Thar desert

A bloodline of martyrs: Why this village rejoices in the blood it sheds

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

The present year is a significant one for Indian army, it being the 20th anniversary of Kargil War and the centenary of its role in World War I. India’s martyred are much ignored in history but not in a small dusty village which rejoices in the blood it sheds.

Think of Antarctica to be in spirit with an Indian soldier who is stationed in winter in Kargil, gateway to Ladakh in India’s snow-capped range of northern mountains where temperatures are known to fall below 60 degrees Celsius at times.

Some 20,000 combat troops guard the 150-km stretch of the Line of Control (LoC), where mules transport food to ammunition to shelter boxes across the steep slopes, the lurking fear of crevasse or avalanche heightened by the biting cold and icy winds, an unending stretch of snow and ice which could cause frostbite, dismember your toes and do strange things to your mind. The niceties of bath or regular shave can wait.

Now contrast this with India’s western borders of Thar desert, some 77,000 square miles of arid region, which is a natural boundary between India and Pakistan. Temperatures regularly shoot up beyond 50 degree Celsius in summer here; the rolling sand dunes whipping up unspeakable dust storms in blistering heat. At India’s eastern wing you have swampy mudflats to guard against trouble from across the porous border of Bangladesh.

Given such terrains, it’s a wonder that some 14 million raise their hands for a job in the army, second most in the world, for a salary which stays $500 a month on an average for most part of their careers. Cynical would tell you that’s a mirror on millions unemployed in India. But there are no easy answers why villages of India send their sons to be a martyr for the country and wouldn’t substitute it for anything else in the world.

Village which boasts of its martyrs

Jhunjhunu is a district in Rajasthan, known for its world famous Shekhawati mural paintings but little advertised about a few of India’s richest who have emerged from its dusty plains. Yet the village boasts only about its martyrs and would hate to be known for anything else. They say you knock a door in this village and a story of martyrdom would emerge as a matter of routine.

There are families who have put their men in line of action for generations, their return in coffin draped in India’s flag being a matter of pride. Sons take vow on the pyre of fathers to meet a similar fate; villagers donate funds to feed the family of martyred; rich spend a fortune to have their statues installed at intersection of roads and elsewhere. Newly-weds seek blessings from these profiles in stone and granite as faithful would do to gods in temples.

Legacy is secured by naming schools and colleges; engineering and health centres in the name of those who’ve shed blood for the nation. Faithfuls have no chance in this quest though as the roll of honour gets bigger by the day: Hundreds have lost lives and gallantry medals abound. Some 50,000 presently represent this village in the army ranks; a similar number are past their regular services, some physically impaired, some fighting memory loss having survived the horrors of war.

Examples abound

Jhunjhunu is more famous but there are two other villages nearby, Churu and Sikar, all part of Shekawati region of Rajasthan state, which are a mirror-image in sacrifice. Elsewhere too fire burns bright to wear the army colours. Ambakuduchi is a village in Odisha which has vowed at least one member of a family must join the army; a village near Agra, once the seat of Mughal empire, has a similar goal; Madhavaram, a tiny village in southern state of Andhra Pradesh, has at least one army recruit from each of its household.

Such a fire to lose oneself for the country could have many a basis. It could be the respect and honour which is bestowed on an individual, a tribal instinct of a collective identity or a raging passion to keep the country safe. It’s not solely for an assured job for there are no fixed working hours or extra money accrued due to overtime.  

India is admired by the world for its Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violence which probably has dimmed the sheen of bravery of its armed men. India lost nearly a million men in two World Wars, their courage so exemplary that it moved Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck to assert that the British “couldn’t have come through both wars if they hadn’t had the Indian Army.”  There is still not enough literature on India’s those magnificent sons which is a pity in the centenary year of the culmination of the World War I (1914-1919).