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