"Going through hell... Keep going," said a desk graffiti in one of the classrooms at the National Defence Academy. I am sure it's still there, the etchings deepened by those that came later. Tired fingers trying to find solace in tradition, in the words of a nameless cadet, and the knowledge that those that came before sweated, bled, cried and triumphed the same way.
In many ways, these five words bring out the simple truth of the Indian soldier.
Of the man who left home as a boy, with his fears and insecurities, holding the pain of his lost love or pining for someone, holding dear everything that a teenager holds dear. Wanting to win the world, like every adolescent, but unsure where to start.
In the military academies they teach you to start with yourself. It's a painful process to tear off one skin and wear another but in the end the soldier comes out a better human being. The uniform stays with you for life, taking on all the grime, mud, blood and sweat - and pride - along the way.
Sadly, nowadays, it's the specks of mud that seem to make all the news. A fake encounter in Kashmir, a woman raped in the northeast, an officer arrested for spying, a frustrated jawan shooting his officers… In a society hungry for titillation, aberrations pass for the truth. Finally, some of us feel, finally, the great Indian soldier has been pulled down from his pedestal. Finally, we see him for what he is - a common man, no better or stronger or nobler than you or me.
Is it so? Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The only thing true here is that yes, the soldier is an ordinary man. An ordinary man who has made extraordinary sacrifices, shown courage above and beyond the call of duty, gone farther than he thought he could, and had the courage to stand up every time the call came to be counted.
How many of us can claim to have done that in our plush air-conditioned offices, day after day?
A soldier's courage is tested not just when he is in an encounter or when called to rescue someone from floodwaters. He is put to test every single day. The prize for passing this daily performance review? Not a superlative raise or a six-digit performance incentive. He simply retains the honour of wearing his uniform for another day.
It takes extraordinary courage and pain to survive a single day of training in the academies or even the "routine life" in a regiment. A sacrifice that very few have the courage to make.
To have an idea of how tough it is to get into the olive green uniform, here is a simple equation. For the IIT-JEE - for many the be-all-and-end-all of entrance examinations - about 1.5 lakh candidates vie for 3,000 IIT seats. And for NDA, the same number competes for just 320 seats. Do the maths.
This is not to say that the NDA "rangruts" are brighter (heck, the really studious ones get plenty more front rolls and back rolls to bring them on the same level as the rest . It's just that they are one of a kind.
A very special kind who know, when they sign up at age 17-18, that they are binding themselves to a life of immense hardship, silent sacrifices, incompatible pay, separation from families - but the satisfaction that their spine will always be ramrod straight. Ordinary boys like Arun Khetrapal, Sandeep Unnikishnan, Manoj Pandey, Yogender Singh Yadav, Nirmaljit Singh Shaikhon and Vijayant Thapar who turned into legends. (Can't recognize most of the names? Tell you later.)
To give you an idea, one of them ran cross-country with a fractured leg - yes, a fractured leg - at the NDA just so he wouldn't let his squadron down. I refuse to believe that the boys who show such spirit, conviction and courage at such a young age would go about killing women and children. It is easier to believe that the sun goes around the earth.
These soldiers do not ask for any favours. Just some understanding. Every officer I know is almost embarrassed to talk about his "heroism". "It's no big deal," they say. That's what they signed up for. A Paramvir Chakra winner, for instance, went home to nurse half a dozen bullet wounds, told his mother "Ek medal mila, Ma," and forgot to mention that he had singlehandedly captured a Pakistani position. Her mother knew only when his village heard it on the radio and mobbed his hut.
Let us not make generalizations out of aberrations. The Indian soldier comes from a family like yours and mine. He is a part of society and is subject to the same pulls and pressures. Inflation pinches him, he has his own domestic problems, has elderly parents to look after, and is worried about the education of his child. He has his own insecurities and worries. And like every segment of society, there are a few rotten apples. There is no denying that. But just ask yourself how many such cases have you a heard of in the last decade? A handful? Out of the millions who donned the uniform in this time.
The dirty ones are hauled up and thrown out faster than you pick a fly out of your soup. Justice in the forces is swift, certain and ruthless. Armchair judgments, they don't need.