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Is this how we treat our heroes?

By Dilip D'Souza
November 03, 2004 14:18 IST
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When sturdy, athletic Saurabh Kalia came home to his parents, his body had cigarette burns on it, his bones and teeth had been broken, his ears had been pierced, his nose chipped, his lips cut, his skull fractured, his eyes removed.

I could barely stomach reading these details in an account Saurabh's father, Dr N K Kalia, had written. I could barely listen as these ordinary Indian parents, in their ordinary Himachal home, spoke to me of what their son looked like in death and how they had to come to terms with it.

Kargil's First Hero

Captain Saurabh Kalia was one of the six dead soldiers Pakistan returned early in the Kargil war, their bodies mutilated. His tragedy was a nauseating outrage. But also inexplicable. If you are willing to think, he left behind questions that will gnaw at you, as they gnaw at his parents, as they have gnawed at me for several years. For there seem to be few answers, many questions, and that's a hard place to be for parents, for a nation, so bereaved.

Five years on, can we mull them over dispassionately? Let's see.

Considering the bodies were so badly mutilated, why did Pakistan even return them? Was that country so unaware of the outrage that would result? Why did India not make an immediate fuss at the border? Why take the dead soldiers away for a post-mortem in Delhi and send them to their families only later? And this, in a letter from Army HQ to Dr Kalia: 'Existing rules do not permit handing over the post-mortem report to the NOKs (next of kin).'

Of all people in the world, why are Next Of Kins denied such reports?

Actually, the Kalia family has piles of letters about their son, many from official India. They contain eloquence in abundance. Here's Jaswant Singh, then external affairs minister:

    'Captain Saurabh Kalia made the supreme sacrifice in the defense of our     Motherland. He displayed great valour, courage and determination in the     pursuit of his goal to push out the Pakistani forces. History will     record Captain Kalia's deeds in golden letters and his name will be a     beacon for many generations not only for the Armed Forces, but for     all Indians. [Y]ou have been blessed to have such a gallant son.'

Yet here's the reality Saurabh's parents must grapple with: their son and his mates are conspicuously missing from the list of Kargil awards. No Param Vir Chakra, no Vishisht Seva Medal, nothing. 'History will record Captain Kalia's deeds in golden letters,' wrote India's then foreign minister. But India will not give him a Mention-in-Dispatches.


Sure, not every battlefield death warrants a medal. But equally, not every battlefield death warrants the kind of ministerial eloquence that flooded Dr Kalia's home.

So did Jaswant Singh and others, like then defence minister George Fernandes, write their letters to the Kalias only out of a clear-eyed understanding of the effect the mutilation had on this country: the anger and hatred it caused?

Which might make you wonder: Is our anger only to be directed at those who torture and mutilate during war? Should we also turn it towards those -- Indian and Pakistani alike -- who keep peace so distant that soldiers die on the border every single day? Who urge us to define ourselves by how much hatred we direct across the border?

Writing like this gets me my share of letters from people who pronounce angrily that I must not ask these questions. After all, it's unpatriotic to raise such issues while our soldiers fight and die for the 'glory of the motherland.'

Heard this before? Then consider what happened to Flight Lt Abhijit Gadgil, who wasn't even fighting.

In 2001, Gadgil was in his sixth year with the Indian Air Force, and had been flying MiG-21s for four. Posted in Suratgarh, Rajasthan, he was immensely happy at his job. His family wrote about him:

    'He was actually in love with that aircraft. He would sing its praises     and boast about his achievements in the operational theatre. (He     participated) in every squadron activity. He enjoyed the sand, his     squadron and the company of his comrades-in-arms.'

All of which came to an end on September 17, 2001. About eight that night, Gadgil took off in his MiG-21 into a moonless sky. 33 seconds later, nosediving at 470 kmph, the plane tore a nine-foot hole into his beloved sand.

Gadgil left a shattered wife and family. He and his flying machine also became part of one of the IAF's stranger set of statistics:

    1963 to 1970: 7 MiG-21 accidents; 1 per year.
    1971 to 1980: 21 accidents; 2.1 per year.
    1981 to 1990: 32 accidents; 3.2 per year.
    1991 to 2000: 75 accidents; 7.5 per year.
    2001 to 2002: 22 accidents; 11 per year.

I can't imagine that anyone would look at these numbers and not be concerned: what on earth is going on with these MiGs? That's what Gadgil's parents wanted to know. In 2002, they formed the Abhijit Air Safety Foundation as a platform to raise questions about the safety of these aircraft. As they wrote: 'The idea was to stop the loss of young lives in the ancient aircraft of our air force in general, and MiG-21 in particular.'

'We are losing pilots now, what will we do at war?'

For whatever reason, something has changed since AASF was founded: the rate at which MiGs crash has decreased markedly. Though even so, one crashed as I wrote this column.

Yet in the IAF's only response to the Gadgils' several letters -- the ONLY response to date -- one Air Marshal Ashok Goel, Inspector General at Air HQ, wrote to them in March 2003. He blamed the crash on Abhijit, who, he said, was 'disorient(ed) during a dark night take off (and) weak in certain aspects of flying.'

'Weak'? Then why was he flying, and at night? Goel didn't explain. He did go on:

    'A venomous attack on the Air Force or its hierarchy does not, in my     opinion, offer any solace. At worst, you may demoralise the Service.     Such an act would not be in the best interest of the Nation. It     would be most unfortunate if your intentions are to disrespect the     IAF. So far we have turned a blind eye to your tirade in public.'

Such is the language Goel, writing for the IAF, uses to write to the family of an IAF pilot killed on duty. Yes, he actually calls their concern 'a venomous attack,' a 'tirade in public.' Yes, he actually insinuates that their patriotic responsibility is to stop asking their questions.

So I stop there too. I must not ask. I must not think. I'm a patriot.

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Dilip D'Souza