Even as I sit down to pen the final part of this true life story on our martyred son Akshay, we are pained that every other day, our precious soldiers are having to continue laying down their lives, protecting us. The terrible truth is that some local separatist mobs in certain districts of Kashmir have been obstructing anti-terror operations, pelting stones at our soldiers, helping terrorists escape, and worse, have even tried to stop the evacuation of injured soldiers. The army had been told to show restraint and not hit back at ‘civilians’. As a result, one more officer (Major Satish Dahiya) and three soldiers went back to their homes and grieving families in wooden boxes draped with the tricolor. While saluting the sacrifice of the martyrs, it seems the time has come for us to take a firm stand. Should we value the lives of our protectors or value those who want to kill us and destroy our motherland?
The past two weeks have been hectic – travel, very emotional meetings, many more visitors and nostalgic conversations, and importantly, recognition and honour for Akshay’s bravery and sacrifice under circumstances that most of us cannot even visualize.
Girish and I made the promised journey to a rather small and remote village beyond Agartala in Tripura (Thanks to help from the army unit there and Capt Avinash who accompanied us), to meet with Naik Chittaranjan Debbrama’s family. We knew communication would be difficult due to lack of a common language but we needed no language to connect! The moment I stepped towards his beautiful young wife Namita, she broke down, sobbing her heart out for a long time, while I held her close, trying to calm her. Chittaranjan’s frail father’s body heaved as silent sobs shook his chest, when Girish gave him a hug. His mother, grief written all over her face, wiped tears that managed to escape her eyes, as she fought to stay composed. The little ones (home from the Boarding school they study in), 12 year old daughter Inlet and 7 year old son Kaplai looked a little confused initially. It was another soldier from Akshay’s unit and young Inlet who helped interpret what both sides spoke. Inlet inspired us by her composure and pride in her father when she recalled his words telling us ‘I know my father was very brave. He would tell me work hard and you can be whatever you want to – engineer, doctor, teacher…’ His brothers, sisters and their families were there as were Namita’s parents and we were touched- they all wanted to meet us. We were hosted graciously, shown Chittaranjan’s grave (Girish Saluted the braveheart) and told that the Tripura Government had promised Namita a job, a memorial for Chittaranjan and a road and school will be named after the valiant warrior. The family crowded around us as we told them about Akshay, Sangeeta and Naina, our family trip to the ‘Karma bhoomi’ and our plans to stay strong despite sorrow of loss. We told them they now have an extended family in us and that the children could possibly consider college education in Bengaluru. Inlet took down our contact details. I think we came away feeling happy that we went. It was nice to see Namita and his parents composed and smiling as they waved us goodbye.
In a very well organized award ceremony in Mysuru, Rotary Midtown honoured Akshay with the ‘Sainik Desh Ratna Award’. Instituted from this year, Akshay was chosen as the first recipient of this award and Girish was called upon to accept it. Girish, Sangeeta, Naina and I attended along with Col Deswal (Akshay’s first CO), Jamuna and Pradish’s father Mr. Gopalakrishna. The hall was full and while Mr. Bhaskar, Mr. Rakesh and Mr. Aiyanna spoke in praise of soldiers and the Indian Defence Services, Girish spoke on the Nagrota incident. When Akshay’s citation was read out, I failed to stop my tears. The Rotarians have ambitious plans to promote awareness among students in Karnataka and encourage them to aspire for a career in the Army, Navy, Air force and Paramilitary Forces. A noble though indeed, for our country today is increasingly being threatened, and needs brave sons and daughters to defend and protect it. A generous cheque accompanied the award and we will be donating this money for a good cause. We thank Rotary Club for honouring Akshay. We were touched by all those who attended, asked questions, expressed solidarity with the cause and our family, and blessed Naina.
Every night, as I get into bed, my thoughts continue to be filled with Akshay’s sweet, smiling face, his words, his pranks, his love and concern, his laughter. I often dream of him but no dreams so far have been on what he went through that fateful day. Those painful thoughts come only when I am wide awake. ‘How long did he lay bleeding, in pain after being hit? Could he have been saved? Did he try to reach out to us but couldn’t because his phone was smashed and burnt? Did he have to suffer a lot or did God grant him a quick death?’
As we come to the end of this series on Akshay, I know that somehow, through my blog, or on phone, or visits, or through other means, our connection with each one of you will continue. It is with very mixed feelings that I bring to you the end of Akshay’s Story, My Way.
