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India Today issue dt July 26, 1999
July 26, 1999

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KARGIL WAR: VICTORY MARCH
Men At War

In the treacherous mountain terrain amidst the cold and darkness, indian soldiers braved bullets.

By Harinder Baweja and Rohit Brijnath

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The Day After

The rain fell softly on the solitary camp, trickling down the shoulders of the invisible sentry. From outside the hut, in the eerie blackness of close to midnight, you could hear it. Kishore Kumar?

The guns hadn't stopped, the silence broken by mechanical thunder, the sound rebounding off the hills like a manic drummer beating out a tattoo of death. In the distance a Pakistani shell carves up the hillside, a flash of light illuminating the rain. Was an Indian soldier hit, a hand severed by shrapnel, you prayed no.

"One day you celebrate, the next you send home the dead"
"One day you celebrate, the next you send home the dead"
Major Rajeev Kumar, 18 Genadiers
Photo: P Pushkarna

The hand, you always thought about the hand, it was a memory hammered into the subconscious. Eighty per cent of Indian casualties were due to shell fire, death comes as a surprise from 20 km. The iron shell explodes, the splinters travel at startling velocity, like a high-speed rain of double-edged scalpels. One hit Lance Naik Kashmir Singh of 8 Sikh on the arm, just above the elbow, and his limb, as if surgically removed, fell to earth. "He picked it up and carried it," said RMO Captain Deepak Dwivedi, "and though he was bleeding profusely, he never screamed, just asked for medicine for the pain." Later someone casually asked, "What is the time?" Replied Kashmir, "Mere kate huay haath pe ghadi hai, us pe dekh lo.''

Still you can hear it, the feeble, scratchy sound of Kishore Kumar singing. It is the sound of the living, it is the sound of victory. Inside the hut Major Rajeev Kumar of 18 Grenadiers is smiling. It has been some time since he last did. It is his birthday tomorrow; better still, two of his boys, Captain Sachin Nimbalkar and Lt Balwan Singh Pinghal, men who led the assault on Tiger Top have arrived, safe; better still, a phone call has come, midnight is cease-fire, the enemy is promising to retreat.

So it's all over, done with, finished, all those gunshot wounds and amputated limbs, those telegrams that say your boy has gone, those weeping widows and wounded mothers, all that's ended. No it cannot. For in the darkness of fear from which men never flinched, in the heroic tales of men walking with four bullets sucked into their flesh, in the despairing stories of a captain married one day and dead 10 days later, the war continues. Victory is fine, but as much was won, as much was lost.

And so it was that evening of music too when death, never requiring an invitation, intruded like a graceless guest. It came as a phone call. Nimbalkar has been telling his story. Twice his assault on Tiger Top, up an 80 degree gradient, with only God as cover, has failed, the rocks littered with six of his dead. He's been awake 72 hours, and when he gets a minute free he thinks "death has touched me and gone and I think 'aaj bach gaya'". Aaj is not over. He must lead again, and this time when he is stopped five metres from the top, he takes what he calls a "calculated risk", in layman's parlance certified lunacy. He calls artillery on radio and asks them to shell the top, asking for shells to land five metres from where he lies! Dear God, he is just 23, the son of a librarian from Sholapur

But artillery is accurate, Captain Nimbalkar has Tiger Top, the risk paid off, the librarian need not weep. So now when he and Balwan dance to Kishore Kumar, these 10-days-without-a-bath-boys, they are celebrating that most elemental of emotions: just being alive, a chance to draw another breath. Then the phone rings. Someone is asking about Grenadier Rattan Chand, and in the flicker of a name said, the room crumples in despair. Nimbalkar looks to the wall, Balwan covers his face, their pain settling in the air.

Men die, it is the nature of war. But bodies have to go home, it is the nature of a soldier's honour. They have looked, searched, turned over rocks, scoured gullies. They find a soldier, his legs in the air, his head unrecognisable, buried in the stones. But they cannot find Grenadier Rattan Chand. "The least we can do is to find him," whispers Nimbalkar. Tomorrow, he returns, eight hours up the hill, to search again.

