Satara: A few men sit in the foyer of a temple at a village in Maharashtra’s Satara district, as they do every evening. Most of them are retired soldiers, and one is the father of two soldiers. Someone points to a young man riding a bike. He is also a soldier, they say, currently posted in Jammu & Kashmir.
In Apshinge village, it’s been a tradition since the days of the First World War for at least one member of the family to join the armed forces. However, the current focus of politicians on citing the armed forces in their campaign speeches evokes only scepticism in this settlement of 2,707 people (Census 2011).
Indurao Ramrao Patil, 85, known locally as Baba Patil, is the oldest living war veteran of the village.
“My grandfather fought the First World War, my father fought the Second World War. I was part of the 1962 India-China war with the 36 Maratha artillery regiment,” he told ThePrint, fondly pointing to a group photograph of his regiment from 57 years ago, clicked as a tribute to those killed in 1962.
“Every year, the village sends a bunch of soldiers to the Indian Army, more than the number of soldiers from the village who retire [annually],” he said.
As the subject turns to politics, there’s an evident note of bitterness in Patil’s voice.
For all the love for the armed forces that political parties keep talking about, he said, nobody had really paid any attention to their village.
The ‘military village’ that skipped govt’s attention
Patil’s wife Tarabai, a retired school teacher, said the only recognition the village had received for their contribution was the title ‘Military Apshinge’.
“Even the name ‘Military Apshinge’ was given to the village by the British government, not the Indian government,” she added.
Close to the entrance of the village, opposite the temple foyer, there is a small memorial, which locals say the British built for the 46 soldiers from Apshinge who died in the First World War.
Tarabai said former Maharashtra chief ministers Yashwantrao Chavan (1960-62, the state’s first CM) and Marotrao Kannamwar (1962-63) would at least visit the village once, even if just to pay lip service, during their stints in office.
“The big mantris (ministers) of today haven’t looked in this direction at all,” she added.
Villagers say the only member of the current administration to visit Apshinge was minister Sadabhau Khot. He was so impressed by the history of the village that he decided to adopt it.
“He has done some work,” said Hemant Nikam, a local grocer whose grandfather, father and brother have been in the Army. “The local MP has also done what is done at most places, spend funds from his share. But nothing has been done for this village specially, considering its contribution,” he added.
The Satara parliamentary constituency, under which Apshinge falls, is currently represented in the Lok Sabha by the Nationalist Congress Party’s Udayanraje Bhosale, a descendant of Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji. The seat will vote for its next parliamentarian in the third phase of the Lok Sabha election, on 23 April.
“We have been asking for a memorial to be built in the name of this village,” said Nikam. “The government can also help in skilling people from the village. Yes, going to the military is tradition, but it is also because there is no land in and around this village to farm, which doesn’t leave the youngsters with many options.”
‘Not right to politicise armed forces’
Despite this being the thick of the election season, discussions among locals steer clear of politics, instead touching upon issues such as forest fires around them, rapid loss of greenery, the generation gap with their children, and so on.
The only thing most have to say about politics is that they look down on the current political narrative, where they claim the soldier has become a political pawn. As examples, they cite recent references to the Indian Army as “Modiji ki Sena” and Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking young voters to dedicate their votes to the Balakot air strikes.
Balwant Ramchandra Ghorpade, who retired from the Indian Army in September 1994 after 17 years of service, said while moves such as One Rank, One Pension had helped soldiers a lot financially, no party should use the soldier for political gains.
“This kind of politics shouldn’t exist,” he said, “The Army does not belong to anyone, any political party. It only belongs to India. Using the Army to ask for votes is very wrong.”
Several others, sitting around him in the temple foyer, nod in agreement.