Monday, 24 January, 2022
HomeOpinionNewsmaker of the WeekNot just Abhinandan’s story: Next time you cheer for soldiers, remember their...

Not just Abhinandan’s story: Next time you cheer for soldiers, remember their families too

I have known Wing Commander Abhinandan’s parents for a long time. What they have gone through is the story of every soldier’s family.

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This is not a story ‘about’ Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, but I will come back to his story repeatedly because it has stared us in the face for several days now.

I have only seen him as a kid and know his parents well – his father Air Marshal Varthaman is a spirited and accomplished fighter and test pilot and was the Commander-in-Chief of Eastern Air Command. His mother Shobha is a feisty doctor and a global citizen having served with the Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Frontiers). Senior Vartha and I commanded the same squadron (30 Squadron) when it was equipped with the venerable MiG-21 Type 77 – way older than the MiG-21 Bison that Abhi was flying.

This is also not a story about fighter pilots or what they go through in the few minutes of actual air combat against an adversary.

This is a real story of what families go through when they experience the uncertainty of not knowing the fate of their near and dear ones enveloped in the fog of war or war-like conditions.

None of the families of the Indian Special Forces who conducted the 2016 cross-border strikes would have heard from them for several days preceding their mission. Radio silence in this age of constant connectivity would have been an ominous sign to them that their loved ones were either in harm’s way or training to go into battle. That itself would have been enough to keep them sleepless, searching for an inner strength to stay calm.

Also read: After Pulwama, states announce massive hike in payments to families of slain soldiers

As Indians, and I am being very general, we tend to try and understand our service personnel only when war seems to be around the corner, or when we hear of casualties. I guess Abhinandan’s story will force us to pause fora while and reflect carefully on the human dimension of war and what it does to countries and societies like India that face 24X7 security challenges.

What would have been the emotions running through the minds of Vartha Senior and Shobha when they saw the bloodied face of their son? Fear for his life and shock at seeing his condition would have been the first ones. Then, the decades spent in the Air Force would have taken over – ‘At least he is alive,’ or ‘He is our son dammit, I am sure he will conduct himself with courage and dignity in the best ethos of the IAF.’

Many believe aerial combat is a sophisticated dueling art that does not share the contact-brutality of close combat on the ground. As time passed and details of his aerial engagement came through in bits and pieces, I am sure a sense of pride would have gradually seeped in as the enormity of a MiG-21 shooting down an F-16 came to light. They would have felt empathy and concern for the F-16 pilot, whom their son shot down, and the injuries he is said to have suffered following his ejection from the burning wreckage – never for once wishing anything but well for him.

There would have been anguish when they saw what their boy was going through in terms of psychological assault by the ISI that continued until moments before he got back; and pride when they saw how he held up. And now when he is back, let me assure you that the primary emotion will be one of relief and fatigue, not of joy, elation and celebration – that only happens in movies.

Also read: Jawan left home for duty after vacation 3 days ago. Now his family waits for his coffin

As we rejoice at the return of Wing Commander Abhinandan, let us spare a thought for the families of POWs from the 1965 and 1971 wars who did not return. Let us again spare a thought for the families of all our security forces who have paid the ultimate price for merely doing their duty.

As poignant as Abhinandan’s story is, equally heart-rending and instructive have been the steely grief when Major Dhaundiyal’s wife saluted her husband with a defiant cry, or when the families of the 40 slain CRPF personnel are coming to grips with their loss.

On many occasions when I would mention to a stranger on my recent trip to the US that I was a retired fighter pilot from the Indian Air Force, they would remark ‘Thank you for your service in keeping your country safe.’ We have that sentiment now in the nation, but it will fade away once the stock markets boom and the economy resumes its upward trajectory.

Before I wind up, a troubling thought that needs attention: In yesteryears, the extended or joint family concept in India helped families of servicemen impacted by conflict cope with myriad problems. With the collapse of this system and the absence of adequate support groups, professional counselling centres and the likes, the danger of despair looms on the horizon despite the best efforts of organisations like the Army Wife’s Welfare Association or the Air Force Wives Welfare Association.

Accepting, understanding and appreciating what families of active-duty personnel go through in times of crisis and continuous conflict is essential if we are to strengthen the fabric of our democratic and plural society. Let the concern we showed for Abhinandan be contagious!

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  1. Sir,
    True, most of us don’t really realize what a soldiers life is. It’s essential for the younger generation to undergo defence service for atleast two years after schooling as practised in countries like SINGAPORE, USA and many others. This will make them realise the life and sacrifice of the soldiers, become more patriotic and also be with self discipline. This would further make them all soldiers within the country.

  2. Sir,
    To make every person understand what it means it’s essential that our younger generation goes thru defence service for atleast two years after schooling. This is been followed by counties like Singapore, USA and many others. This will discipline the kids, make them patriotic, also realise life of a soldier…and greater sacrifice done by them…

  3. Support structures for the families of defense personnel are woefully inadequate. While the recent pay commission adjustment may have made life a bit more comfortable what about those retired & more importantly families of our martyrs? They struggle to make ends meet. In the meantime we have unknown IPL cricketers bring bought for ridiculous sums of money & barely bowling a ball – never to be heard or seen again. Something is amiss here. A Fund needs to be set up specifically for our martyrs families where public can contribute & get 150% tax exemption!

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