26/11 instantly triggers our collective trauma of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. For those who were involved with the India Against Corruption movement and beyond, November 26 2012 signifies the birth of a political party that has carried the spirit of the revolution forward. One man manifests the horrors and inspiration of these two Indian events worthy of finding mention in archives of “this day in history”: Commando Surinder Singh.
I had the privilege to interview Commando Surinder Singh, ex-MLA of the Delhi Cantonment constituency. I requested that he allow me to share his story as my way of honoring his immeasurable contributions to our country over the last 18 years on the 6th anniversary of 26/11.
Surinder exemplifies the slogan Jai Jawan, Jai Kissan. The youngest of three brothers, Surinder was born to a poor wheat farmer in a Haryanvi village (Chhara), and was educated at the local government school. “I was an average boy who loved to play sports.” Surinder excelled at Basketball going on to compete at the national-level.
“When I was young, Dadiji would often tell me stories about Dadaji.” Surinder’s paternal grandfather had served in the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army). The Patriotic spirit led Surinder to enlist in the Indian Armed Forces as soon as he turned 18 in 1997.
Kargil and Mumbai
“I served in the army for 14 years and 3 years, 10 days,” Surinder recounts. Just after he completed training, Surinder was deployed to the frontlines of Kargil in 1999.
“Fighting a war is a 24-hour job. There is no set time to rest. Every moment is a gamble.”
Surinder fought the Kargil war for 2 months as part of Operation Vijay, but was stationed in the area for 2 years. Surinder defended India from potential Pakistani aggression during Operation Parakram (2001-2002). His military experience includes one foreign tour. Surinder was deployed to the Congo as a UN Peacekeeper for 14 months (Operation North Night). Despite 10 years of rigorous military service, Surinder escaped serious injuries.
By 2008, Surinder had joined the National Security Guard, which is a specialized unit for combating terrorist activities with a view to protect States against internal disturbances. Surinder left his wife behind with their son Pulkit, who was merely 48-hours old at the time, to serve in Operation Black Tornado: the 26/11/2008 operation in Mumbai. A helicopter dropped him on the rooftop of the Taj Hotel. A grenade explosion rendered Surinder deaf, and he sustained other injuries. Despite this, Surinder gunned down two terrorists.
Surinder was treated at an Army hospital in Delhi. Medical help was provided from 2008 to 2011, at which point the Army medical staff assessed that Surinder’s recovery would not be complete, and “From 2008 to late 2010, the doctors were expecting that my recovery would be successful enough to render me fit for service, but by 2011, their assessment changed.” The medical team declared Surinder medically unfit to serve. “This is when the problems started.” The medical staff denied Surinder treatment as he was stripped of his ECHS (Ex-servicemen Contributory Health Scheme) Card.
Corrupt System Denies Kargil and 26/11 Veteran his Pension
For the next 19 months, Surinder was denied his pension, a promise that the Indian government makes with soldiers who risk their lives so that the rest of us can continue to enjoy our freedoms.
The next few months opened his eyes to India’s bureaucratic and political corruption. “I was unable to secure what was rightfully mine through official channels. I thought political pressure might help. Our politicians celebrated the sacrifices of our nation’s soldiers in their speeches. I thought they would be willing to help someone like me, but it was very difficult to meet them.” Still, Surinder managed to meet the most prominent names in politics. “I met Sonia Gandhi 10 times, Sushma Swaraj 4 times, and tried to meet Rahul Gandhi 10 times. I even met Harayan’s CM, Bhupinder Singh Hooda. No one was able to help me get what was rightfully mine.” Surinder’s case was ignored. The State continued to silently rob this decorated hero.
“It is insulting to have to spend months begging for what is rightfully owed to you.”
Accidental Entry into Politics
“I had never imagined of entering politics.”
With nowhere else to turn, he gave the embryonic Aam Aadmi Party a chance. Arvind Kejriwal arranged a Press Conference for 21 November 2012. Within six months of the event, Surinder Singh started receiving his pension regularly.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I know my hearing was damaged, but all these years I was actually blind! A blind believer in the idea of Indian democracy.” One by one, all the big political names outright denied Surinder Singh’s claims. Even the Indian Army refuted Surinder’s claims.
Disgusted by politicians, yet energized by the possibility of improving the system, Surinder became a founder member of the Aam Aadmi Party. “My trials made me realize that the India I was fighting to protect, only existed in my imagination. I joined AAP to help make that India a reality.”
“I never thought I would actually contest elections, but the party offered me a ticket for Delhi Cantonment.”
Electoral Politics: Service to Nation Continues
BJP’s Karan Singh Tanwar had represented Delhi Cantonment for 3 out of 4 terms between 1993-2013. In 2013, AAP’s Commando Surinder Singh beat the Tanwar by 355 votes (0.54%) of the vote share. “These entrenched politicians are beatable,” Surrinder shares. Earlier this month, the Nav Bharat Times ran the headline “Dr. Harsh Vardhan Zero, Commando Surinder Singh Hero.” The paper ranked Surinder as Delhi’s top-performing MLA. “I’ve commissioned work worth 50 crore in this constituency” Surinder beams.
Delhi Cantonment has slightly different governing rules/structures compared to the rest of Delhi’s constituencies (e.g. Cantonments Act 2006). Being the MLA from Delhi Cantonment meant that Surinder had a position as a Council Member of the local Municipal body as well (NDMC), which took care of office space, and provided greater political power to commission public works. In addition to the 4 crore MLALAD, and the resources at the NDMC, Surinder could influence 4 crores of the Delhi Cantonment Board.
Surinder held over 40 Mohalla Sabhas, and addressed local issues such as water supply, the state of government schools, dysfunctional sewer lines, and lack of toilet facilities. He added 50 beds to the Army hospital, and even addressed waste management by purchasing 100 Dust Bins for his constituency.
I Salute You
As a serviceman and a politician, Surinder Singh has served India to the best of his ability. As we remember the lives of those we lost on 26/11, let us salute those who risk their lives to safeguard our liberties.