The year 2022 will also soon be over and somehow, I never got to reaching out to people via my blog. In fact, the feeling that I really didn’t have anything new to say held me back, but when some among you started reminding me that I haven’t written, it felt good. I feel grateful that just writing my heart out, touches lives. It took messages like this one, recently and anonymously received…. to push me to write once again.
Hello mam, I just messaged to let you know that we are missing you here on this blogspot. I follow you on twitter but I would be extremely happy if you could resume writing blogs here. I love your style of writing and could empathize with you more on this page. I keep coming back to the blogs here and it gives me a certain painful solace. Please continue mam. Love to you and your family.
So here I am today, thanks to a stranger reader among others, telling me my writing matters. Grateful to you, although I don’t know your name. Not sure if you will like this post of mine, but as always, with raja beta as my guru, I will follow my heart and share my thoughts.
India’s 75th Independence day was a wonderful celebration of pride and unity. This year more than ever before, people had our beautiful Tricolour as their display picture on social media and the real Tricolour fluttering proudly atop homes. Seeing so many #HarGharTiranga images and videos forwarded on social media and WhatsApp, my eyes were drawn to all that has become very precious inside our home. As I looked around, it became clear that ours is one among many homes where it has been #HarDinTiranga ever since Akshay came home wrapped in our National Flag. The feelings are and will always be mixed.
Its been a very busy year in terms of Major Akshay Girish Memorial Trust activities, but today I will not elaborate on that. For the past two years we have also been celebrating 15th August and 26th January from our home, which doubles up as MAGMT office. Flag hoisting by veterans and senior citizens with children from the neighborhood volunteering to put up a small show with speeches, beautiful dancing to patriotic songs and well thought out skits, brings the community together in spirit of patriotism. This year, Naina decided to do a solo dance, and chose her song. As her fond ‘avva’, am sharing this video of her practicing the previous evening, in front of her papa on the wall.
Watching her holding up the Tricolour took me back four years. It was the day when little Naina, after intently studying the large frame on our living room wall, turned to me with questioning eyes and asked ‘Avva, is that the Flag papa came home in’? My heart hurt but I responded with a smile saying ‘that one is too small for your papa to be wrapped in, isn’t it sweetheart’? She immediately asked another question. ‘Can I see the one papa came wrapped in?’ So we went upstairs and I took out the carefully folded Tricolour from the cabinet and placed it on her tiny outstretched arms. She wanted to unfold it…. to see if it is ‘big enough to cover my papa’. This picture of her composure in loss and pride remains imprinted in my hard disc. Akshay we are sure, is very proud of his little one.
75years of Independence has given us all reasons to celebrate. But it should also lead to introspection and action to set some things right. Today, I share with you some experiences that have deeply touched me or greatly disturbed me.
Many of us have read the story of young wife Charulatha Acharya who was pregnant with their first child when Major Padmapani Acharya courageously led his men and sacrificed his life for India’s victory in the Kargil War. She and her baby got tremendous love from braveheart’s parents and reciprocated by being their caring daughter for over 20 years. When you meet Charulatha and daughter Aparajita with family of braveheart’s sister Amrapali, you will hear many happy stories and feel the vibes of a family that has strongly bonded beyond their huge loss. Veteran Wg Cdr Jagannath Acharya and Mrs Vimala have since joined their son in heaven, but we are all inspired by the Acharya family to be better versions of ourselves on earth.
Everytime I meet Beena, loving wife of Col Jojan Thomas AC, I admire how beautifully she balances her many roles. She raised two amazing children, is a businesswoman running a petrol bunk in honour of her braveheart husband, is doting young grandmother to little Manoah…. and she makes it a point to always stand in solidarity with other veer parivaar along with retaining ties of mutual respect with soldiers and veterans who served with Col Jojan Thomas. Though she remains very busy, yet her own loneliness is poignant. When she talks about the 19 years she got with her loving husband, and how he always pushed her to become more independent and learn to handle responsibilities without his help, she, and now I too wonder if he knew his own destiny. Beena has often expressed feeling sadder for her mother-in-law who at age 80, continues to miss her son. Such empathy and understanding come from a beautiful heart.
Unfortunately, we are also seeing a number of parents of married bravehearts facing neglect and hardship after losing their son to the greater cause of protecting India and us citizens. Unlike in other professions, soldiers sign up to obey orders to the peril of their lives and our barves at their fittest are sent into battle. Fatal Battle Casualties are among relatively young soldiers, usually between 20 to 35 years of age.
