The glorious dead
It was a glorious morning, the sun was shining and at 13,000 ft, the air though a little thin, Pure. Little banks of clouds accentuated, not marred, the blueness of the sky, the nip in the air just perfect.
I was in Drass and just starting the climb towards one of the craggy rock faces that abound here ........rock faces that saw bitter combat between Indian and Pakistani soldiers in June and July 1999 and that glorious July morning I was accompanying the father of one of the soldiers who died in the war, as he retraced his son's final journey.
Col VN Thapar is a remarkable man, a soldier of the old school, very pucca, very composed. Every year, he climbs up to the exact spot where his son died, that's all eight years since the war ended and has made a small shrine to his son, at 15000 ft!! In 2006, I met him at an army function and promised that the next time he went up I would accompany him - that was that. So here we were, climbing up, crossing high alpine meadows and negotiating icy cold streams.
I said Col Thapar is a remarkable man, it just isn't the resilience he has, I am a reasonably fit man but at these heights it isn't easy. At 65, the Colonel isn't a young man, but he never complains, never once asked for a break, he just goes on stolidly.
No, the real reason for my respect is something that I realized as I shot the story. Here was a man who had lost his young son, Capt Thapar was but 22, when he fell, but even as he recounted Vijayant's last moments, his father, the Colonel, never lost his poise, calm, dignified, he found place in his heart to feel for the Pakistani soldiers his son fought, complimenting their bravery, recounting how tough it must have been for them as they were pounded for days on end by ceaseless arty fire, without water.
He even showed me the cave where they used to take shelter from the shelling and it was never 'as the enemy' that he referred to them, they were the 'Pakistani Boys', just as his son and his mates were the 'RajRif Boys', he was just a soldier talking about fellow soldiers!
For me it was an experience I will always cherish, Kargil was the first war extensively covered by the media, for the first time we saw the Indian army in action, we shared their agony, saw young soldiers on TV hours after a successful attack, alive, happy, recounting their adventures and then some days later saw obits read out on, saw their lifeless bodies, blackened, torn to pieces, being cremated in their hometowns. So it was the first war we saw in real time or did we?
What we saw was a part of the war, what it looked like from Drass but the real action, the actual combat took place at these craggy mountain ridges, the kind we were climbing. It is here that you got an idea of the enormous difficulties of fighting here. Here you saw the Sangars built by the Northern Light Infantry soldiers, their clothes, and ammunition boxes still there. For the first time you saw the bullet marks on rocks, the shell splinters that cut a swathe through men, turning them into the lifeless bodies that came down from the mountains every day of the war.
Walking among those scarred rocks ...those broken sangars, along knife thin spurs was exciting, unsettling, humbling, you realized the enormity of what these soldiers, most in their early twenties, had achieved. For me the whole experience was also very very romantic, I know it's a strange way to describe an event that led to 600 deaths as romantic, but then think of it, what a noble way to die and yes death can be noble, to die for honour, to die for your comrades, to die for an idea is very noble. Of course this would strike some as perhaps being too idealistic, neither honour nor ideas are things easy to explain or justify, but let me attempt to and to do that we have to go back to the generation of Indians that fought and bled in Kargil.
Its the story of my generation, people who grew up in the 80's, each one at one level had a similar life, back from school at 2.30, the evening playing football in the neighborhood park, the 9'0 clock serial on Doordarshan, watched while having dinner. It's a generation for whom the cultural event of the year was the one hour recorded Grammy awards show, telecast days after the event but something we all waited for. It's people from my generation who can actually remember the first time they ate a Pizza, who remember the first digital quartz watch they owned, in most cases a gift from a relative abroad. It was in my generation where it was a badge of honor to say loudly in school that you never watched Hindi films (that we all watched secretly is another thing).
