As the New Year approached, my 10-year-old son recently asked me what soldiers do during these times. For him and the millions who don’t know, I thought I’d tell what men in uniform do.
On the New Year’s Day, less than one in 15 soldiers will be at home with their families. To visualize that, think of a typical block in a colony, which has about 150 families. Only 10 of those families will have the man of their house with them. The rest will have a bland New Year.
All the men in uniform, somewhere out there, will write to their families. Soldiers write a lot. Not enough, according to their families, but far more than any others do. They try to squeeze sentences into inland letters. Their wives get letters spanning several pages. Soldiers are probably the only people other than love-struck teenagers who write such lengthy letters.
In the soldier’s absence, their wives will tend to the children and the parents. They will be the ‘man’ of the house. They will call their husbands with updates about the festivities at home. Soldiers are at constant risk, and their wives worry a lot. They have to do the thinking on the soldiers’ behalf too. They also care a lot about their husbands’ careers. Though they claim without exception that they don’t know much about the forces’ hierarchy, every one of them is fully aware of each rank, every promotion and its implications. Their lives depend on it. Their next posting, their children’s schooling, and how long they get to live as a family in the forces all depend on it.
The soldiers worry about their postings and families. They worry whether they are good fathers and when they will see their children again. Sometimes they worry if at all they will see their children again. They worry who their commanding officers will be. Will they be kind and lenient with leaves and duties, or strict and tough? Soldiers want tough commanders, but kind as well.
Commanders worry if they will be good leaders. Youngsters fresh out of the academy worry if they will command the respect of their men. Officers good at sports worry if they will be able to do well in academics; those good at studies worry about their sporting prowess. Officers good at both worry about their peers and competitors; and officers good in neither—well, they don’t worry too much.
Senior officers worry about setting good examples and working under severe constraints. A shortage of men means a shortage of leaves. They worry about the increase in duties each year and the toll it takes on their men.
But on New Year, officers and their men will celebrate wherever they are. Several hundred thousands of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsees, Jains and so on will celebrate together. Officers from Kerala will wish their Gurkha troops in fluent Gurkhali. Sikhs will sing in Tamil in the Madras regiment. Assamese officers will swear in guttural Punjabi with their Sikh units. And hundreds of thousands of soldiers will pray in common prayer rooms that house the beliefs of all faiths.
Special Forces units, whichever god-forsaken place they are in, will wish each other. Off duty submarine crews who are deep under the ocean surface may get a tot of rum. The airspace will crackle with radio transmission of fighter pilots who fly combat air patrols every second of the day.
Our troops posted at borders will wish their counterparts. In some places, the counterparts will wish them back. But in most, the mood will be sullen. In a few, the counterparts will actually increase hostilities during festivals. But the Indian forces will never do this, because for them every festival has equal sanctity. And, of course, thousands of them would have their leaves cancelled because of the heightened security needs, as they would have during every festival or national celebration.
This will be the first New Year for many young officers. Many would be invited to some senior officer’s house for dinner. Most youngsters don’t give a damn about getting invitations, though. It is the privilege of all bachelor officers to be able to call on any married officer’s house for dinner at any time of the night. Married officers hate youngsters for this, but they forget about the time they were young.
Seniors will always tell youngsters about how much of a ruckus they created when they were young. They say things are easier for youngsters these days. They lie.
With each passing decade, soldiers have had more difficult postings than ever before. Each year, internal security requirements increase and troops are moved within the country incessantly, having to fight in different terrains all the time. Some of these troops will die before this year ends. A few will die before today ends. Their families will never forget this New Year’s Eve, or any New Year for that matter. But I hope their children will be told about what their fathers did.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.
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