In the Name of the ‘Nation’: Vidya K. Subramanian and C. J. Kuncheria

This is a guest post by VIDYA K S and C J KUNCHERIA

“Don’t you dare speak over me when I am speaking of Lance Naik Hanumanthapa! We’re proud of him and we’re ashamed of you!,” screamed Arnab Goswami at Umar Khalid, the JNU student at the centre of unfolding events at the university. Hundreds of thousands of self-proclaimed nationalists cheered at that instant, and many more did as the clip went viral over social media. The death of the soldier, one of the 869 who have been killed in the last four years by the punishing weather on Siachen, had been conveniently used to invoke a cathartic nationalism.

And yet, this is a nationalism that remains blind to the Jawan. Few of its votaries would ask  what the life of infantryman like Hanumathappa entailed in keeping the idea of the ‘nation’ alive. It is a nationalism that erases the identity and life of the soldier and builds the myth of the defence forces as an ideal united ‘nationalist’ body with one soul. It does not examine the heterogeneous and internally fragmented identities of the forces that are papered over by this myth. Behind this lies a fear, that too close a look would lead to an interrogation of the several subnationalities that exist tenuously adhering to a strict hierarchical chain of command. That line of questioning opens up the multifaceted identity of the infantryman and of conflicted historical relationships between them, the Indian army and the Indian state.

Infantry regiment soldiers fall at the very bottom of the hierarchy of the Indian Army. Their service posts them to inhospitable regions and in areas of insurgency. But unlike officers, they do not always have their families with them during ‘peace postings’ away from hostilities. Leaves for the rank and file are largely denied, and there is little emotional and psychological support for them. Over the years the time spent by soldiers at border posts and insurgency areas has increased compared to their time spent at peace-time stations. The severe stress and trauma has led to a rash of suicides and self harm.

Yet, there is one form of belonging that regiment recruitment patterns offers infantrymen. Indian infantry regiments are largely organised along lines of caste or region, a hangover from the colonial notions of martial races. Regiments are thus characterised by similar affinities of culture, region and history. These have created a sense of brotherhood that has sometimes given rise of dissent to decisions made by the generally upper class and upper caste top levels of the Army command.

In 1984, as tensions escalated in the country after Operation Blue Star, several soldiers from Sikh regiments revolted – killing their commanding officers, plundering and taking over Army units. During the Indian Peace Keeping Force military operations in Sri Lanka during the late 1980s, stories did the rounds of how Indian Tamil soldiers freed LTTE combatants. There have been instances of strong allegiance between Kashmir Valley inhabitants and soldiers of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry.

The identity of a soldier on whose body and labour this supposed ‘nation’ is built and reinforced time and time again is in itself a shifting, ambivalent entity. These allegiances are temporal, crystallising for various reasons at tenuous moments. The trope of ‘nationalism’ gains easy media mileage on the death of a soldier at the borders, his identity suitably narrowed to fan heated sentiments but few news channels would care to delve into the complex socio-economic and political travails of soldiers’ lives as they labour for this cause of the ‘nation’ or their own conflicted self-identity vis a vis this imagination.

It is this simultaneous erasure of the infantryman’s life and his glorification as the embodiment of the national body that allows for the contradictions we have witnessed in recent times. Hanumanthappa is lauded and presented as a model for the “anti national” students of JNU to emulate, by the spokespersons for the same government under whose watch police lathi charged veterans agitating for improved pensions. Bodies of soldiers, whether killed by terrorists or by avalanches, become the focus of surcharged nationalist emotions, even as the conditions under which soldiers toil is hardly a matter of national debate. Death and martyrdom is celebrated, life is ignored.

If the life — as opposed to death — of the soldier is immaterial to nationalism, it is hardly surprising that the lives of others who inhabit the diverse landscape of India,  count for little. Even their deaths, in the service of the nation, do not carry the halo of martyrdom. They include the countless workers in factories who are denied adequate wages and who labour under dangerous conditions with little or no security regulations. They include the peasants and adivasis whose lands are taken over and whose voices are violently suppressed to fuel the engine of corporate led industrial ‘development’ of the nation.

Are struggles within the borders, by men and women without uniforms, for a better life, any less ‘national’? Students like the JNU student leader in prison on sedition charges, Kanhaiya Kumar, or Umar Khalid, and countless others dedicated to political activism in JNU and other universities have pledged their lives to these causes and concerns of the disenfranchised and the marginalised. They voice the concerns which are representative in elite public discourse and television debates as ‘Left’ instigated hyperbole. When the death of Hanumanthappa is deployed to counter these students, not only do people like Goswami and his cheerleaders bulldoze over the rights of the Indian people. They also perform a massive disservice to the soldiering men of India, whose lives remain bare and neglected by the fetishisation of the dead soldier.

