Colonel Shankar with family members of a soldier. Photo: Shankar

Soon after hanging up my uniform following 21 years of service in the Indian Army, I began to wonder about the families of soldiers who died on duty, but not in battle. Families of soldiers killed in action have been well cared for since the Kargil war in 1999, but what happens to the others?

To find out I launched Project Sambandh (Connect), a 1000-day philanthropic initiative to reach out to the next of kin of what the army terms “physical casualties”. These are army personnel who die due to non-operational circumstances. The project aims to identify, collect data, affiliate with and build awareness of the various welfare schemes that apply. This was also the reason I decided to seek early retirement.

The next of kin of “physical casualties” are the worst hit, both financially and emotionally, as they draw a meager pension. Most importantly, their connection with the army is lost over time because families are unaware of the various schemes and grants applicable to them.

Project Sambandh aims to address these issues by building awareness among armed forces personnel and the general public on the position of the next of kin. The project is in its first 500 days and has found support from those in uniform. Furthermore, it has helped me raise awareness levels among officials involved in the delivery of welfare services.

Colonel Vembu Shankar (left) with an ex-soldier whose son died a few years ago. Photo: Shankar

I traveled to eight places in 10 days on awareness and outreach tours as part of Project Sambandh, stretching from the state of West Bengal to Punjab and Himachal. The last leg of the tour was special as it gave me an opportunity to seek blessings from Lord Buddha at Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama, and from Jwala Ji, the deity of the Dogra Regiment.

Two families stood out. One soldier’s father turned out to be an 87-year-old army veteran who had been part of the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars that India fought after independence. He was a proud Dogra soldier who has ensured his daughter-in-law is taken care of, even though he draws a meager pension.

In the case of another family, tracing them down took a while. With only basic data of a name and village of a soldier who had died on duty, I was able to locate the house of the family in hilly terrain about a mile from the nearest road. The soldier was serving with the Defense Security Corps (DSC) and left behind three children and a semi-literate widow. Only selected soldiers are given an opportunity to serve in the DSC, which provides security to defense establishments.

It was very evident that his widow was not aware of any of the benefits that she and her children could obtain. It was heartbreaking that no one from a unit which prides itself on its rich history had even inquired about the soldier or his next of kin. I filled the one-page form for them and explained the grants available from the Directorate of Indian Army Veterans for education, marriage and other things. It was clear that due to the lack of information, many of these families toil away in poverty, unaware of the many benefits they could enjoy.

I am an alumnus of the National Defense Academy (NDA) and the Indian Military Academy (IMA). I served in various counterinsurgency areas and was part of Operation Vijay, the official name for the war in Kargil in 1999. Since then I have specialized in Indo-Bhutan relations and edited the world’s first English-Dzongkha-Hindi dictionary as a Dzongkha language specialist.

India has the third-largest volunteer army in the world and it has become impossible for their families to access the many benefits the state has designed for them. Hopefully, at the end of the 1000 days hundreds of families will be left happier and healthier.

The author is retired Colonel from the Indian Army and was awarded the Shaurya Chakra , the third-highest gallantry award, for displaying conspicuous bravery while fighting terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir.

Leave a comment