FINAL PART (THIRTEEN)
We were all set to be reunited as a family on 1st December 2016 and on 25th November, while piling up gifts bought for Naina, Sangeeta and Akshay, I sent a whatsapp message saying ‘waiting eagerly to see you all in Mumbai. Especially Akshay- its been so long’. The next two days, as Girish, Neha, Pradish and I made a quick one night dash to Pune to attend a family friends daughter’s wedding (Devina-Keith Say I Do), Akshay, Sangeeta and Naina went out with friends to Zamindari Dhabha and 17 Mile, ahead of Jammu, for a day of fun and good food. We exchanged happy family pictures of our outings on whatsapp. On 28th Akshay called in the morning and when I picked up Girish’s phone, he asked for ‘dad’. The two then went on to have a never ending conversation on ‘cars’ that lasted over 15 minutes! Akshay was planning to replace his red Fabia and wanted help from Girish to decide from his shortlist. Later the same evening, Sangeeta’s parents came home with gifts as well for us to pack and we had dinner together.
That was the last phone call from Akshay to one of us back home and Girish was the chosen one.
On the dawn of 29th November, that fateful, tragic day, Girish left to do an early morning flight. When Sangeeta’s first whasapp message reached us on ‘family’ it was a bolt out of the blue. ‘Please see news…Attack in Nagrota, she said. Oh no…what happened…all ok? Was Neha’s instant response. Outside our mess location….Akshay is out. We are all in the rooms….dont know whats happening. I came into the conversation with ‘OMG!’ Turning on the television, I continued- ‘Watching it on India today…. started at 5.45am. No other details yet’. Neha continued ‘Sangy, can you hear firing….? Yes…very close. There was supposed to be a drill but firing started earlier’ she said. I added ‘Artillery regiment attacked…says news. Stay low with Naina, Sangy. Keep away from windows’. The conversation continued on these lines between Sangeeta, Neha and me. I was glued to TV news, switching between channels and messaging updates like ‘three terrorists supposedly holed up…..entered in police uniforms……etc. Neha, early on her way to work in the office cab was saying ‘not much news online yet….keep us updated ma… ‘ and Sangeeta was saying ‘Naina got up early with the loud sound ….all the officers are out…We have sentries outside the room’.
Suddenly, unexpectedly at 8.09 am, Akshay sent us this one message on the family group. ‘Im in the firefight..first round came at our vehicle…Im with my qrt firing…three casualty..
My heart sank. Sangeeta and Neha must have experienced the same emotion.
Neha was the first to respond to Akshay with ‘So sad….Stay focused Akshay….Love’
I followed with ‘Stay focused Akshay…Your training is all you need right now. Love you’
That was the last we ever heard from our beloved braveheart.
The rest of the day is now a blur and yet it is all coming back to me as I write. Girish landed after his flight, saw the messages and responded with ‘Good luck Aks’. The four of us kept in constant touch with Sangeeta, updating what the news was reporting and asking ‘are you and Naina safe’, ‘is the firing still on’, and ‘did Akshay call?’ News channels had started reporting ‘Major Kunal and three soldiers have been martyred’. Saddened, yet pushing all fearful thoughts out of our minds, we tried to tell ourselves that Akshay was fine and we would hear from him soon. Girish and I also tried to distract ourselves by sticking to some errands we had committed to for the day but continued to follow TV news. Meanwhile, Pradish and Neha decided they would come straight to our home after getting out early from their work spaces.
By 11.30am, I had started getting a ‘bad feeling’ and by 2.00 pm, increasingly restless, I had started blabbering to friend Lalita. I think I said things like ‘No one deserves anything bad to happen to them but life is unpredictable. What can happen to others can happen to us as well…we are in no way special…all human beings will experience sorrow and joy etc.
At 2.03 pm, Girish sent a message on the family whatsapp:
Off the family whatsapp, many calls and message were exchanged directly between Sangeeta and me all through that afternoon. Sangeeta, Naina and other families had been shifted out of their rooms to a safer area and Nainu had eaten, slept and woken up. There had been no news from Akshay and no one from the unit had heard from him either.
With each passing minute, not having heard from Akshay, we were individually pushing out fearful thoughts from our minds and trying to reassure each other and ourselves that Akshay would be fine and we would soon hear from him.