Vidya K. Subramanian and C. J. Kuncheria are research scholars at JNU

10 thoughts on “In the Name of the ‘Nation’: Vidya K. Subramanian and C. J. Kuncheria

  1. Beautifully written. It hurts right where it should. Especially the ‘Are struggles within the borders, by men and women without uniforms, for a better life, any less ‘national’?’ If we go a little deeper into the JNU protests, Rohith’s Case, Soni Sori’s case (2011 to present) and Kanun Poshpora’s (1991) case- in the strikingly different situations, all have them have been subjected to a similar level of torture in the name of nationalism; just different versions of it.

    But the irony is that it hurts subjectively.

  2. Abhishek Tupe

    Excellent piece. What a line ‘Death and martyrdom is celebrated, life is ignored’. It is so true

  3. Subhash Mendhapurkar

    One of my friend across the border undertook a research on Gujjar Rajput of Pakistan whose bravery and love of nation has been highlighted by the Generals – she wanted to know what makes this community love the country so much. Her field research had shown that disparate poverty and unemployment were the main reason why Gujjar Rajputs joined the army.

  4. venukmwpb

    Reblogged this on Venukmwpb’s Weblog and commented:
    Pertinent questions raised:
    “If the life — as opposed to death — of the soldier is immaterial to nationalism, it is hardly surprising that the lives of others who inhabit the diverse landscape of India, count for little. Even their deaths, in the service of the nation, do not carry the halo of martyrdom. They include the countless workers in factories who are denied adequate wages and who labour under dangerous conditions with little or no security regulations. They include the peasants and adivasis whose lands are taken over and whose voices are violently suppressed to fuel the engine of corporate led industrial ‘development’ of the nation.

    Are struggles within the borders, by men and women without uniforms, for a better life, any less ‘national’? Students like the JNU student leader in prison on sedition charges, Kanhaiya Kumar, or Umar Khalid, and countless others dedicated to political activism in JNU and other universities have pledged their lives to these causes and concerns of the disenfranchised and the marginalised. They voice the concerns which are representative in elite public discourse and television debates as ‘Left’ instigated hyperbole. When the death of Hanumanthappa is deployed to counter these students, not only do people like Goswami and his cheerleaders bulldoze over the rights of the Indian people. They also perform a massive disservice to the soldiering men of India, whose lives remain bare and neglected by the fetishisation of the dead soldier.”

  5. venukmwpb

    While until a few years ago martyrdom in popular discourse referred to those who battled and heroically laid their lives for the causes of people , now there is a visible change thanks to the manufactured discourse of patriotism & nationalism by the new -gen- hype media:
    Military people,no matter they die in accidents or in the course of combat operations (which again, are often the outcome of worst games of jingoism & machinations of the ruling political dispensations,unfortunate though!) are invariably portrayed as martyrs. More recent trend is that political parties and leaders from far right to centrist to left vying each other to be better patriots and better nationalists; they compete to each other be the first visitor reaching the home of the deceased jawan, paying homage to the martyr.

  6. Sharmishtha

    I’m always prepared to read something interesting about the military from non-military analysts. But some of this stuff is just eye-roll worthy. Clearly, the authors have not studied the “mixed-class” regiments that are more and more the norm – recruitment is national and soldiers from everywhere serve in one unit. The officer profile of the Indian Army is far more diverse than it was in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (which is the era in which I suspect the authors’ analysis is stuck) – viz, Col. Santosh Mahadik, Anyway, that’s only a couple of misreadings. Not going into the others. Militaries don’t like to talk about their internal processes because they don’t want the enemy across the border getting too much information. But, if the authors would like to actually understand the armed forces as an institution, the relationship between officers and soldiers, they would have to spend some time in a unit. Which clearly they have been unable to do. And after this, I doubt they would be invited.

  7. Vidya Subramanian

    Sharmistha: I come from a Defence services background. My father and grandfather served in the Forces. I have a fair understanding of the internal processes of the military. Am I am a sociologist or a historian of the military – no I am not. In fact it is deeply difficult to even talk of identity or class within the military, because most top rung Officers believe they are beyond it. However, I refuse to buy the argument that there are no class divisions within the military. There are separate residential areas for sailors and Officers. Children of sailors are already known as coming from different backgrounds even when they study with Officers children in the same schools. There are separate schools for children of household help/maids etc as well. There are channels to allow sailors/jawans into becoming Officers. But I would like to see more socio-economic data on that issue before commenting that just the provision of these channels implies there are no divisions. Are there more mixed regiments in the Defence Forces – particularly the Army? Regiments now are more mixed yes. Maybe a little bit more mixed along caste and class lines, but regionally I am not so sure and I think more data is required which of course one will not get considering the secrecy of the Defence Forces. There was a proposal even after the 1980s to have mixed regiments – so Jats were included within Madras Regiment and so on. However, based on information I got from my father that proposal did not carry on. Also how does the military deploy regiments to counter internal protests/riots? Was the Jat regiment sent to quell the recent protests in Haryana? I think a regiment from the North East was. Does caste play within the military? One does not know because there are no concrete studies on this point. It is thus important that one does examine this. Why is it that the Defence Forces refused to have a Census taken on the basis of caste and religion a few years back? There are no quotas of reservation within the Forces and recruitment forms ask for information along only one indicator – religion. Why is it that among the top most Chief of Commands (Army, Navy and Air Force ) – there are no Dalits. The examples I have cited of regiment revolts are all in the 1980s. There is a rotation basis for all regiments to serve in inhospitable areas. There are indeed sub-nationalities within the Defence Forces and let us not ignore the basic fact that there are financial reasons such as pensions and government facilities as well that determine this duty towards ‘nationalism’. Hanumanthappa came from a poor agrarian family. He made eight attempts to join the Armed Forces. A lot of infantry men do come from rural areas where agriculture no longer has enough scope and many of them have poor education to make other career trajectories as well. It is important that the Defence Forces that continues to have a colonial internal set-up be examined as well. But the truth is it wont. Because there is a danger that a close examination will reveal these very identities and tensions that will then expose that internally they are heterogeneous and not just in a romanticised, harmonious way.

