A historical wrong

My grandparents never discussed matters political at home though they must have grappled with contrarian views seguing between the personal and the professional. When he retired in 1939 as an honorary officer from the British Indian Army — a rare distinction at the time for Indian soldiers — my paternal grandfather sailed to London to receive his Order of British India and the title of Sardar Bahadur accompanied by a pension payable over three generations. That annuity may have dwindled to a minuscule value in foreign exchange but still commands respect in the clan. Around the same time my maternal grandfather, who was serving in the Ganga Risalla, a royal camel corps, was commandeered for action in the Second World War, and held as a PoW in Italy. Photographs from the period show him with a full beard over an already receding hairline, tall and strapping in the manner of a native warrior.

Though they retired from service three decades apart, both returned to their ancestral homes, fiercely loyal to the idea of home and country. I kick myself now for not having the wisdom then to ask how they reconciled to the idea of serving the imperial army while seeking liberation from it. How was one form of loyalty replaceable with another? With the blood of fierce combatants in their veins, how could they serve the very master from whom they demanded discharge? Both led by example, the one stoic and hardy, the other via discipline channeled through horse riding, shikar and sartorial preferences. Our generation was taught to use gun — I chickened out — or cutlery with equal felicity. 

How did they view Independence, the collapse of the princely order and the rise of a self-serving political class? How did their view of nationhood align with its reality? One was too austere — and fierce — to ever let his views be known. The other too gentle and mentoring to bring a negative discourse to the table. Were they happy with the way their children’s lives shaped? Or disappointed by the shallow ambitions of their grandchildren? 

My own father, I would like to believe, reflected their aspirations for the forthcoming generation. My father and I did match our wits over matters political, often from opposite ends of the pole. I thought him liberal but inflexible; he considered me unorthodox but historically illiberal. “Same-same,” my children said. “Stop fighting.” We never did.

He too served the army and was posted in J&K, but not in the valley. I toured Srinagar with him (also Ladakh and Jammu). He viewed Kashmir as a betrayal, a sign of India’s weakness. The cost of lives in Kashmir agonised him. Let it be known, civilian lives mattered, but soldiers’ lives mattered more to him. So, what would he have made of the abrogation of Article 370 by sleight of hand? Would he have commended the move? Or been dismayed by what felt like a political rather than a statesmanlike maneuver? My inability to arrive at a conclusion indicates that though I knew him well, perhaps, after all, I did not know him well enough. A historical wrong may have been righted by a party flexing its muscle power, but the way it was undertaken would, I believe, have saddened my father as much as his forebears.

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