We Soldiers, Not You Keyboard Warriors, Pay For War: Ex Navy Pilot
If everyone is done with the chest-thumping, sloganeering, and point-scoring over recent military actions, I have some sobering thoughts for you.
2019: Terrible Year For the Armed Forces Yet
2019 has gotten off to a terrible start for Indian forces. Though the IAF has redeemed itself through some spectacular air strikes, our losses cannot be shrugged away lightly. It started with the fatal crash of a Mirage 2000 during a test flight at Bengaluru's old HAL Airport on 14 January 2019. An impromptu wave of anti-HAL/PSU/DRDO sentiment rose into the air along with acrid smoke from the burning debris of Sam and Sid's fighter jet. Both Sam and Sid, the test crew, died. Overnight, HAL became an ‘enemy’ for many Indians.
Then, Valentine's Day greeted us with one big blast in Pulwama. 40 CRPF personnel were blown to bits by a suicide bomber, plunging India into deep sorrow with angry cries for retribution. A tripwire, long ignored by a nation that preaches peace in a volatile neighbourhood, was breached. Now Pakistan became ‘Enemy No. 1’.
By the time embers of the Mirage crash and Pulwama cooled, another fireball from midair collision of two Hawk AJTs from Surya Kiran Aerobatics Team (SKAT) rose high into the skies over Yelahanka. Wing Commander Sahil Gandhi soared into blue skies forever on 19 February 2019, doing what he loved the most.
That tragedy was soon overtaken by the glitz of Aero India 2019 which opened next day. I put out a gentle reminder if the show must go on unchecked. Yes, said most. Some called me out for asking stupid questions.
The ‘Show’ Goes On
Aero India 2019 ran with great fanfare for the next five days. Hordes of ministers, bureaucrats and officials trooped down to Bengaluru on opening day, logged their presence, made lofty statements, and returned to Delhi like baraatis after a family wedding. Aviation geeks tuned into television, Facebook an Twitter drooled over majestic Rafales, Su-30MKIs and F-16s, little realising that the real thing would soon play out over the skies up north.
Then IAF's historic air strikes on JeM camps in Balakot, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa happened on 26 February 2019. Sam, Sid, Sahil and their families soon lost national attention to notional gains.
Then Abhinandan happened. A national hero emerged from the unlikely stable of old Mig 21 Bisons that till recently were slandered as 'widow makers' and 'flying coffins'. An F-16D from PAF was shot down by our Bison even as Abhinandan went down in a tight air to air combat.
The very next day (27 February 2019), as an aerial skirmish between IAF and PAF unfolded in the skies over Kashmir, an IAF Mi-17V5 crashed under mysterious circumstances near Budgam in J&K, killing all six crew members onboard. For a nation spoon-fed by media and Twitter handles, this tragedy got but a mention-in-passing, soon disappearing into the vast 'emptiness' of cyberspace.
Don't forget their sacrifice, people. Six families were destroyed. We don't even know how or why yet.
Shouts of Patriotism Drown the Demand for Reforms
We are a nation with amazing grace and patriotism during the times of crisis but possess a convenient and volatile collective memory during extended periods of peace. That must change. How soon we forgot Mumbai police who fought the 26/11 attackers with batons and 303s! Have we questioned how well the average policeman on the street is kitted up a decade later in 2019?
When Sam and Sid's Mirage went down inside Bengaluru's old airport, horrific videos of burning, mortally wounded test pilots surrounded by clueless onlookers and curious first-responders filled our phones. Equally tragic videos of the SKAT crash went viral, while even a basic ‘Police Line. Do Not Cross’ cordon to keep away the trigger-happy public from a crashed aircraft was missing.
Netizens and Twitterati gushed over a ‘hand-in-glove’ photo without asking the real questions - how did this happen? Why did this happen? What should have been our response to such accidents other than taking epic photos? Do our fallen heroes deserve to be paraded like this on social media? Should we not ask for better equipment for our forces, instead?
Keyboard Warriors Don’t Suffer, Soldiers Do
Have we become a nation full of rabble rousers, Twitter handles and propagandists? You, dear citizens, have to answer that. There's a price of war. There's a cost for peace. Are you prepared to foot the bill?
Recall how we caved-in after the IC 814 hijacking in 1999 where families of hostages shouted slogans outside PM Atal Behari Vajpayee's residence in Delhi. One evening, widow of Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja and father of late Lt Vijayant Thapar (both Kargil martyrs) pleaded with them to put national interest over personal. As former aide to PM Vajpayee and writer Kanchan Gupta writes in his chilling account, someone from the crowd heckled Ahuja's widow with “she has become a widow, now she wants others to become widows. Yeh kahan se aayi (where has she come from)?” Result? We capitulated and brought back the passengers, trading Maulana Masood Azhar (with two other terrorists) who went on to raise the JeM.
When Abhinandan was in enemy territory, you rooted for him. How about rooting for millions of Abhinandans, many of whom never returned home and those who fight with outdated equipment? How about putting your money where your mouth is? You want to pound Pakistan, fine. How many of you asked why the Abhinandans of today have to prostrate themselves in front of a recalcitrant bureaucracy each time to get even basic survival gear? Instead, even educated folks choose to glorify the antiquated Mig-21 Bisons as ‘Falcon Slayer’ and gloss over the substratal lessons.
If Policymakers Can’t Change the Status Quo, They Must Shut Up
Political opportunists and keyboard warriors, please wake up and stop twirling your fake moustaches like Amol Palekar in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Golmaal (1979). You never bothered when decades of decadence blunted our military edge. You never bothered for two decades after our soldiers fought an impossible war in Kargil. Even without acclimatisation and ECC (extreme climate clothing), our soldiers dislodged Pakistani regulars occupying commanding positions with well-equipped, well-entrenched bunkers.
A Union Minister from the ruling dispensation recently even questioned “what is the Indian Navy doing in Colaba? They should be on the borders”. Now your cronies are putting up these posters in the same corner of Mumbai. This is how low we have stooped.
The collective brunt of all this callousness is borne by the soldiers, sailors and air warriors on the frontline. They deliver the impossible, even after being checkmated over financial minutiae and facing scorn during peacetime.
If you don't have the appetite for war, don't pick up the guns. Get the processes in order. Build consensus on what kind of capabilities our armed forces truly require. Then get them that capability without making your ‘10%’ or dancing over their graves. If you cannot do that, keep away from policy making or at least stay silent.
And yes, definitely keep our armed forces out of your political campaigns. Maintain the dignity of our soldiers. You aren’t getting my vote otherwise.
(Capt KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and blogs at www.kaypius.com. He has flown over 24 types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft and holds a dual ATP rating on the Bell 412 and AW139 helicopters. 'Kaypius' as he is widely known in his circles, flies in the offshore oil & gas division of a leading helicopter services company. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)