Among the military heroes of independent India, Flight Lieutenant M.P. Anil Kumar aka ‘MP’ stands out. His heroism was neither in a battlefield nor was it flying MiG-21 fighters that he mastered as an Air Force officer. MP’s bravery, now celebrated in a just-released book, was as a quadriplegic. Hardly able to move his head, he spent almost half of his 50 years in a wheelchair. MP’s accident did not have anything to do with war or regular duty. Simply put, his is an example that even a quadriplegic, if given a chance to live in a healthy peaceful environment, can be a great inspiration.
MP attributed everything he was able to do in life to his Sainik School education and training at the National Defence Academy. In many ways he exemplified what soldiers can achieve in peace. Modern history is replete with narratives of how nations that do not make enough efforts at peace, so that their soldiers can enjoy a normal lifespan to showcase their unique skills and abilities, will be reduced to chest-thumping jingoists in a land awash with forgotten war widows.
The improbable story
On June 28, 1988, MP was winding up a usual day at his fighter base in Pathankot after flying a couple of sorties as a wingman to senior pilots. Night flying had just been called off because of thundershowers, and MP, then just 24, was returning to the officers’ mess when he met with a freak bike accident. “In one quirky instant 20 years ago, a mishap reduced me to a wreck of a combat pilot. From the fighter cockpit to a wheelchair, from a bird’s eye view to a worm’s eye view of the world… Life was never the same,” he wrote a few years ago.
It was his personal battle against tragedy, almost entirely from the Army’s Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre in Pune until he passed away on May 20, 2014, that makes MP a truly inspirational figure. With a pencil in his mouth, he taught himself to tap letter by letter, every comma and full stop in place, on to a keyboard that was placed in front of him. The specially created workstation helped MP write some of the most powerful and original commentaries on military issues in India for various publications. Many of his readers, enthralled by the lyrical prose and precise numbers, never even figured out that all of it was written from memory and without references.
What really connected MP to the thousands of his admirers were his personal narratives of his own struggle after the accident. He mouth-wrote “Airborne to Chairborne”, an iconic 1994 essay about his accident and how he fought his way back into life, which is now part of textbooks in a few State syllabuses. There is hardly a better piece of writing in modern India that captures what determination can achieve. “Greater the difficulty sweeter the victory,” MP signed off that piece.
Ever since his article emerged in public, hundreds of children dropped in at his Pune home to talk to MP, and thousands more were inspired by him. From his wheelchair, MP counselled many into new careers, to find fresh meaning in life, and to embrace challenges with indomitable human spirit. MP didn’t need any academic examples to illustrate his arguments.
In many ways, Born to Fly , MP’s biography by his course-mate Air Commodore Nitin Sathe that was released on October 25, holds a mirror to the urban elite of India who are yet again in a jingoistic mood. From TV channels to print media, from political platforms to NGO meets, warmongering is the loudest noise emanating. There are jarring whispers of gratitude for soldiers about some imminent martyrdom in the air. War is being sought with such passion that human progress seems like a focussed march into bloody battlefields. As if soldiers are born to die, mere commodities and symbols to prove the dishonest and ill-informed patriotism of the loud- and foul-mouthed.
The real question
The story of MP will actually help us reduce the entire discussion to a single, simple question. Who is a better asset: a dead soldier or a living one?
A dead soldier is a martyr celebrated in public for a short while, when his teary eyed daughter’s war cry at the funeral and widow’s angry outburst against the “enemy” are all great visuals for inspiring short-term passion. After embers of the pyre go out, the martyr becomes the private misery of his family and fodder for occasional rhetoric at public rallies.
Reliable estimates put the number of war widows at around 25,000 in India. A majority of these women were widowed not by wars with external enemies but by insurgencies that have been lingering because of lack of political courage to negotiate peace. Their husbands were killed by the repeated political myopia which repeats the same jingoistic errors with such horrible frequency.
The celebration of military heroism and the evocation of jingoistic nationalism at the drop of a hat are ways in which most of us find a way out of nuanced debates and our dishonest existence as citizens.
If you are still not convinced about the responsibility of a nation to find peace and secure the lives of its soldiers, ask any one of us whose lives were deeply touched by Flying Officer M.P. Anil Kumar.