So this breed of people who grew up in the dying days of a socialist India, in many way this generation was an orphan, we had nothing, not the idealism of the 50's and 60's nor the almost brash self confidence of today. What we had was the realisation that we had lousy cars, dirty cities, made bad films and had a political class that we felt had betrayed us. It was an era when you saw a generational change every seven to eight years, such was the sameness of our existence. We grew up in a country, at one level we were ashamed of, where to go settle abroad was to have made it in life. We viewed our country in a way most view a drunk relative at a party, you can't disown them but they embarrass you. India for us was an idea that had gone bad.
But these young boys who fell on those icy slopes in Drass, in Mushkoh, who died winning back Tiger Hill, they died for that idea. They were the lot that joined the army when joining the army was no longer fashionable. Many indeed joined, cause they wanted a job pure and simple but to say that a man would crawl up steep mountain slopes, braving bullets and shells, getting torn to bits, because the Government of India in their benign largesse was paying them Rs 15,000 a month, jawans Rs 7,000 ( they are equated with unskilled labour)!, is simply not understanding the strength of that Idea called India. Yes for many it is a job that feeds their family but if money translated into courage, a battalion of millionaire CEO's would have fought harder, a troop of our Bombay filmstars would have walked up the slopes smoking cigarettes cracking jokes.
No! To me this argument is just another reflection of my generation's disillusionment with India, they simply can't believe that India is an idea that is worth dying for, that these boys fought to claw back a piece of their country taken over by the foe. Patriotism couldn't be the answer. So then to expect them to understand honour and the brotherhood of soldiering and the other pillars of soldiering, would be to expect too much, after all what is honour? - a word consigned to the dustbin in the world we live in, where politicians make promises they have no intention of keeping, where educated men have no qualms about lying in court, the infamy of being a bought witness wiped out in a year or two.
But honour survives in the Indian Army, when the Rajrif boys were fighting for Tololing in early June 1999, they knew that for 200 years men wearing the same cap badge had done the same - fight and die but never turn back, and as they fought and died they knew they were upholders of a legacy that would outlive them, a torch that would be carried forward by other hands, a torch that they must ensure through their blood, would not be extinguished. Many do not realize the power and the pull of this sense of honour.
In his last letter home Vijayant Thapar's one wish was that his photograph be kept in the Alpha company mandir ! He knew he was just a moment in the unshakable universe of the 2nd battalion the Rajputana Rifles, he might fall, but there would be others. The unit would outlive the moment even if he might not, but it was up to him to ensure that in the years ahead this moment, his moment, was remembered with pride. That, subverting your fate to a higher cause, to willingly extinguish yourself, to kill your desires, your dreams, for others, that, is Honour. The izzat of the regiment, it is not something you can see, it is something that that you believe, its an idea.
The 600 fallen in Kargil, these are human beings we are talking about, flesh and blood, with human weaknesses, so 2nd Rajriff who won India's first victory in Kargil, the unit that lost four officers and 25 jawans and almost a 100 wounded, the same 2nd Rajriff also court-martialed a few men cause they simply refused to fight! It isn't their fear that made them do so, every fighting man feels fear. This idea for them wasn't worth dying for, they did not believe.
Honour and patriotism are nothing without the third pillar that makes the army, the brotherhood of soldering. That mix of loyalty and faith whose power is a kinship that makes a Kargil possible, friendship we all know, but how many of us would take a bullet for a friend ?
When young Lt Kengruse joined his unit straight out of the academy, he was the leader of a group of men most of whom had seen many years of service in the army. For the Jats and Rajputs of 2 RajRif , Kengruse, a Naga boy, would have been as strange as a man from outer space but then for Bhup Singh from Jhunjunu and Ram Singh from Jodhpur, he was their Sahib.
So they put their lives in an envelope and gave it to Kengruse, him they would follow, if he made a mistake, they would pay with their blood. They ask only one thing, that he believe in them as much as they believe in him, that he dance with them at the Barakhana, that he eat their Churma, learn to sing their Ragini's, him they would trust and this is the fellowship of the soldier.
