In life, there are some big things—oath, duty, glory, honour and so on. In death, small things become big too—adding a floor to the house, keeping a promise made to a nine-year-old, making a phone call from a faraway place to wake up the children at home every morning.
The killing of 40 CRPF personnel on February 14 in a suicide bombing in Kashmir’s Pulwama district led to much outrage across the country. Hot-headed speeches and calls for revenge rent the air. For those the slain had left behind at their homes and who would never see them return, there came a slew of announcements—monetary compensation, jobs, passes for concessional train tickets. Leaders and officials of every stature flocked to the houses of the bereaved, promising unwavering support and assistance even in future. A month later, the families of the dead find themselves still coping with their loss, and sometimes in disturbing situations.
At slain jawan Koushal Kumar Rawat’s house at Kahrai village in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra district, a CRPF officer poses as he presents the home minister’s condolence certificate to the family, while his gunner clicks a photograph. Born on a Republic Day, Koushal was at home for a vacation in February and had left only two days before he was killed. “Papa was always humming a tune, or tapping his fingers to one,” says Koushal’s 22-year-old son Abhishek, who is studying medicine in Russia. “He was also an excellent cook. Whenever he was home, he would take over the kitchen from my mother.”
“Whenever Papa was home, he would take over the kitchen,” recalls Koushal Rawat’s son.
Cooking, music, dance, Urdu couplets, admiration for Rajesh Khanna and war movies—this pretty much sums up Koushal. “Only a few days before he left, we had a small argument,” remembers his bereaved wife Mamta. “I wanted to watch the movie Vivah, while he was keen on enjoying Border.” The family has received about Rs 80 lakh in total from the CRPF, the UP government, and contributions from citizens. There is also a plan for a memorial, but it seems stuck as of now. “The state government says there is no land. Can you believe it? If they don’t make the memorial soon, I’ll sit on a hunger strike,” says Mamta.
Pangs of absence are also felt some 1,600 km away in Assam’s Baksa, at the house of Maneswar Basumatary, one of Koushal’s colleagues who died with him in Pulwama. “While being away on duty, he would supervise all the domestic affairs over phone, from the feeding of the cows to the construction of our new house,” says wife Sanmati. “He even used to call our son and daughter in the morning to wake them up. Now, suddenly, I’m feeling empty.”
Sanmati is grateful to the CRPF and the Assam government for the support they extended. Their daughter got a job in the state tourism department and started working earlier this month. Despite the searing loss, there is a sense of pride and contentment in the family. The contentment seems to be largely due to India’s airstrikes across the LoC. “At least, my man and his colleagues will get peace from this. I don’t want to see a war, but the terrorists who attacked Indian soldiers should be finished,” says the widow.
The CRPF convoy that was attacked had men from all parts of the country. In Karkudi village of Tamil Nadu’s Ariyalur district, the digital banners paying homage to slain Sivachandran dot the streets and lead the way to his small two-storey house. An MA in history, he was the first youngster to join the security forces from the village that has around 300 households. A month after the tragedy, the stream of visitors has become a trickle and Siva’s family is slowly attempting to return to their routine.
But a new routine it would be—as the regular phone calls from Siva are now etched only in memory. Siva’s 26-year-old wife Gandhimathi will soon become the sole earning member of the family when she joins as the village administrative officer at Suddhamalli village, about 5 km from her home. “Though I am a qualified nurse, the district collector suggested this posting so I could be closer home. I am pregnant with our second child and must not travel,” she says.
Gandhimathi has been stoically silent. Her tears and sobs have given way to a forlorn look at her dead husband’s photo. The occasional smile comes due to the mischievous sounds from their two-year-old son Sivamunian. Oblivious to the tragedy, the little boy is busy playing with his cousins and neighbours. Even when he rifles through a photo album, he readily points to his mother and says “Amma”, but is unable remember who the tall gentleman next to her is.
“When his father came this January for Sivamuni’s second birthday, the little boy refused to go to Siva, thinking he was a stranger,” says Siva’s father Chinnayan, who used to work as a labourer. “Only after a couple of days could father and son really bond with each other. Now Sivamuni and his (to be born) sibling would both grow up without knowing their father.”
Chinnayan had already lost his second son, who died of electrocution a few years ago. He also has a daughter with disability to take care of. “Siva was the pillar of our family and now we have to rebuild our lives without him,” he says, almost choking on his words.
“He used to call our kids to wake them up. Now, suddenly, I’m feeling empty,” says M. Basumatary’s bereaved wife.
Rebuilding seems to be the only option the 40 families of the slain CRPF men are left with. Though there is support from various quarters, martyrdom also brings unwelcome propositions in its wake. For instance, the wife of slain jawan Manoj Behera, who lives in Odisha’s Cuttack, was approached by all three major parties in the state—the Biju Janata Dal, the Congress and the BJP. All three offered her a ticket for the elections. “But I clearly said no. The mere thought of my daughter-in-law begging for votes with a toddler in her arms was deeply insulting,” says a visibly distraught Jitendra, Manoj’s father, who suffers from a host of chronic diseases.
Manoj left home on February 6, after a month-long period of domestic bliss in the company of his parents, wife and one-year-old daughter. He had promised to come again in March, but returned much earlier, on February 16, draped in the tricolour. “I had spoken to him at around 9 in the morning on the fateful day, hours before he boarded the bus,” says the slain jawan’s wife Ililata, who lives in Cuttack’s Ratanpur village. “During the short conversation, he enquired about the well-being of our daughter and reiterated his promise to come in March.”
