill or "Point 4660" is a mountain in the Drass-Kargil area of Jammu and Kashmir and is one of the highest peaks in the area. This was the subject of the Kargil war and its recapture the most important objective.
Day after day, the group met, come hail or sun and nothing could stop the loud guffaws and light-hearted banter that would flow from there amid much laughter and gaiety apart from going down memory lane and talking about Indian defence forces' bravado on and off battlefield. Passers by walking or jogging past hurriedly would just be able to get a grasp of a group of old men, a few grey-haired ladies, two young children and one that looked more like a teenager. An odd lot you would say but nevertheless one that gave out an aura of spontaneity that couldn’t be ignored.
All Photos by Karen Tewari; Copyright: Right Impact Media Inc.
A fierce discussion was in the air...one that gave the impression of heightened spirits and emotions. The topic generating so many sentiments was none other than that of the ‘One Rank One Pension’. The Prime Minister’s speech from the ramparts of Red Fort earlier in the day was being shredded to bits. His every line was being dissected and torn apart word by word. The group was sad and angry at the same time... Disillusioned with a feeling of being let down. It was as though all their hopes had been shattered to the ground.
The oldest member, a veteran from the armed forces, cringed as he eased out his stump from his artificial leg. A salt and pepper bearded pilot who had flown many a MiG – 21 rested his crutches on the side of the bench. A nine-year-old boy made sure his grandfather was sitting upright in his wheelchair while he adjusted the foot rest. A grey-haired lady in a maroon sari swung her walking stick around while gesticulating in an animated manner. The lady on her left was busy tying her shoelaces but her attention never flickered even for a second from the group while her grandson passed out hot cups of tea straight from a thermos.
A young lad jogs up to them, removes his head-phones, greets everyone while touching each and every member’s feet in respect and then joins in the conversation. He looks disturbed today and fidgets nervously. He suddenly asks the group if it is worth his time to sit for the National Defence Academy (NDA) exam next month or will he be also joining a long list of forgotten soldiers who are uncared for by the very nation he loves...just like his late father who had died in battle on the turbulent border areas, laying down his life selflessly while defending the nation.
The young boy leaves the wheelchair for a minute and tugs at the lad’s hands and tells him he must. He says he never knew his father as he too had died on the high seas, all for his country while his pregnant wife has waited on the shore for his return. But he is proud of his father and his grandfather who had both devoted their life to serving their country. He loftily declares that he too will join the defence services once he grows up even if the government remains ungrateful. Wise words from a boy still wet behind his ears but surely one that has seen pain far beyond comprehension to even a layman.
Stories of yesteryears never grow stale and so each one recounts their thoughts and experiences and collectively pledges to work towards ensuring that they are all given their due. A middle-aged lady now joins in, her face hardened into lines of silent misery, making her look years older than she actually was. But she walks with her head held high and the weight on her shoulders doesn’t bog her down but instead makes her look even taller and she gives out an air of positivity. Widowed when she was just a young bride...a husband who succumbed to his injuries during a mine-blast, deep in the jungles where rebels ruled the roost. But she was not one to sit around feeling sorry for herself and so rose above her personal troubles to set up an NGO to help other war widows and make them self-reliant. Now here to collect her father-in-law and head back home, she greets everyone with hot samosas and jalebis. This she says is to celebrate the essence of freedom which is our fundamental birth right so what if the government remains unmoved and ignorant of what is of utmost importance.
The picture painted above is one that would be visible in every small village, town, and city in our country. Be it in any corner of this nation, you are bound to come across people like these who truly are the unforgotten heroes. Stories of their bravery, spirit and courage that every citizen must know and not be dusted under the carpet.
Isn't it truism to say that a nation that has forgotten its war heroes, its martyrs, and its veterans is a nation that is heading for trouble. A country that cannot respect the very people that gave them Independence seems doomed. It is indeed shameful the way our veterans have been mishandled for quite a while now... It is even more ignominious the way they have been pushed to come out on the streets to be heard. The very same who risked their lives and fought for the sovereignty of their nation...guarding borders, fighting insurgency, terrorism and being there 24x7 at the beck and call of the nation. Well, then the country and all those that constitute the Government must not shame our country. So what 'Independence Day' does the nation boastfully lionize?
A new dawn is our only hope...the one that brings with it a new beginning...a promise for a better future and leaders and visionaries that not only lead from the front but also inspire and salute the men and women who guard the country even before they bow to the tricolour!
About Photographer Karen: Being the daughter of an Army Officer, granddaughter of Army Officers and now wife of a Naval Officer spent her childhood exploring the outdoors...so her love for adventure and the environment has always been in her blood. She is also a nature photographer and her work has been published by National Geographic and The Hindu. Her book on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands called ‘Six Degrees North’ was released in the presence of our former President Late Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam.