Naib Subedar Balu Ram Nehra / Photo: Sanjay Ahlawat
Neglected by the Army and the government, these war-wounded are converting anger into hope
By Ajay Uprety
They fought the enemies at our gates. Today, disabled, they are fighting corruption, apathy and red tape to get what is rightfully theirs. Reports say about 30,000 disabled Indian soldiers are waiting for proper rehabilitation. A soldier, they say, does not choose between missions. He just obeys orders. The soldiers THE WEEK met said the government seems to rate operations differently. Most Kargil veterans have been honoured suitably, but those injured in low-intensity conflicts and even in the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) are still running from pillar to post.
The War Wounded Foundation, a non-profit organisation, helps the soldiers find their feet once they are discharged from service. Operating from a small office in Delhi, the foundation's patron-in-chief is General V.K. Singh, the Army chief. The foundation is supported by donations from institutions and individuals.
Most of the soldiers THE WEEK met had poured their bitterness into some creative venture. But ask them to let their children wear the olive green and the answer is in the negative, quick and rude. Here is looking at them.
Naib Subedar Balu Ram Nehra
In June 1988, Balu Ram lost his left eye to fragments from a grenade. He was part of an IPKF village patrol when the LTTE opened fire and lobbed grenades at them. Badly injured, he was hospitalised in Chennai and Bangalore before being discharged.
Now 54 years old, Balu Ram survives by farming his 11 bighas. He said his pension of Rs:9,000 a month does not suffice for anything. So, from sunup to sundown, he toils in the farm. “This helps me forget my pain and the step-motherly treatment of the government and the Army,” he said.
Though he applied for an agency from a cement manufacturer and made many trips to Jaipur, he said corrupt officials in the company asked for hefty bribes which he could not give. So the agency slipped out of his hand.
“The government and Army should think of how a soldier will cope with disability,” he said. “Why the discrimination among battle casualities and disabilities. Is disability received in Kargil more important than disability received in Sri Lanka?”
Havildar Sajjan Singh Yadav
Sitting in a rickety wheelchair in his dilapidated house, Sajjan could not hide his bitterness. He shivered when he said that if he urinated or defecated at night, he wallowed in it until somebody came to clean him. “You cannot imagine the plight of people like me who cannot control their urine or faeces,” he said. “All muscles below my waist are dead. The Army and my unit have forgotten me. I die many deaths every day.”
An old transistor radio keeps him updated. A long iron pole runs above his head, across the courtyard. When the tedium of sitting becomes too much, he grabs the pole and tries to stand. Soon, he gives up and falls back into the wheelchair.
Sajjan, however, is not willing to sit and rot. He is the ‘news anchor’ of Ahiran. He reads the daily newspaper, listens to the radio and conveys the news to the villagers. Since he is widely travelled and has served in the Army, his opinion carries weight. “This keeps me busy through the day and helps me forget that I am a disabled,” he said.
Sajjan was disabled while fighting the LTTE in Sri Lanka. On January 4, 1988, his team was air-dropped in a village to flush out the LTTE cadre there. While they were advancing towards the village, an Indian Air Force helicopter mistook them for the enemy and fired at them. Hit in the spine, Sajjan lost consciousness.
Sajjan was flown to the military hospital in Chennai and was shunted to other hospitals before being discharged from the Army on August 10, 1990. He returned to Ahiran, and has been there for the last 20 years. He said the Rs:10,000 he receives as monthly pension is not enough for his upkeep.
He said he is not getting the revised pension. Sajjan said a trip to Delhi for treatment sets him back by Rs:5,000 and the person he employs to help him is paid around Rs:6,000. “Who would clean my faeces for less than that?” he asked. He said those involved in Operation Blue Star and the Kargil war were well taken care of, but the IPKF veterans were given step-motherly treatment.
Lance Naik Ashok Kumar
On July 23, 1999, Ashok Kumar was deployed near the now famous Tiger Hill in Dras sector when a shell broke his left leg. Seconds later a bullet cracked his helmet, knocking him out. For two days Ashok was lying in a pool of blood. His team’s ammunition had run out and no help was coming from the Indian side. Out of the 30 men in his team, only three survived.