    1. Sharmishtha

      Sorry, came back to this after a long time. This is a complex issue and the short response (for which I apologize as I don’t have the time to draft a long one) is: thing are changing. It seems that your personal experience is limited to the Navy. If you look at the army, the 1980s and 1990s (which is where your data ended) were years when the residual effects of limited recruitment lingered. Now it is different: just have a look at the current Army Chief, Gen. Dalbir Singh. From an OBC background, son of a JCO. This will be more and more the case going forward. It’s a silent revolution and yes, we will not hear about it. Militaries worldwide do not like to talk about their internal procedures. We will just have to read the external signs: the social background of senior officers going forward, once the last of those commissioned/recruited in the 1970s and 1980s retire.

      1. Vidya Subramanian

        Sharmishtha: My grandfather served in the Indian Army and my father in the Indian Navy. There are changes happening, but as a sociologist (and I speak as a sociologist of education for which I am trained in and have some authority to do so), changes must be understood and commented on carefully.

        That ‘change’ is a function of several struggles that have been taking place in different walks of life. And some exceptions, though remarkable and laudable do not speak of the larger structure within which these changes are being noticed. The strength of the OBCs within the diverse context of India is a function of struggles taking place in other realms of society as well. Such as the Mandal Commission that brought about significant changes for this group of backward castes/classes.

        The Defence Forces may not ask for caste as a category but just because it is not stated, individuals do not bear the benefits of it. We inhabit several aspects of our social background in tangible and intangible ways. Even within the OBCs, there is much debate on who the ‘creamy layer’ is. But these are much more complex debates.

        A soldier – depending on where he is from, which regiment he is a part of, which battalions he works within – has multiple identities. These identities will get subsumed within other identities as he works and most poignantly when he dies. The question raised in my article is – who gets to say what he died for and why is it that no one talks about the poorest infantry soldiers who come into the Defence Forces because it provides them a sense of financial security and pension that agriculture or the informal labour economy does not.

        We can laud the Defence Forces, but we must not be averse to stating some basic facts as well – of pension and financial security that is now being eroded within the larger economy. And what about the struggles of veterans themselves for OROP? There were officers (retired) who had come to JNU just last week and one of them who was in training spoke about how no one speaks about the high rate of suicides in the Army, especially among the Jawans. That mid level officers take their frustrations out on junior rung officers who question decisions being made at their cost. Retired Admiral Ramadas has been a spokesperson for demilitarisation.

        What is the provision for emotional and psychological support within the Defence Forces that is so highly ‘masculine’ and where taking emotional support implies a sign of ‘weakness’? It is only last year that struggles waged by women officers has led to benefits of permanent commission (those who were part of the Medical Core already had permanent commission – like doctors, dentists) and the Air Force has decided to induct women as fighter pilots. Struggles determine paths to social justice.

        These voices are also voices of the Defence Forces, and one must pay some attention to them as well. One of the most central points of my article was that in life the jawan is not remembered but in death he is. And that death is glorified, what about the deaths of so many workers everyday in our economy with no wages or benefits? Is talking about that not important as well? What is this quality of ‘life’ that one speaks of? Does it not call for some dignity? And why is it that some lives become more ‘dignified’ than others?

        There is a need for deeper self introspection among the Defence Forces and like I mentioned earlier the Forces will not be open to research on them because it means dealing with several sub-national identities that exist within but are subsumed to speak for one larger ‘national’ identity. One should ask the Tamil soldier from the Madras Regiment, what does he call as ‘nation’? Or the soldier from the North East – does he think of the ‘nation’, in the same way when he sees AFSPA invoked within his ‘home’ state? Or the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry soldier – what he thinks of Kashmir’s dilemma on self-determination?

        [My data is based on newspaper reports and interviews with my father and grandfather – my grandfather fought in the Sino-Indian war 1962, and my father was part of the IPKF Operations in the late 1980s. My father retired from service five years ago. So I believe his information on some aspects do count and are not as dated. And when data itself is scarce and one has to rely on certain other indicators, one can state only some things. And what I have stated are backed by those who have ‘lived’ and ‘experienced’ the Forces.]

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