Soldiers tell you that up there on the hills they feel 16,000 ft closer to God. Some men have gone closer, right into God's embrace.

THE BURDEN OF WAR
Chucka, chucka, chucka.

Between the hills, the helicopter comes. Here to the Field Surgical Center (FSC) it brings the cost of victory.

Ambulances belch smoke as they back towards it, the stretcher-bearers huffing, their hair flying in the turbulence of the rotors, as they unload the wounded. Soldiers of 8 Sikh were lunching nearby, a shell ricocheted off a rock, now one is dead, six wounded.

Everywhere bodies, the wounded, are arriving. Look up the hill overlooking the 18 Grenadiers Administrative Camp, and there against the fading light you can see the silhouette of men with stretchers. Then they arrive, young men after an eight hour walk, bearers of a terrible burden. An Indian soldier with his face blown off, a Pakistani major shot through the eye, a bundle of cloth from which an Indian boot peeps, a reminder that this was once a man. A soldier stands, notebook in hand, taking the count.

This evening is quiet. Three days earlier on the same piece of land a man's tears wet the earth softly. Sepoy Jaswant Singh stood inconsolable, having borne the body of his brother-in-law, shot in the chest at Tiger Hill, down to the valley. "I was right next to him, I was right next to him," he wails. Then he puts his hand into the pocket of the dead man and pulls out photographs of his nieces and nephews. Photographs soaked in blood. "What will I tell them?" he weeps on.

The stretcher-bearers gulp a glass of water and begin the trek back. More bodies you see.

At the FSC, Colonel Anil Kayastha and his team of doctors huddle in a makeshift hospital, tents functioning as operation theatres, binding, stitching, cutting. Every man has a mission here, and the colonel knows his. "If the Pakistanis break my man's leg, I'll send him back a fighting force as soon as I can."

Kayastha doesn't talk about the cease-fire, but maybe he knows it will mean one more boy can go home alive. It is what many soldiers feel. Colonel Subramanian of 315 Artillery Regiment, Major Dalbir Singh of 8 Sikh, all say one word. "Casualties". It means, 400-odd men killed, over 600 wounded, enough, enough.

Not everyone agrees. An officer turns the argument around. "We need to finish the job, teach them such a lesson that they never come back. We have always made the same mistake." He pauses, then asks rhetorically, "For what did all these men die?"

For a stretch of hill a man had never seen, but for a hill that belonged once to India. Two days earlier, Major Ritesh Sharma of 17 Jat stood at the FSC waiting for a helicopter. His friend, his second in command, Captain Anuj Nayyar, was going home. In a body bag. He too, fighting for a stretch of hill he'd never seen.

During battle in the Mashkoh sector, Sharma was injured, Nayyar took over. Four bunkers lay occupied by Pakistani soldiers, ammunition was short, the shelling heavy. Nayyar wouldn't quit. A bullet in each knee, then finally a fatal one, but the bunkers had been won. Sharma looks back to a better time and says wistfully of his friend, "He used to tease me, 'one day Sir I will supersede you'."

Then he looked into the hills, his words almost lost to the wind as he spoke again: "He already has."

The helicopter has finally come and two bags, then two cases, all a fallen soldier's worldly goods are loaded. The rotors swivel, the wheels lift, and in one corner Sharma stands, rigid against the wind, his arm curved into a final salute. Why Nayyar, why not him, who the hell knows the answer.

Standing under a fresh blue sky, the sun bouncing off the tips of distant peaks, the river crawling like a silver snake through the mountains, it seems an incongruous setting for such ugliness. But there is no time to mourn, for in the distance you can hear it.

Chucka, chucka, chucka.

More wounded.

HEART OF THE BRAVE
"Six is to one."