By the afternoon of July 26, the firing waned. Ashok was put on a stretcher and moved out. Suddenly a fresh bout of firing started and his handlers dropped him, compounding his injuries. He was later treated in different Army hospitals before being discharged from the Army. Said Ashok: “My leg was paralysed. The doctors treating me told that I would never walk with this injury.” Back home, he found that the land mafia had usurped his 25 acres. His applications for jobs yielded no response. He said he even met Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi but nothing happened.
But the fire in his belly led him to a yoga teacher. “Yoga helped me lift my sagging spirit. I even went to Haridwar and attended Baba Ram Dev’s camp. I also attended Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s camps. This has helped me get rid of my crutches,” said Ashok. Now his day begins with yoga, following which he discusses the village’s problems with residents. He has guided the building of three temples in his village. He said: “What comes from showing patriotism in Kargil? A crippled leg, no job and loss of ancestral land to mafia, Army forgets you and civil society does not accept you. No one is bothered about the sacrifices made by men in uniform. Like me they are remembered for a while, then forever forgotten.” He is unmarried and thinks that marriage will hinder his fight against corruption.
Naik Dharamveer Yadav
On September 21, 1990, Dharamveer’s team was assigned the task of busting 12 bunkers made by Pakistan on the Line of Actual Control. The Indian soldiers set out to do their task amidst heavy shelling from the Pakistan side. At around 4:30 p.m., a shell landed near him and inflicted heavy wounds.Rescued by his fellow soldiers, he was hospitalised in Udhampur and Srinagar. Five major surgeries and prolonged medical treatment could not save his left hand and right eye. The Army medical board declared him 100 per cent disabled and discharged him on September 2, 1991. “At that time I got Rs:2.20 lakh only. Even today I have not got my full pension. Is the cost of a hand and an eye just Rs:2 lakh? Is this the cost of serving my motherland?” he asked. Dharamveer is currently involved in pursuing welfare projects for his village. He helps the villagers improve their standard of living by adopting modern means of agriculture. He has a little agricultural land which keeps him and his three children going. He ran a retail agency for ceiling fans and other equipment for seven years, but the venture folded up because of inadequate sales. “My wounds have rendered me useless. I cannot do farming or other physical work. Don’t the war-wounded like us deserve more?” he asked. “My only desire is that my last rites should be done with full military honours. No one came to inquire about me from the Army or my unit. They do not know whether I am alive or dead. The Army forgets its own people very soon.”
Havildar Rang Lal
In August 2003, Rang Lal was shot at while fencing along the Indo-Pakistan border in Mehdhar, Jammu and Kashmir. The bullet lodged itself in his left leg. “I fell, blood was gushing like a fountain and I lost consciousness,” he said. “When I woke up I was in an Army hospital in Rajouri.”
Even after treatment he was unable to walk and he quit the Army. “I have not got any benefit, neither disability pension nor any aid from the government,” said Rang Lal. He said he has not been getting his full pension either. To pursue his pension case, Rang Lal visited Delhi many times, but all was in vain.
A fertiliser outlet which he runs near his village fetches him Rs:3,000 per month and there is also the returns from four bighas of agricultural land. The 47-year-old Rang Lal has started limping back to normalcy, but the anger refuses to die down. “Why is there a difference between the bravery of a soldier who fights in Kargil and who fights in Mehdhar? Kargil jawans got so much and people like me are not given full pension. Are we second grade soldiers?”
Naik Surendra Kumar
Surendra Kumar was discharged on May 30, 2000, after he lost his left leg to an anti-personnel mine. He was fighting Pakistani troops in Operation Vijay when he ran into the mine. Bleeding, he lay on the cold mountainside for the entire night. At 5:00 the next morning, a rescue party carried him down and shifted him to the Army hospital in Leh. He was hospitalised for six months before being discharged.
“Owing to my disability I could not undertake any physical work,” he said. “In the initial years, life had lost its meaning. You can easily imagine the condition of a man who had been leading a normal life some years ago and suddenly he loses his leg and job, I felt crestfallen.” To support his family comprising his wife, two sons and a daughter, he started a tyre retreading firm in Mahendragarh. The shop is doing well now.
Said he: “Neither the government nor the Army have done anything for people like me. Even my unit forgot me. I was never invited to any unit function. Sometimes I feel like an orphan.” Exasperated with the Government's attitude he has asked his son not to join the forces. Instead, he is planning to make him an engineer.