My son was unmarried and when I am invited to Regimental Celebrations, I meet wives of martyrs but not the soldier’s parents. I asked why and was told only NOK are invited. Does a parent cease to be a parent because their son gets married? Said Mrs Hema Aziz over a phone call when I connected with her a while ago. Mrs Hema is an inspiring mother known for taking a stand and refusing the offer of a petrol pump after braveheart Capt Hanifuddin VrC sacrificed his life for nation fighting in the Kargil War. She raised a very important issue when she spoke those words. Doesn’t a parent of a married soldier deserve even basic acknowledgement through official letter when brave son attains Veergati? Do they not deserve to be invited even to martyred son’s regimental functions like Raising Day or Flag Day celebrations by the State? Does their loss not matter anymore?
Parents of India’s most awarded soldier hero, Nb Sub Chunni Lal AC VrC SM have lived 15 years with pride in pain and little else, after their son sacrificed all defending India multiple times in different operations. Father Shankar Dass ji has no regular income since his part time job of being a Village Defence Committee member ended 6 years ago. He used to then get Rs 6000 per month while mother Shakuntala Devi Ji has always been a homemaker. Yet they do not get any share from their son’s pension. So when father Shankar Dass ji fell down, badly hurting his back which needed surgery, he had to be taken to a private hospital in Katra. They had to borrow one and half lakh rupees, the repayment of which was a burden on his younger son who is not a govt employee and also has his own family to raise. After the parents situation was shared on social media, their braveheart son’s regiment got in touch and visited them. It is just about 2 months since they have been extended the facility for medical treatment through ECHS. Better late than never. But is that enough for a life of dignity? Had their gallant son returned alive that fateful day fighting to protect our nation, would he not have taken care of their needs in old age? Let us as a nation first accept that this is not an isolated case and that Shankar Dass ji and Shakuntala ji represent the plight of many parents of married soldiers who sacrificed their lives defending India.
Policy makers seem to have forgotten that every soldier in India joins the Armed Forces from his/her parent’s home and being ‘unmarried’ is among important eligibility criteria for joining Army/Air Force/Navy. Parents raise children fit to be a soldier and training makes them determined to put honour, safety and welfare of nation and people first. Soldiers who go into battle and willingly sacrifice their lives are India’s real heroes. Hence parents of soldiers often lose the child who would likely have been their greatest support in old age. Along with their grief, they now often have long lives ahead, but no support nor care in old age when they need it most.
When a serving soldier sees his parents needing help, be it for educating younger siblings, renovating their village home or even for a sister’s wedding, does he not support financially and also physically, when he goes home on leave? As parents age, are unable to work or are retired, don’t many soldier’s parents often move in to live with their son? Who will take care of such needs of parents after a young soldier son sacrifices all for nation? While decision makers say they respect the martyrdom of soldiers and will always stand with their families, the most neglected category among family members are the parents of the married soldier killed in action. Lack of acknowledgment of grassroot realities and no support to parents of the married soldier remains a big lacuna in the system.
Why is this Neglect Happening?
To honour a soldier who courageously sacrifices his life defending our nation in battle, the existing policy is to extend financial entitlements that include ex-gratia from central and state governments along with ‘liberalised pension’ and certain other benefits like education fee reimbursement and likelihood of a government job and/or a plot of land. These entitlements and benefits are given to a single family member designated as ‘next of kin’ or NoK. For an unmarried soldier, mother is usually NoK. Once married, mother’s name is removed and spouse becomes NoK. Although dictionary meanings of next of kin is ‘closest living relative or relatives’ and ‘person’s closest living blood relative, someone who may have inheritance rights, and obligations’ the legal definition has been interpreted as only one family member of soldier who is designated as NoK.
The neglect we are seeing of parents of married soldiers killed in battle is because of this NoK interpretation. While parents of unmarried bravehearts and spouse and children of married bravehearts are well supported by our government with entitlements and benefits, parents of married soldiers are not designated NoK and hence forgotten. For some incomprehensible reason, India has chosen to copy what is followed in western countries, where children usually leave home at 18 to live/study/work/settle independently, and the welfare state provides financial and medical support to its citizens, young and old. Adopting a policy which has little relevance to realities of India and to Indian culture that thrives in interdependency of family members, is a major part of the problem.
Policy makers seem to have forgotten that parent-child bonds in India are very strong, last life long and that family is also the social security system in our country, with parents and married son’s family often living together and supporting each other. Hence, this policy of all entitlements and benefits only to one NoK leaves out the braveheart’s parents, and adds to their suffering after losing their child. That this glaring apathy has not been addressed by successive governments is really sad.
What is the Way Forward?
For the world’s largest democracy to not take care of parents of married bravehearts is a crushing shame. Urgent policy review is needed, taking into account ground realities of the impact on aging parents when they lose a soldier son, because, he fought and sacrificed all to protect India’s honour.
