Colonel Vembu Shankar, SC (Shaurya Chakra), sits across the table and taps his phone. I tell him the name of the vivacious girl from over a decade ago who became an Indian Army officer and did our college proud but died in a road accident. She was from another State, no one seemed to know anything about her Next of Kin (NOK). Shankar, his miniature medals pinned to his jacket and side cap firmly on his head, looks up from his phone and tells me her name, regiment and the last known address of her family, surprisingly in Chennai.
“You should look them up,” he says. “It would mean a lot.”
Shankar’s Project Sambandh is a one-man, 1,000-day philanthropic programme that sees him traversing the country, making pit-stops in booming metropolises and villages that have fallen off the map, to connect with the NOK of Indian Army physical casualties (deaths due to non-operational circumstances). This is his second calling to serve the armed forces.
Back from Gujarat where he recently met widows of physical casualties — he has compiled a database of 35,000 and has met nearly 27,000 — Chennai-based Shankar, 45, says, “I connect with families of Indian Army personnel who have died while in service due to accidents, medical conditions, suicide or fratricide over the last 20 years and link them with stakeholders such as their Army units and the Government. I launched the project on August 15, 2017, and it will be completed by May 11, 2020. I retired after 20 years of service and have earmarked 15 days a month and 30% of my pension for this.”
While the Indian Army’s battle casualties occupy hallowed spaces in public and regimental memory, it is not so for physical casualties. Their youth spent at the altar of sacrifice and the future of their families fall through the cracks. “Widows of battle casualties have a better security umbrella. Children’s education is taken care of by the Government. She is better off financially and socially although emotionally it is the same. The wives of physical casualties are often young, barely educated, and draw only 30-60% pension,” says Shankar.
He explains: If a soldier from interior Bihar serving in a city dies due to snake bite, his wife receives insurance, his ex-gratia and goes to her in-law’s place. This is the address that the Army has with regard to village/tehsil/district. Her children move from a city CBSE school to a local school. The corpus may dry up soon due to wrong investments. After that, she is an unpaid maid in that house. So she moves to the city for a better future for her children; the Army does not have this updated address. “Often I find widows in one-room tenements dealing with the insecurities of being a single woman in India.”
Even wives of officers have it tough. “The Army has a corpus of crores, including donations from a generous public, scholarships for these children, and social outreach schemes. Money and policy is in place but the connect is not, and the schemes go largely unclaimed due to bureaucratic and communication hurdles. If they take one step, the Army will take 10, but unfortunately most units are so busy with operational duties that they can’t spare personnel.”
That’s where Shankar steps in, with the help of a few volunteers — Sambandh sahelis and sahayaks.
Before he became the pointsman for his project, individually verifying kin and talking to Army formations, Shankar, born in Calcutta and raised in Madras as the youngest of three sons of a publisher, had a childhood filled with books. “I decided to join the forces when I was 11, inspired by a book on the Indian Army by the NBT. As a Rashtrapati Scout, I loved the feel of the uniform, and represented India in Japan for a jamboree.” He then joined the National Defence Academy as a 17-year-old; and was commissioned in 1997 into the Intelligence Corps.
It was while on attachment with the Dogra Scouts, a unit skilled in mountain warfare, that Shankar was awarded the Shaurya Chakra for gallantry in Kupwara. He was posted in Bhutan, where he worked in close alliance with the present king and his father. Shankar rounded off his career by commanding his unit in Bagdogra.
“Among my duties was to report on unnatural, non-operational deaths. When I liasioned with the kin, I didn’t get satisfactory answers because of holes in the data. Records maintained it as long as they were in service and the Army handheld them till the pension flowed in. After that, they were just a number. It rankled.”
Shankar says that people are more than willing to help with mentorship and monetary aid. Often, when he first meets the family the overwhelming reaction is of anger though he has gone on to forge warm bonds with many of the children. “Many feel they have been forgotten. As a nation, I feel we should set that right.”
For details, visit projectsambandh.com or write to theprojectsambandh@ gmail.com