Azaadi ka Amrut Mahotsav!!

August, 2021

Dear Friends

For the last 2 days my head is reeling with these words and phrases …..”Point 4875, Sopore, 13th Battalion JAK Rifles, Kargil, bunkers, boulders, grenade, captured, death, victory, dil maange more, jodidaar”…….yes your guess is right – Shershah movie effect. But wait, is it just the movie ?

No, it is also an electrifying talk delivered by a great Kargil war hero that I heard live on 14th August, 2021 as our nation was readying itself to celebrate Azaadi ka Amrut Mahotsav, the 75th Independence Day. Shershah is an extremely well made movie on the exemplary life of Param Veer Chakra awardee, Late Capt Vikram Batra, his supreme sacrifice at the young age of 24, not only fighting the enemies on treacherous mountain peaks but also saving fellow-lives without caring a damn about his own. One such life he saved was that of Capt Naveen Nagappa whose leg was severely injured in the Kargil war after a brave fight. How blessed I was to hear the graphic, chilling Kargil war description from Capt Naveen himself as he got emotional about losing his buddy, Shyam Singh and his saviour Capt Vikram Batra ! Let me summarise what I heard, in his own words (as far as possible)…

“I am an engineer from Hubli, Karnataka but unlike most of my friends I didn’t opt for a corporate career. I dreamt of the ‘2 stars on my shoulder’ and not the thousands. With no family background in the army, no coaching, I just got through with sheer determination. Trained in the Indian Military Academy, one of the gruellest training programmes in the world which trains us for a war during peace times – the last war our nation had fought was in 1971 but the training in 1998 was as rigorous as it could get, I was commissioned to the 13th Battalion JAK Rifles, the same that Capt Batra was in. Posted in Sopore, about 40kms from Srinagar, I was given a buddy (jodidaar as per Army protocol) called Shyam Singh who was with me all through until the fateful day on 4th July, 1999 when the war broke out and I lost him. Despite my refusal to take him along, he had said “Saab, acche din mein saath they, mein aapke saath abhi kaise chod dhoon ?” (we were together in good times, how can I leave you now ?). As a 25 year old commanding officer in the thick of the war, I couldn’t cry when I saw him head down with bullet shots because it would demoralise the men in my unit. As I zipped his body in his sleeping bag, I cried in isolation, thinking of the last letter he must have written to his family and deposited with the army base as is the protocol for all soldiers – to leave all identity and memories behind in the service of the nation. The point I want to make is perhaps it is only in the Indian army that such camaraderie is built in such a short span of 6 months !

The trigger for the war was the illegal occupancy of post Bajrang which was guarded by just 6 of our men who were stealthily encircled by 80 Pakistanis, fired from vantage points and held prisoners of war in complete violation of the Geneva Convention. For the next 21 days they were brutally tortured, eyes gorged, skulls broken, tongues cut and bodies shot multiple times and sent back in bags to the Indian army, much to the shock and dismay of the whole world. Their grit, determination and sacrifice couldn’t go waste. Our 13th Battalion attacked point 4875, on 4th July, 1999 in retaliation. After the customary havan and tilak by the unit’s panditji, I recall the Commander say “If you take care of your men, your men will take care of you”. As we set out on our mission with our energising war cry, “Durga Maate ki Jai”, Capt Batra, who was already a celebrity having captured all features of point 5140, hugged me and said “Gale lagna yaar, pata nahin kounsi ghadi aakhri hogi (give me a hug buddy, don’t know which will be the last moment)”.

Attack on point 4875 at 16,000 ft altitude was launched by the Indian army on the night of 5th July, as we crawled to the bunkers and dropped grenades and pumped in bullets (Naveen’s hand gestures and his animated voice added to the drama that was unfolding before our eyes !!). We neutralised and sanitised the bunkers, diffused the mines. Incessant firing from both sides until 8th July with no food and water for 48 hours. At times we would dig into the dirty snow (yes even in July the mountain was covered with sheaths of snow) which was filthy with our shoes, ammunition pieces, odour of the burning flesh – just to swallow some snow flakes so that we could feel a sense of having eaten something. When I got a call from the base camp offering to send food up, I refused and said “Just send ammunition instead of food”.

During the fierce fighting, the dil maange more legend, Capt Vikram Batra joined us, reinforcing the unit with his contagious energy and enthusiasm. We inched ahead to the merciless peaks boulder by boulder, inch by inch carrying sacks weighing 25kgs each as the firing increased. We would fire, duck, lie still and move slowly. I was sitting in a bunker with my AK47 when a Pak grenade landed close to me. This has a killing radius of 8 to 10 mtrs and a 4 seconds life. I couldn’t get up and run because there was no place to and my men would be exposed. I saw death from a close quarters. In a matter of just 2 seconds I had to make a life decision – how would I like my body to be seen by my parents. Didn’t they have the right to atleast see my face in the bag and not my body in pieces ? As my head was reeling with these thoughts, I just jumped to my right when I saw Batra run towards my bunker. I distinctly remember what he said “Kuch nahin hoga, main aa gaya hoon (Nothing will happen, I have come)”. Alas, I couldn’t give him that last hug ! As he took over the battle he held my hand and dragged me aside giving me cover. I started crawling with both my legs badly injured, bleeding heavily and my right leg literally dangling from my body. As a jawan carried me all that I could think of was to save my leg which was fully infected. Injured in the morning but I could be brought back for medical help only in the evening. I was in a semi-conscious state on the stretcher as a chopper picked me up on the 8th. I heard the nursing assistant tell me “Saab, tiranga lehera raha hai. Doctor ne mana kiya hai, mat uttho” (Tircolour is flying but don’t get up, doctor has asked you not to). I couldn’t resist. I sat on the stretcher and saluted the flag, feeling elated. But the next few words knocked me down to a state of unconsciousness “Is vijay ke liye, humein keemat chukani padhi. Batra saab nahin rahe (for this victory we had to pay a price. Batra sir is no more)”.

I returned home after being declared unfit for army service, with over 21 months in various hospitals and 8 surgeries. I just did my job as a soldier, just like you do yours. Nothing great, nothing extra and perhaps the shortest tenure for a soldier – just 6 months and 7 days but yes it has been the most memorable and cherished time in my life. While people pity me saying I am unfortunate, on the contrary I consider myself the most fortunate person to have got the opportunity to fight for my nation within 6 months of posting. About 1300 soldiers were injured while 527 lost their lives in the Kargil war. Let’s remember them and their families for their grit, valour, pain and sacrifice. Jai Hind !”

Oh what an inspiring talk it was, gave goosebumps and brought tears to our eyes. They gave their lives so that we live ours…enjoy freedom responsibly as we march ahead into our 76th year of Indian Independence !