When Vijayant Thapar led his platoon into attack on the 29th of June, they were immediately hit by concentrated shellfire and the first man to fall was Vijayant's sahayak or batman, Hukum Singh, torn apart by shell splinters .The survivors remember that it drove Vijayant mad with rage and sorrow, because the two of them had in six months of Vijayant's service in the unit, formed a bond, this Delhi bred officer's son and the metric pass village boy from Rajasthan.
In the unit it was Hukum Singh who would wake him up every morning with a cup of tea, lay out his uniform, not only heat up water for him to bathe but perhaps also put a little toothpaste on his toothbrush, it was Hukum Singh who would see that Sahib had had a tongue lashing from the CO and try cheer him up, in battle Hukum Singh was right next to his buddy Vijayant.
This story might trouble some, why is it that officers are given so much importance, even in the media an officer's death gets more attention, there is only one way to answer that..quite simply - Its an officer driven army. The officer is treated special because the officer leads in battle by example. His message to his troops is always, follow me, who never asks them to do what he would not do themselves. In Kargil in most cases it was a young officer that was first to reach the objective, this Army has the highest officer casualty ratio in the entire world! To lead from the front, this is the officers creed, not Rs 15,000 a month!
So as I walked among the debris of war that July morning, the spent bullet empties, the pieces of metal from arty shells, the rusting ammunition boxes, I tried to picture those battles and the men who fought them. For a moment I could see clearly, the freezing night, the smoke and flashes of falling shells, the hazy light from flares and then the scraggly line of men crawling forward, heads bent, holding their weapons, weighed down by equipment. In the silence I could hear the shouts of the wounded, the screams of a young man as he tried to rally his men, I could sense their fear, how exposed each man must have felt.
In that moment of how acutely alive each must have felt, each part of his body alert, expecting each moment to ripped apart by a piece of metal, how they must have watched the line of tracer curve lazily as it came towards them, each man wanting to do nothing more than to lie down escape this madness. My legs felt as weighed down as theirs must have, how over the crescendo of battle, the loudest noise in their ears must have been the beating of their hearts. And yet they went on, I felt the gaze of their set eyes, the iron will that made them move forward inch by inch mouths sticky with fear. It makes you wonder what men were these ....
Six hundred dead - those that died among these lifeless rocks, on peaks that they had never heard off, seen before, hills that even did not even have names, just numbers on maps, but Maps that told them that this was India and they believed. So what were these 600 like, they came from all over India. Some were gentlemen, some were cads, some were liars and some romantics, some were people we would like to be and some people we would never talk to, some were loving husbands and some wife beaters, some never felt fear, some were too afraid to acknowledge it. But god, but god, all of them were Men.
So how does one describe this feat, for me the closest word that comes to mind is BALIDAN, its a word that has as far as I know no perfect equivalent in English. Sacrifice has nothing of the romance and nobility of the Hindi word and yet you realise that these 600, they were all like you and me. This bloodletting wasn't confined to a certain class or clan, these boys weren't a handpicked lot, it is what they achieved that made them select. And that is why Kargil touched such a cord among the common Indian. For the first time this lost generation saw their country differently, some were amazed that there were among them people who thought it was worth dying for, fighting for India. That this land had something, the spirit of Kargil, the real victory of Kargil, is that awakening,
Col Thapar feels he can sense his son's presence there, soldiers posted here feel that the spirits of the dead wander these hills and valleys. Yes high up there is an air of the supernormal that puts you on edge. While I was there, each night I would sit out on a chair and just stare at the hills above me, the moon light making them frightening and beautiful at the same time. I would think of the young men who had won back these mountains, written their names in blood on them and then it was easier to understand, logical, yes they owned them now.
Here, long after we have lived our worthless lives and are forgotten, there would be people who would look at these silent hills and remember with awe the men who had conquered them, and that awe will be their monument. These hills of Kargil are hunting grounds now of those glorious 600, who helped us rediscover an India we thought we had a lost forever.
Randeep Singh Nandal
Special Correspondent, Defence Affairs
Friday, August,3 2007 (Drass)