Call of the Unknown Soldier
by Rajbir Deswal
Driving past Maj. Sandeep Shankla Park in Panchkula, I hazily saw certain Army and private vehicles lined up, in a thick downpour. It was some solemn ceremony going on. Army men were slow-marching with wreaths, to the bust of the officer, who gave his life in the line of duty, on August 8, in 1991.
Moved and impassioned, I told my driver to take the first available U-turn. Memories of the Kargil War flashed on my mind, when I had witnessed six soldiers “brought-home-dead,” in Fatehabad District alone.
Brave people of this region are known, not only to take in their stride, the loss of their men going down fighting, on borders for the motherland, but also to feel the collective pride of the sacrifice made by their valiant sons. I can recall the skies ranting with slogans of “Amar Rahe” and “Jab tak Suraj-Chand rahega, Foji tera naam rahega”.
The mother of one of the soldiers, who when she saw the District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police, offering with their salutes to be the pallbearers themselves, had commented, “O’ son, you have repaid me the debt of my milk!” None cried, albeit all around looked grim at the loss of the one who brought them glory. On his son’s last journey, the father had said, “I have the whole lineup of my sons if the country needs them!”
Thousands, cutting across caste, race, colour, religion, sect and ideology had gathered at the last rites. They seemed to follow only a patriot’s religion then. Military honours done, a long lineup of mourners offered floral tributes to the departed son of theirs. Volleys of shots echoed as if from the hearts of people around and the Last Post was sounded. The pyre was lit by a three year old, the martyr’s son, when some folks seemed to have lost control over their emotions.
The driver brought me back from my memory lane on reaching the Memorial site. Some civilians carried umbrellas as it was still raining. I alighted from my car to be received with dignity by a couple of smartly dressed officers. Straightaway, I was accosted to the bust. Carrying the floral wreath, which I was supposed to place at the bust of Maj Sandeep Shankla, two more men in ceremonial dress joined in ahead of me. And I too began to march.
Something in me ignited my whole self. I was, as if, spiritually energised and blessed. With every step on climbing up to the bust, I felt a lifting out of myself. An alleviation of sorts! No sad thoughts in mind but those of gratitude, indebtedness and obeisance! I offered the wreath. Prayed for the man for a while. Saluted the soldier. And with matching agility, infused in me then by the ambience, I turned right to step down.
Back in the car, I recalled to myself words inscribed under the bust of Martyr young Lieutenant Arun Khetrapal, who laid his life to the call of duty, having just then passed out of the Indian Military Academy, in the 1971 War with Pakistan, “When you go home, tell them of us, that we gave our today, for their tomorrow”.
My driver asked me if I had personally known the soldier. “…No!” I said with a longish pause and pondered if I’d said the right thing. Soldiers are known to generations of men and not a few of them. The call of the ‘Unknown Soldier’ can command you to “About Turn,” should you chose to forget him. Remember this! Remember him!