“My name is Major General Somnath Jha. I retired from the Indian Army on the 30th of September, 2016; and after 18 days, on the 19th of October I sat on my cycle saddle and took off to pay my homage to all the martyred soldiers of of our country since Independence. I am paying this homage by cycling two minutes for each fallen hero. And since the number of such heroes is close to 21,000, I have given myself the mandate of cycling 42,000 minutes on this journey. Another mandate I laid down for myself is to route myself through all the 29 states of our great nation because our fallen heroes come from every corner of the country. This is my symbolic homage to my brethren who didn’t have the privilege of retiring as I did. They made the supreme sacrifice before that.”
I hear myself speak these words (or words to this effect) day after day after day for past five months or so, at each new place I arrive at and interact with new people and media persons.
I seriously didn’t fully understand the enormity and sacredness of the task I had set for myself. This realization grows with each passing day; some of it on my own, some of it comes from the people who I interact with enroute. But strangely, instead of daunting me, I find my resolve only getting stronger! The 42,000 minutes, when extrapolated to distance and time, translates to somewhere between 10 and 12,000 kms over a six to seven month period! To be done alone on my cycle on Indian roads.
Mine is a long and arduous journey. I had even dared to think (during my initial planning stages) that I could handle the cycling as well as the logistics. Chitra, my wife, came on board and took charge of all liaison and logistics. “Why should I sit in one place and wonder where you are and what’s happening with you,” was her rationale. This made sense. But now the logistics had to be expanded with a backup car accompanying. I could now think of carrying a reserve cycle and a larger range of spares. And wherever we halted for the night Chitra would make sure that there was an essence of ‘home’ in that place. We did have some frustrating moments finding a suitable car to hire along with a driver who would stick with us all the seven months of the journey. But once that was settled, Chitra (along with a host of her Facebook friends) has made the logistics seamless.
This is a personal homage journey. I’m not supported or sponsored by any organization. And initially I was even skeptical about any publicity being accorded. But my last Corps commander insisted on having a ‘curtain raiser’ interaction with the local media, so I went through with that. In hindsight, it was indeed a pretty good idea. I’m glad he had insisted and organized it. As the journey progressed, and more media (primarily local and vernacular) began envisaging interest, I slowly began to realize that the story of my journey needs to be told to the world, as it unfolds. The nation’s citizens, if not the world, must know of the ethos of camaraderie that forms the bedrock of any military, especially ours. After all, I’m undertaking this homage journey in the memory and honour of my fallen comrades. I’m not on a publicity seeking mission nor on an adventure trip, nor on any record setting endeavour. Neither is my journey a touristy or a socializing trip. Mine is a kind of a pilgrimage, to honour our fallen heroes. This spirit of committed camaraderie must be upheld at all costs by us in the military, in spite of the pressures of a changing eco-societal environment around us. This is what sets us apart, the grain from the chaff.
As the journey unfolds, the statistics keep changing. The numbers, regarding distance covered, states traversed, number of homages paid and so on, keep adding. The remarkable thing is that a strong support and understanding of my mission, from all quarters (especially the unexpected), keeps growing. Ever so often, we’ve had complete strangers (until then) come forward with their unconditional help and support to make the journey possible. To my most pleasant surprise, support and help that have come from private individuals, local government organizations and departments, police organizations, citizens’ groups have been overwhelming. Their ability to emotionally relate to the sentiments and the enormity of my homage journey has been most astonishing, and at the same time, very reassuring. And it includes just about everyone; farmers, wage earners, dhaba wallas, truck drivers, lower level government officials, policemen, passerby, rural home makers, businessmen, veterans, shopkeepers, teachers, young boys and girls in the NCC and of course the military. How reassuring this has been! I have come to believe that virtually every citizen in our beautiful country genuinely identifies with causes such as mine. And that they are as patriotic as anyone else, and emotionally connected to matters concerning the military. They are usually so caught up with the struggle of their daily lives and also with the lack of appropriate leadership, they are normally unable to give vent to their sentiments and intentions.
As I write this piece, I am on the 153rd Day of my homage journey, having logged over 9000 kms and over 17,700 homages. I finish my (rather long) journey through Rajasthan (the 25th State) in another two days to enter Punjab. Four more states to traverse and 3,300 homages to clock and I’ll be done. The end is in sight, but not without a tinge of sadness; this beautiful journey of homage that has seeped down to my bone, will conclude at the Amar Jawan Jyoti (India Gate) at New Delhi on the 19th of April 2017. My personal homage to our fallen heroes will be done … at least for the moment.
Rest well, be at peace, my heroic fallen comrades. You have not died in vain.
If I were asked just a year ago, if it was possible for a retired General to cycle across the length and breadth of India to pay homage to our martyrs, I would have had my reservations. But now the learning has been reinforced: if something seems daunting or even impossible on the face of it, it gets done if only you take the first step!