When I could bear it no longer, I called Sangeeta at about 6.30 pm, hoping to get some good news. She did not pick up the call. Before I could try again, my phone rang. I grabbed at the phone, hope soaring seeing Sangeeta’s return call, but what I heard still makes my stomach contort into a tight, painful ball. I don’t think I will ever be able to get over Sangeeta’s wails of pain and absolute anguish as I heard her crying ‘…ma…. we lost him ma…. Akshay…. Akshay…… Akshay……’ Then someone took the phone from her and said ‘Aunty, I am Shrishti’…I heard myself desperately asking ‘What is Sangeeta saying Shrishti…. Can I speak to Akshay’s CO please? I need to speak with him’. Col Prakash came on line and haltingly asked for ‘Major Akshay’s father’. My desperation rising, I told him ‘Akshay’s father is out on some work. Please tell me what has happened. I can take it.’ He confirmed the news ‘I am sorry to tell you maam that we have lost Akshay.’ Just before I broke down completely, I think I said, ‘Please take care of Sangeeta and Naina. We will come as soon as we can. Please look after Sangeeta.’
I put down the phone and went to pieces, howling like my world had ended. Was that my voice? Were those my howls? Those loud, hoarse horrible sounds- were they coming out of me?
Mamta and Birendar ran in from the garden. I started making those dreadful calls to break the news to Girish, Neha-Pradish, my parents, brother…..By the time I called Col Ravindran, he had been informed and we were both crying as we spoke. I called Sangeeta again to tell her ‘be strong rani…we are coming to bring you home…..’and her cries of ‘kab aaoge ma..’ broke my heart. Pradish was the first family member to get home to me and immediately started booking flight tickets for us to get to Jammu. Soon, Girish, Neha, my parents and aunt, Sarit and Deshu, Ritu and Sanjay, Lalita….everyone was home. I really cant remember if there were more.. …..our once happy home was full of shocked, grieving people. As we left for the airport that night, we all knew our lives would never be the same again.
After that immeasurably painful trip to Jammu to receive Akshay’s mortal remains and bring Sangeeta and Naina home, our more recent trip to the ‘Karma Bhoomi’ has strangely helped us soothe very deep wounds. Interacting with so many people who witnessed the Nagrota attack or knew the details we sought – from members of Akshay’s quick reaction team to his CO, from the senior-most officers to the families that had got out alive, they all told us how valiantly our martyrs had fought. Right till their last breath. They gave their all to protect and defend. It was their immediate and effective response that had prevented a catastrophe from unfolding.
While many investigating teams have pieced together the sequence of events, I cannot claim this version to be absolutely accurate. Nevertheless, it has been put together by a civilian (me) as factually as possible, based on what we learned from people on the ground.
The attack had been meticulously planned well in advance and the heavily armed terrorists who had infiltrated from across the border had local support. They had been met and driven to a spot behind the long hill ridge the previous night. In the wee hours, the terrorists dressed in police uniforms walked about a kilometer along the wooded hill ridge to reach their chosen target at one end of the Nagrota cantonment. The specific area had housing for families of officers and other ranks, the Artillery Mess and guest rooms. The dark wintry night made it possible for the terrorists to scale the outer wall (there were trees along the wall and they had a rope ladder), cut the wired fence and shoot dead the lone sentry before he could raise an alarm. Almost at the same time, they entered a room just behind a residential block and shot dead three soldiers from the Rashtriya Rifles. The soldiers were on their way home after tenure in the valley and had barely woken up in their transit room when they were shot. The time was about 5.30 am. Three terrorists now entered the two buildings that housed 16 people – women, children, unarmed officers and men. While the families had locked their doors, the terrorists had the advantage of vantage positions with protective walls, free access to the corridors and staircases, cover behind water tanks and parapet walls on the roof. Armed to the teeth with AKs, grenades and rocket launchers, dry fruits, medicines, maps and so on, they had come prepared for a long haul.
Barely 200 meters away, officers and families from the neighbouring Engineers unit were rudely woken up by the loud blasts and gunfire. Naina was startled and Akshay who had gone into the bathroom to get ready for PT came out telling Sangeeta ‘this does not sound like a practice drill’. Quickly he changed into his combat uniform (as did other brother officers) and just before he left home, smilingly, he told Sangy ‘You must write about this one day’.
When he reached their workplace, his CO had summoned the QRT(Quick Reaction Team) and as soon as he saw Akshay, asked him to lead. While the QRT vehicle(a bullet proof van called ‘Casper’) quickly made its way to the location under attack, Maj Kunal (from the Artillery unit), who was rushing in on his bike, saw the Engineers QRT, stopped it and decided to join the team in their task.