The fallen soldier’s mother can’t stop swooning over the endearing qualities of her son. Between intermittent bouts of sobbing, she talks about how good a son, husband, father and friend he was. “He wanted to do so much. He wanted to add another floor to the house, open a charity hospital in the village and enter politics after his superannuation to do something for the people,” recalls the 50-year-old Sabitri fondly, and then adds, with a touch of palpable pathos, “Alas! All his dreams remained unfulfilled” as tears start rolling down her cheeks. Money has been pouring in for the family, but this windfall of sorts has also stirred discord between Manoj’s parents and his in-laws.
Slain CRPF jawan Manoj Behera’s wife, who lives in Cuttack, was offered tickets by the three major parties in Odisha.
Manoj’s wife does not want to go to her parental home. There have been a few job offers for her from various organisations, including the CRPF and KIIT University in Bhubaneswar. “I will certainly take up a job, but only after two or three years, when my daughter can do without my constant care and attention,” Ililata says. Manoj was the sole breadwinner in the family and, in his death, has ensured bread for the family for a lifetime. But they would rather have the breadwinner than the bread he left behind for him.
Petty fights in the family, driven by greed for the compensation, seem to have happened in other places too. Barely days after the attack, reports emerged that the wife of H. Guru in Karnataka’s Mandya district was being pressurised to marry her brother-in-law, probably so that the hefty monetary compensation and donations she was receiving would remain within the family. She later refuted those reports in a press conference she addressed with her mother.
In Bauria village of West Bengal’s Howrah district, a slain jawan’s wife was ruthlessly trolled on social media for her anti-war views. “We want to be left alone and piece together our life. I am grateful to people for the love they have shown to my husband, but let us be, please,” says Babloo Santra’s wife Mita, almost choking with grief.
“Today is my daughter’s ninth birthday and we were supposed to be celebrating in Puri (a beach town in Odisha) today. He was to come home on March 4,” she says. Mita, an MA in modern history, teaches at the Ludlow Academy, which is located in the Ludlow Jute Mills complex in neighbouring Chengail. Offered a job by the CRPF as well as by the state government, she is more inclined to take up the latter as she wouldn’t have to move out of the state for it.
Mita is not just upset with cyber-bullying, but also the pervasive media glare. “I am disgusted with the media for what it has done to us. They have made a mockery of a tragedy. Please spare my daughter from all this unwanted publicity. She is too young to even understand what she has lost in life,” she sobs, sitting in her under-construction two-storey house. Completing the house and giving his family a comfortable life was Babloo’s dream, says his 65-year-old mother.
Despite the harassment she faced on social media, Mita remains a resolute pacifist. “There will be more martyrs like Babloo. We don’t want war. Many wives like me will lose their husbands. Many daughters like mine will lose their fathers,” she says. “All I wanted to say was that the Pulwama attack was carried out by an external force, which is why it attracted so much publicity. What about the massacre in Dantewada, where 76 of Babloo’s colleagues from the CRPF were killed?”
On April 6, 2010, guerrillas of the outlawed CPI(Maoist) ambushed a CRPF convoy, killing 76 personnel. That has been the deadliest attack on the Indian security forces so far. The attack in Pulwama brought back to life the memories of Dantewada and those who lost their lives in the line of duty.
Parents of Aryendra Kumar, who was killed in a Maoist ambush on a CRPF convoy in Dantewada, 2010.
Aryendra Singh of Chandpura Gaupura village in UP’s Kanshiram Nagar (formerly part of Etah district) was 26 when he was killed in the Dantewada ambush. His 64-year-old father, Soren Singh, says he has been running from pillar to post for the past nine years to get a memorial built for his son. “My son is gone. I just want his name to live on,” says Soren, who has lost sight in one eye. “All I have got in these years are assurances. The smriti dwaar (memorial gate) built for him fell down in a storm. It hasn’t been rebuilt either.”
Soren says he organised a small function on Shaheed Diwas in his village a few years ago. “Both the district magistrate and the superintendent of police promised to come, but they did not turn up. We became the butt of ridicule in the village,” he adds. He also recalls the hardships his son used to face during his stint in the Maoist guerrilla zone. “He would have to walk 25 km in a day, even drink water from a pond. Once I told him to quit the job, but he snapped at me, ‘I am not a deserter. I’ll protect my country, die if need be, but I won’t quit’,” says Soren, whose second son joined the CRPF after the youngest was killed. The eldest died of a heart attack.
Amir’s father Zamirul Hasan was killed in Dantewada, 2010.
Some 75 km from Aryendra’s village lives the family of Zamirul Hasan, another of the CRPF men killed in the Dantewada attack. The mere mention of Chhattisgarh reminds his 22-year-old son, Amir, of the ghastly incident. “My father always told me to realise my responsibilities,” says Amir, who lives in Aligarh’s Jamalpur area. “Half the money we got in compensation has been spent in five surgeries that my mother underwent. She has another operation five days later.”
Amir has four sisters, two of whom are unmarried. When the second sister was getting married, he sought help from the CRPF, something he says was promised to the family in 2010. “We kept writing letters and meeting people, but the help never came,” says Amir, a science graduate who is jobless at the moment. His sister got a job in the CRPF, but she got unwell and quit in a few months. A memorial gate built to commemorate his father in their village in Sambhal fell down, he says, and a new one was erected in its place. The new gate bore a different name though, that of the village pradhan.
By Salik Ahmad in Agra, Kanshiram Nagar and Aligarh, Sandeep Sahu in Cuttack, Probir Pramanik in Howrah, G.C. Shekhar in Ariyalur, Abdul Gani in Baksa and Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore