When I told my family that I was joining the Navy, they protested strongly, advised against my foolish decision and showered much pity for my situation. Theirs was a fear of the unknown and mine a charm of the unknown and hope of some adventure as a teenager. Doing something different. For a few years some relatives and friends pitied my mother, asking “what if your son acquires (unmentionable) bad habits? What if he gets killed? (better than the previous possibility)…” In my small remote village I was tagged as ‘the one who joined the Navy.’ Over the years some of my younger relatives joined the armed forces and a feeling seeped in that forces were not bad – if not good either. Attitude towards me turned from pity to grudging acceptance to veiled admiration over the years. People much younger than me started referring to me as ‘Navy uncle’ or some variations of it. As I have hung up my uniform 16 years and about 16 days ago, people have now forgotten or do not know that I have been in defense service.
In 1980, newly married, I stayed in a flat in Dhanraj Mahal, near Gateway of India, Bombay, for about two months. On a sweaty afternoon, a group of people visited home, wanting to talk to me. As I listened to them patiently, they told:
“Look at the world around. Brothers are killing brothers and sons are killing their fathers. Greed has created enmity between siblings. People kill unknown people for money and power. Inhuman cruelty makes us worse than wild animals. It is a sad time when the population is turning to be mercenaries…”
Such laments from them continued as they sipped the cold drinks I offered. When the glasses were empty after minutes fifteen, I interjected:
“I agree with all your views and realise that I am one of the accused. By my own choice I am in defence service. The government of India pays me to kill people or help killing by keeping weapon systems efficient. The men whom my weapons would kill are my brothers with whom I have no enmity and whom I personally do not know. If I refuse to keep the systems healthy and abet in these acts of cruelty against humanity, in peace time I would be dismissed from service with disgrace. If I refused to kill during war, I would be termed a traitor and could even be awarded capital punishment as per Navy Act. Instead, if I killed my brothers from other countries fighting a war with our country, I would be honoured and decorated. How do I handle this dilemma being trapped in this profession of killing?”
The troupe departed soon enough mumbling about nobility of defense services and contradicting their statements of universal brotherhood, leaving me reflecting on the paradoxes of ethics and values. 17 years later I came across a naval officer who was pleading to be released from the services as his ethics did not let him to be part of a fighting force whose men fire to kill.
Sri Muralidhar Chandrakant Bhandare, then Rajyasabha MP, along with his wife Justice Sunanda Bhandare of Delhi High Court, visited me at home in 1990. It was a visit thrust on me. They sipped whiskey, munched peanuts and potato chips and talked ill of the armed forces. The MP thought that the services were being treated like holy cows and being showered with undue facilities and privileges. I certainly lost my cool and from being a host, strongly rebutted the hostile remarks. The couple left my place soon. We have heard politicians asking why not the naval ships do some fishing in times of peace.
Mr. Murthy is very talented, independent and self respecting person. Though he does not like crowd and talks little, he strikes a conversation with me when we meet. His favourite talks about bad politicians and ball-by-ball analysis of cricket matches did not interest me. As I politely listened and he did not see my disinterest in these matters, our conversations continued – him talking and me listening. He has a new favourite topic for the past few months. His relationship with a relative has soured; and by coincidence that relative too is a retired defense officer. Mr. Murthy remembers his estranged relative when he meets me and retorts:
“The government spends thousands of crores on pension. Look at the retired defence personnel. They were pampered while in the service. They retire early and draw hefty pension. This is in addition to the continued facilities of healthcare and CSD. Their pension is four times of what they have last drawn as salary. Can our poor country afford this? We have to protest on this wasteful expenditure of tax-payers money …”
I pay tax – out of my pension, my only income for the past couple of years. I feel happy, safe and comfortable that the pension would take care of the needs of my wife and me for life. Mr. Murthy makes me wonder if I am guilty of burdening the country’s exchequer by drawing comfortable pension. However, I have no plans to reject the pension I get. If there is an increment or adjustment, I would apply for it. I may depend on pension for longer years than I depended on my salary while in active service.
On leaving the Navy in 1996, I joined software industry and settled in Bangalore. When people from the industry realised that I am a retired naval officer, they often asked if I took care of admin or security officer in the company. If I told them that I was responsible for the full life cycle of software project development, they found it difficult to believe. My courses on different topics on software technology were popular in the industry and institutions. Still, some would ask how I could talk on these topics with my background of Navy. I could, because Navy is a learning organisation, with continuous learning as a necessary culture. When a new equipment is introduced in the service or when we are posted to a new class of ship, we had no option but to learn the system on our own. We received very little formal training to handle the diverse technical and managerial tasks we performed. We learnt them and did a good job. Every challenge was an opportunity.
When I now interact with various institutes and NGOs, they trust me as a person and trust that I can deliver what I promise. This is the culture in which I grew up and am happy about.
Some people as exception may love to hate the services. I love the Navy for the great learning experience, opportunities of growth, wonderful friends and for providing the best part of my life. These sentiments are shared by my wife and daughter.