Colonel A.S. Chabbewal, colonel general staff, 8 Mountain Division, is explaining why so many men had to die. On flat land when the enemy is firmly entrenched, the ratio of dead of the attacking force to the defending one is 3:1. In the hills it becomes 6:1.

Think about it. An Indian officer leads his troops aware that of 30 men, five won't return. The man from whom he stole a cigarette has gone. Bravery seems an inadequate word, a word soldiers seldom use. For them there is a more powerful calling. Lying in hospital, Naik Narang Singh of the 8 Sikh, voices it, "I want to go home but duty comes first." Hours later, Grenadier Desraj Pathania looks on incredulous as he is questioned about fear, about death. Pointing to his uniform, he says: "Why else do we wear this?"

India fought on fatal terrain, it fought without equipment like gun-locating radars. But it won because it found unusual men. Up there at Rocky Knob, a spur of Tiger Hill, with a rock as a pillow, lay Major Joy Dasgupta of 18 Grenadiers. His voice was matter-of-fact in a situation that wasn't. He said it was snowing, his men's boots were torn, he was surrounded by 300 mines with unfamiliar mechanisms. Then he says he's getting bored, "Give me something else to do."

The cool voice of his indefatigable commanding officer, Colonel Khushal Thakur, breaks in, "Congratulations, well done, but be careful, be careful, don't step on the mines."

Down at base they're laughing, trying desperately to relieve the tension, teasing him about a girl who ran away. Dasgupta, it seems, took leave, went to Hyderabad to get married. But the girl's family refused, saying they didn't know if he was going to come back. Alive.

Now his friends tease, "If I say bhagi hui ladki aa rahi hai?"

Replies the laconic Dasgupta, "Sir, tab hum Lahore chale jayenge."

Three hundred mines and he's talking about girls!

Not always are the sounds on the radio of the living. Sometimes through the crackle of static you can hear a man dying. On May 15, listening faces turned to stone as they heard a familiar voice cry, "Mar gaya". Major Rajesh Adhikari, guitar player, his hand frozen on the handset, had passed on.

If death hovers, there must be fear nestling close by, the numbness that precedes battle. The soldiers disagree: "There is no time for fear." As Nimbalkar says, "Once the first bullet is fired you don't think of it."

Grief exists. As Major General Mahinder Puri, GOC 8 Division said, "It is difficult to shake the hand of a young officer in the morning and then learn of his death in the evening." Except he, the soldier, must swallow it whole, must live with it dripping onto his insides like acid, and carry on. On his face it cannot be read. When Sharma was asked about Nayyar's death, he said, "There is sorrow but we just don't show it."

But how do you deal with it?

He turned his face and said, "How can I share that, it's private?"

If it hurts, hide it, if you are scared, live with it. Major Dalbir Singh of 8 Sikh knew that. As troops on India Gate, a feature on Tiger Hill, suffered casualties, he asked his co, "Shall I go up?" The answer was yes. "As he said that, I put down my glass of tea and it broke. It struck me as a bad omen." Later on India Gate, attacked from both sides by the Pakistanis, that thought stayed with him. "My sahayak (batman) was behind me, and I just moved away to talk to someone and he was killed."

He could not stop. "You can't lose heart because if you do, the boys will." As the night wound on, and fear kept him awake, he took from his pocket a photograph of his children, Dinaz, 4, and Tanvir, 3. "I wondered if I would ever see them again." Next morning reinforcements kept a father alive.

As the headlines blare triumph, the soldier searches for bodies, cleans his gun. His job is done -- for a while at least. But peace, between nations, and in a soldier's mind, is distant.

For months they have courted stress, locked in an environment that is ceaselessly destructive. Their senses are attuned to a different world, their reflexes honed for survival. When Major Dalbir returned from combat, the tiredness washing through his body, a photographer took his picture. As the flash went off, Dalbir dropped to the ground, shouting, "Be careful." He thought a shell had gone off.

In the minds of too many men the war will remain. Victory comes, at all sorts of costs.

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