The vehicle came under heavy fire from terrorists as it entered the area and bullets aimed directly at the driver and soldiers hit bullet proof glass. Realising the danger the inmates in the blocks were faced with, staying safe in the vehicle was not a choice they had. In the dark, with bullets aimed at them, Major Kunal (who knew the layout around and within the buildings and the people trapped inside) said it was imperative they try to get a pregnant lady to safety immediately. Akshay sent Jung Saab with Kunal, deployed Chittaranjan on the LMG at a point opposite the main block and he with another buddy took positions to give cover. Kunal and Jung Saab climbed up a drain pipe from behind the second block to the first floor room she was in, and they got her out the same way they had entered. Soon, the lady and her unborn baby were driven away to safety. It was when Kunal decided to come down the stairs at the other end of the block (he must have felt the need to check if others were in need of help), that he was hit by a bullet and fell to the ground. Seconds later, he managed to get up and run across the building’s edge and towards where his mates were. He was rushed into a vehicle and evacuated to the hospital. He said ‘don’t tell Uma- she will get upset. I am okay and will speak to her later from hospital.’ Sadly, he did not make the half hour journey as the bullet had pierced a vital organ.
As bullets continued to rain around, messages from an unarmed officer trapped inside with his wife and baby made it clear that the terrorists were banging on doors and it was just a matter of time when this hostage situation would lead to a massacre of innocents. Since the soldiers could not shoot indiscriminately into the blocks, or use heavy weapons for fear of killing our own trapped inside, Akshay decided they had to enter the blocks to try and save them, no matter what the consequences. Leading from the front, he made his way through the waist high undergrowth behind a block with his buddy following. His buddy said ‘meri bari thi aage jaane ki par kaune mein Saab ne rok liya aur khud aage badhe (it was my turn to leapfrog ahead around the corner of the building block but Sir stopped me and went ahead instead). As soon as Akshay turned the corner of the block, running towards the staircase, he faced a burst of bullets from a hidden terrorist. The fiend, safe inside an unoccupied room on the ground floor had a direct view of the staircase and open space around it. Multiple bullets pierced Akshay (ordinary bullet proof jackets end at the waist and have gaps on the sides), and as he fell into the undergrowth, he must have tried to crawl for cover beside a protective wall. Realising that Akshay was moving away, the terrorist threw a grenade at him. Other soldiers heard the grenade blast and knew Akshay had been hit but couldn’t see him. When they tried to get to where Akshay lay, more grenades were thrown to stop them in their tracks.
We later learnt that it was the grenade that killed Akshay. His body however could not be spotted and recovered until much later that evening. He was discovered only during mopping up after the operation had ended. We had lost our most beloved Akshay and would miss him forever.
Chittaranjan, in relative safety behind a stone counter in the garden in front of the building blocks, continued to valiantly engage the terrorists with his machine gun. He held out until the Special Forces team arrived. Destiny though had other plans and he took a bullet on his forehead and slumped over his gun, task completed. With their superior training and equipment (UAV for a birds eye view, neck below bullet proof clothing and superior weapons), they were able to spot and eliminate the three terrorists, one by one. The firing from the terrorists had ended by about 11.30 am but one or two more being holed up waiting for the kill could not be ruled out. Hence, mopping up operations started only later in the afternoon.
Kunal, Akshay and Chittaranjan had been martyred fighting, but not before they had lived upto the ethos of the Indian army. They had fought fearlessly for about three hours and succeeded in protecting our fellow citizens. They had prevented the terrorists from taking hostages, killing them or branching out into other spaces around with their destructive agenda. Every single woman, child and man (who had thought they would die) walked out without a scratch that day.
The terrorists failed to execute their plans of causing maximum damage. Our soldiers, once again had succeeded. They had to sacrifice their lives to do so.
To try and put into words or expressions the feelings and emotions that we experienced during this time in Nagrota is beyond my ability as a writer. I will therefore, not try and instead, will leave it to you, dear readers, to draw from your own imagination. Here are bits of what we heard and experienced.
Your son was absolutely fearless. He was calm and did everything as it should have been done. I get gooseflesh everytime I think of how brave Akshay was that day- bullets whizzing all around in the dark and still he stood there like a rock, fighting back and blocking the path in case the terrorists tried to escape.
We have recreated every minute of that terrible day and are convinced that but for the bravery and leadership of the two officers, the news headlines the next morning would have led to national mourning…
Had they cared for their own safety and not gone in, we would have had another Kaluchak on our hands. Just across are homes of 300 families. If even one terrorist had managed to get there, can you imagine the mayhem? (On 14 May 2002 near the town of Kaluchak in J&K, three militants attacked a tourist bus from Himachal Pradesh and massacred 31 people, including women and 10 children. 47 people were wounded)
Knowing they couldn’t use heavy weapons to fight back, they put themselves in the line of fire while going in to get the terrorists, and saved our people. It rattled the terrorists- they couldn’t take time off to break into locked doors…..