Positive societal change is also happening as it must over time. The young War Widow (called Veer Nari) who may or may not have children, is supported by armed forces and governments, encouraged to take up a job in many states, and to get remarried if she chooses to. Spouse and children are entitled to free medical treatment and children’s education fees is reimbursed. Past policy of stopping pension on remarriage of soldier’s widow has been scrapped since many years – a hugely positive step.
At the same time, policy has not been reviewed to end neglect of parents of married bravehearts. All to one NoK policy leaves many parents in distress, particularly when they can no longer work to support themselves, and also need medical treatment that is unaffordable in old age. In some cases, this has led to family disagreements and even breaking off of relations between martyred soldiers’ parents and wife. Nothing can be sadder than family breaking up, after their heroic soldier sacrificed all for a greater cause.
While feeling awful to see such sad happenings, I often thank God and our stars for being kind to our family. It is almost 6 years since Akshay’s supreme sacrifice and we have all remained closely bonded, sharing love and togetherness in our pain and pride. We are also blessed that Akshay’s unit family feels like our extended family, staying in touch and inviting us to visit.
We are also met some amazing role model families and I’ve written about them in earlier posts as well. Just a few days ago, Capt Nitika and I were chatting and I asked her how her Ma was. Ma to Nitika is her mother-in-law Saroj ji. ‘Vibhu and I had so many plans and we wanted to do so much to keep Ma smiling aunty… I hope I can fulfill at least a few of them’ said Nitika. I have been aware that right since they lost gallant hero Major Vibhuti Shankar Dhondiyal SC, Nitika has gone way beyond the NoK policy. She herself took the initiative to share entitlements and pension equally with braveheart’s mother. And she did so even before she herself cleared SSB to earn her very own Olive Green uniform and serve the nation ‘to make Vibhu proud of me’. ‘Ma matters to me more than anyone aunty,’ she has said many times.
Closer home, about two years ago Sangeeta suddenly said ‘Ma I’ve been wanting to speak to you about something…. I want you to accept some part of Akshay’s pension.’ She took me by surprise. ‘Why rani… I don’t need it…. so why this thought?’ I asked. ‘I have been thinking about it ma… and I feel Akshay will also want you to have it’. When I responded with ‘let me discuss this with dad first’, she said with conviction ‘in any case I have decided so please don’t say no.’ Even as I write this post two years since that conversation, emotions of that day come rushing back… although they have remained unspoken since, the fact is that Sangeeta did something she did not need to. It came from her heart and it means more than words can say. This share from Akshay’s earnings is now very precious to me. I use the money to support good causes, to gift stuff to the less privileged, help individuals in need, and also feel happy to be able to freely do so.
For us to be able to make a small difference to people’s lives through Major Akshay Girish Memorial Trust initiatives, we are very thankful to many among family, friends and well-wishers who constantly strengthen our hands. We also hope to see decision makers review existing policies to make them fairer and more relevant to the Indian family context. Do hope that in time to come, at the very least an official condolence message, invites to son’s unit functions and a share in ex-gratia with free medical treatment through ECHS is extended also to parents of married bravehearts.
Post the Covid slowdown, it is reassuring to see our country’s stability and the tremendous good work happening in different fields to keep it moving towards a healthy, progressive economy. It is also true that our Security Forces and Intelligence agencies have had their hands full and have successfully prevented multiple terror attacks through pre-emptive arrests, recovery of huge consignment of arms and money for terror financing. Terrorist infiltration attempts and targeted killings continue particularly in JK, and our brave soldiers always do their utmost to keep us safe, whatever the risk and cost to themselves. So while the festive season is here and we must enjoy and strengthen togetherness, may we never forget those who make our celebrations possible. Raksha Bandhan, Ganesh Chaturthi, Onam etc have gone past, so here’s wishing you all a very Happy Dusshera, Deepavali, Christmas with lots more joys and bonding in the months ahead.
I know I’ve written a lot this time, but have to say thank you for another amazing portrait of our raja beta – this time from very gifted schoolboy artist Tanishk Sengar. To all who have over the year sent us heartfelt notes, poems and posted wonderful tributes, we thank you very much for sharing pride in Akshay and all our bravehearts. As always, raja beta guides me and I feel stronger than before, connected by thoughts that translate into actions. As I come to the end of this post, I look up to meet Akshay’s steady gaze…. his eyes in the frame seem just as luminous,… and his smile just as sweet.
Finally, I sincerely thank you all for reading what I write. I hope that like before, you will also share your thoughts on this blog post, because, every comment and suggestion is valuable and appreciated. I am learning as I walk my path, with all of you helping me.
Have a great weekend. Stay smiling and may God bless your family.
Jai Hind Ki Sena