Guwahati: February 28, 2019, Lakshadweep, Arman Ali, a disability rights activist who was born with cerebral palsy, Salmath PP who has locomotor disability set out to do what they had never imagined of doing, scuba diving. They had another able teammate, naval veteran and former MARCOS saturation diver, Pradeep Kumar who himself is an amputee. “Never in my wildest dreams I thought I would dive, scuba dive and then I met Jacob and gang and its crazy,” says Arman.
This is a journey they have undertaken to break preconceived notions of what people with disabilities can or cannot do. An attempt at breaking barriers.
The Operation Blue Freedom, a scuba diving expedition and an initiative of CLAW_Global (Conquering Land Air Water) is the brainchild of Major Vivek Jacob, a veteran Para Special Forces. This will be a documentary series that records their quest for freedom and empowerment of people with disabilities (PwD). The expedition also aims to create “Triple Elemental World Records,” land, sea, and air by them.
Witnessing first-hand the series of problems PwD’s and people with spinal injuries go through every day shook him to the core. “I have been working in the Indian Army for over 12 years and I specialise in hunting down terrorists even in the most extreme conditions of nature and man-made terrain,” said Jacob. However, Major Jacob was admitted to the hospital after sustaining a serious injury while going through his combat free-falling routines.
It was there where he had a chance encounter with a seriously injured flight Lieutenant Bhadhuria in 2015 who had been admitted in the hospital for four years. He had a spinal injury while diving and it rendered him paralysed from neck down. One day, he came to Jacob’s room on his wheelchair and stated his desire to go scuba diving. “This hit me hard and all I was able to answer was ‘I don’t know’,” Jacob recalled. He utilised his time to do some in-depth research and found disabled people doing extraordinary feats including diving. He went with this news and said to Bhadhuria that if they can, then he can too. He added, “There is nothing impossible in this world, and with experiences like the ones we have we can do it.”
After 14 years of dedication to the army, battling terrorists, losing friends, the Major left his position. He travelled throughout Chandigarh, Delhi and many other states for a year, building connections with several other retired but still with high-end skills of the special forces and even many NGOs and persons with disabilities. Keeping the very motto of freedom, Major Jacob founded CLAW (Conquering Land Air Water), in 2019.
CLAW consists a team of ex-Special Forces soldiers with high proficiency in a variety of skills like scuba diving, mountaineering, sky diving, outdoor survival, and unarmed combat. It aims to work towards the diffusion of these skills to benefit the society at large and also gainfully employ retired special forces soldiers with high-end skills.
On May 4, CLAW_Global even released a teaser video of its first operation called ‘Operation Blue Freedom: Genesis’, in which Blue stands for India and was shot in the islands of Lakshadweep. Through this operation, CLAW is also providing employment generation by making the disabled, local and tribal people go through scuba diving training, which will help them in assisting diving expedition to clear polluted rivers, lakes, coral farming and many more. “We (special forces) are already trained in salvaging operations at the most dangerous situations with low to no visibility,” said Jacob.
According to the Census of 2011, the country of India has about 26.8 million differently-abled people alone. Out of this, over 18 million reside in the rural part of India which has further alienated the population, be it on medical or employment options. “There is a saying from where I come from — we don’t leave a man behind, it’s either me next to the cell you are in, or me breaking you out of it,” said Jacob.
The Major is well aware of the near-death experiences that one has to face in his line of work however, having your parachute malfunction twice all while free-falling from 30,000 feet that too due to the usage of downgraded version of parachute put things into perspective
The ex-Para Special Force person has been in the field for 14 years and is specialised in hunting down terrorists even in the most extreme conditions of nature and man-made terrain. However, the last straw was when he had the near-death experience while in combat free fall. “I have had my fair share of the near-death experiences and that is what I have signed up for as it’s my job, however, having a near-death experience for the fault of someone else who is not even present in the field at the moment with us is not something I cannot digest,” Jacob added. While going through his combat free falling routines from 25,000 to 30,000 feet, his parachute malfunctioned twice.
“Earlier, we used to have a high-class military-grade parachute which was brought from the US but now we are made to dive with an Indian copy-pasted version of the chute which is prone to malfunction,” he said. Even after that, the Major did over 11 dives with the same company and in one such instance, the parachute coil wrapped around his leg and caused his knee to hit his head which rendered him unconscious. Luckily the chute opened and Jacob had to be hospitalised for weeks. It was there where he met flight Lieutenant Bhadhuria.
Jacob is also saddened that India has no school that can provide certified training for adventure sports except mountaineering. “Even diving is managed by PADI with its headquarters at the US and is maintaining a billion-dollar industry,” said Jacob. With over 7000 km of coastal lines in India itself and with years of diving experiences we still have to get ourselves certified from a foreign company. “We are the only divers in India who are certified by our own government as all our divers are trained and certified at the Naval Diving School,” said Jacob with pride.
CLAW_Global now has over 100 participants now and team EastMojo was able to contact Arman Ali, executive director of NCPEDP and a disability rights activist who was also a member of Operation Blue Freedom. “I never thought even I would be able to dive,” said Ali.
He said that Jacob never even asked for money, as the finances are all generated by various people and members and the members of Special Forces themselves voluntarily. “What impressed me the most is that we are now questioning the status quo,” added Ali. The status quo being that even PwD people can do something as adventurous as scuba diving and provide help if needed.
“The world is magical and life is so not practical moreover the disabled people are filled with immense potential to do something prove themselves and are pure and honest to their core, so why not we too forward our experienced helping hand and provide, freedom and equality in its purest form,” said Jacob. Additionally, anyone can be a part of CLAW_Global.