There is no doubt that they displayed exemplary bravery and presence of mind under circumstances one can only try to imagine. In 20 years of service, I have never been faced with such a situation and these young boys have done us all proud. They have done our nation proud.
Bhanupriya, her husband and one year old baby were among those who were saved that day. She came to meet us and said Humne toh us din haath utha liye the- socha tha bach ke nahin nikelenge. Mera bacha dar ke mare roya hi nahin…ya phir shayad Bhagwan ka haath iske sar par tha. Kunal bhaiya aur Akshay, jo hamein bachane aaye…..her voice broke as she wept…. tears of sorrow and gratitude for their saviours. I tried to smile and console the young woman who with her family had been through hell and back. ‘Hume khushi hai ki aap sab bach gaye. Sahi salaamat hain. Is bache ko hasta khelta dekh kar lag raha hai ki unhone sahi kiya. Sangita added ‘Kunal aur Akshay bahut khush honge ki aap ko kuch nahin hua.
I am reminded of a message on my blog which said ‘dard ka rishta bhi apne aap mein anmol hota hai’.
My thoughts run back to the time we waited in a Jammu hospital (30th November 2016), waiting to see Akshay for the last time. Not knowing what his face and body would look like and wanting to protect Sangeeta and Neha from becoming more distressed, I had insisted that Girish and I would first see Akshay. They had the choice to not see him this way and remember him full of life, smiling and happy, in case they wanted that. ‘Then why are you going in to see him ma’? Sangeeta asked through her tears. ‘Because it is my one last chance rani’, I had blurted out. Her tearful ‘Its my last chance too ma’ meant the decision had been made .
When we were allowed to see Akshay, I was stunned. How could his face look so peaceful after such a sudden, violent death? Girish and Sangeeta felt the same way although Neha felt his lopsided smile looked more like a grimace of pain.
Moving back to our Nagrota visit, the day we were shown around the encounter site, we were told that the place looks different now as trees had been cut, undergrowth cleared and security beefed up. I picked up a pebble from the spot where Akshay had been found and held on to it as we all moved away. Pradish lingered back a while longer, taking pictures and looking around. A few moments later, he had placed Akshay’s spectacles in Sangeeta’s hands and we all dissolved in tears, hugging each other at finding something so precious. Akshay’s CO told us it was a miracle. That different investigating teams(From the Army , Police, NIA etc) had been there almost 50 times, searching for every bit of evidence they could find, going so far as to dig up the mud and sift it to look for small splinters, bullet, cartridges…and this pair of spectacles, too large to have missed being spotted, had escaped them all! An officer from the artillery unit said ‘I don’t know if you believe in spiritual connections but this is one such.’
It felt as if the universe had conspired to make Akshay’s spectacles vanish for two months and seven days. As if waiting for us, his family. As if to show us where Akshay took his last breath on earth. As if Akshay knew we would come and find it. He had worn his glasses to work every single day and it felt as if we had found part of him. As Sangeeta said, on his birthday (6th February), ‘instead of we giving Pradish a gift, he had given us the biggest possible gift’. A part of Akshay had been returned to us.
The next morning, the unit had arranged for a special prayer for Akshay and Chittaranjan and we were part of the most simple and most beautiful prayers in the Temple and Gurudwara. Conducted by soldier priests, Akshay and Chittaranjan were praised for their supreme sacrifice, taking from the teachings of Krishna to Arjun (in the Bhagwat Gita) and Guru Gobind Singh. As the tears flowed freely, I also felt more peaceful than I had in a long-long time.
Naam, Namak, Nishan’ are the core ethos of men in uniform. And the concept has held good across ages. Loosely translated, it means:
- Naam – Name/Reputation of your country, Name/Reputation of your Regiment or ‘Paltan’
- Namak – Fidelity to the salt you’ve partaken
- Nishaan – Ensign, Flag. This can be the Indian flag and the Colors of the regiment. Since earlier days, soldiers rallied around their flags and would make the ultimate sacrifice to protect it from falling into enemy hands.
The different meanings of the word Akshay are Eternal, immortal, indestructible.
He has been immortalized in Nagrota at ‘Akshay’s Retreat- the Nineteenth’ – a glass hut dedicated to his memory. The stone plaque dedicated to Akshay was unveiled by Sangeeta on 7th February. Akshay’s entire fraternity in Nagrota were in attendance.
I take this opportunity to thank you all once again for staying with us on this journey. We will hopefully, find our own peace with time. It does seem as if we all were meant to be connected through Akshay and I hope we will continue to stay connected. God bless each one of you and give you and your families many joyous times in the coming years.
With love and warm regards,