Eighteen years since Kargil. Eight months since Akshay.
Emotionally, I think we are feeling a little more stable, maybe because it feels like Akshay is somehow with us. We talk a lot about him, thinking of how he would have reacted to Naina’s chatter and naughtiness, Bingo’s gobbling up of chicken-rice (and even dahi-chawal!) and his good recovery from surgery, Pradish’s fitness passion (Akshay would have said great going Bro…) and Neha running the TCS 10K for charity (Proud of you Neha…!) He would have loved the fact that his dad has taken to his loved game of Golf and that Sangy is enjoying her school job. We see him in smiling pictures around our home and in our thoughts all the time…sensing his presence beside us. If only we could also speak with him, touch him, hug him….hear his lovely voice….his exuberant laughter. The fact that he would never approve of anyone ‘cribbing’ makes me stop asking for what we cannot have. I know that wherever he is, he is so very proud of how Sangeeta and Naina are braving it out. Just as he would have wanted. Missing yet smiling…..
He would however, have been most upset to see that on 26th July, the salutation of Vijay Diwas was overshadowed by the political drama in Bihar. I can picture his handsome face with a mix of hurt-disappointment writ all over it …… he would have probably burst out with ‘how can people be so ungrateful? Its Vijay Diwas …….527 brave soldiers died defending the rest of us ………and so many living legends bear the scars of that battle. Instead of learning more about their feats of valour…… and honouring the sacrifices with pride and gratitude….. we have to watch this stupid RJD- JDU-BJP musical chairs?!
It felt as if we as a nation are proving what has been said earlier – ‘We remember Gods and Soldiers only at the time of crisis.’ At home, we did our bit lighting candles in honour of every soldier who made that victory against all odds a reality. And earlier that week, thanks to the DESH group of Adrija, Vikas and Anasuya, some of us got together with one such battle-scarred Kargil returned hero – Capt Naveen Nagappa. It was an emotional meeting- seeking images of our sons, fathers, husbands and brothers in Naveen, sitting proud and humble amidst us, telling us about his experiences. When he said ‘all gave their some but some gave their all’, we were humbled and touched beyond words.
Thinking of what Akshay would have wanted me to do today, 8 months after he left, fighting for all of us, here I am, trying to recollect and recount Kargil from 18 years ago.
The Line of Control between India and Pakistan stretches across high mountainous peaks and valleys and a national highway connecting Srinagar to Leh cuts through Kargil. Because of the extreme winter weather in Kashmir, Indian and Pakistan Army commonly abandoned forward posts each year, reoccupying them in the spring. That particular spring, the Pakistan Army used deceit and reoccupied the forward posts within Indian Territory early. It was a tip-off by a patriotic shepherd in the Batalik sector which led to the exposure of the infiltration.
By the second week of May 1999, the Pakistanis had ambushed an Indian army patrol team led by Capt Saurav Kalia. Defying every rule of war agreed to in the Geneva Convention, the brutes tortured, killed and mutilated our soldiers before returning their bodies. Even after that incident, we did not know the details of their sneaky plan to take away huge parts of our motherland without waging a ‘conventional’ war.
A 160 km long stretch on the border of the LOC, overlooking a vital highway on the Indian side of Kashmir had been infiltrated by Pakistani army (Northern Light Infantry and Special Services Group). Pakistan targeted Kargil for incursions because its terrain lent itself to a pre-emptive seizure. The outposts on these ridges generally stood approximately 5,000 metres (16,000 feet) high, with a few as high as 5,600 metres (18,000 feet). Apart from the district capital, Kargil, the populated areas near the front line in the conflict included the Mushko Valley and the town of Drass, southwest of Kargil, as well as the Batalik sector and other areas, northeast of Kargil. With tactically vital features and well-prepared defensive posts atop the peaks, it provided an ideal high ground for a defender akin to a fortress. Any attack to dislodge the enemy and reclaim high ground in mountain warfare would require a far higher ratio of attackers to defenders, further exacerbated by the high altitude and freezing temperatures. The scale of the challenge was ominous.
In a prolonged conflict that lasted 74 days from May to July 1999, our braves fought back to reclaim peak after peak that had been occupied by Pakistan’s army along the LoC. This was the war that inspired a generation of kids who were around Akshay- Neha’s age of 13 years in 1999. As a family, we had followed each day since 26th May when IAF fighters launched the first airstrikes against the enemy as part of Operation Safed Sagar. On 27th May, we had lost 2 fighters with Flt. Lt. Nachikata taken POW and Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja killed in action when he went in search of his junior. Then followed the bombing of the National Highway 1A –India’s lifeline in the region.
The Indian Army launched Operation Vijay which needed our soldiers to climb the high peaks without any tree cover while being shot at in direct view of the Pakistanis sitting in fortified bunkers above. The young officers, as is the tradition in the Indian Army motivated their men, leading from the front. Since any daylight attack would be suicidal, all the advances had to be made under the cover of darkness, escalating the risk of freezing. Accounting for the wind chill factor, the temperatures often fell as low as −11 °C to −15 °C (12 °F to 5 °F) near the mountain tops. It was love for their country that made them display the kind of valour they did on the highest battlefield in the world. The first two peaks conquered under heavy fire were in the Batalik sector.
Regaining Tololing against all odds was the turning point for India. Every move against Tololing was being met with deadly covering cross-fire from adjacent heights where the intruders were entrenched. It was enough to make the army set recapturing Tololing as the current priority in the Kargil war. This is the place that claimed Major Rajesh Adhikari, Captain Vivek Gupta and Lt-Colonel G. Viswanathan, the place that has accounted for more than half the dead in this war. The thought of what our soldiers braved to do the nearly impossible gives me gooseflesh as I write.
‘Tololing being bang on the road, it choked our throats,’ said an officer. Once Tololing was taken, it took just six days for Indian troops to notch up a string of successes by evicting well-entrenched intruders. Three battalions from Naga, Garhwal and Grenadier regiments tried to make their way up to Tololing from two sides but made little headway in the face of saturation fire. When the Grenadiers began operations on May 22, they were bloodied so badly that commanders in the valley below realised what they were up against.
With virtually no cover and intruders entrenched all across the ridges in bunkers fortified with iron girders and corrugated sheets, an advance was stopped even as it began by the enemy on the heights. When the icy winds screamed along with gunfire, temperature hovered between -5 and -11 degrees centigrade. From the base, it would take at least 11 hours for a fit, acclimatized soldier to climb the 16,000 ft to the top. ‘Every gram of the weight you carry is extra load,’ says Captain Ajit Singh of the 16 Grenadiers who was part of the initial assault. ‘And you have to choose between your ration and ammunition.’ A 2-kg food pack or 100 bullets? Ajit, like many of his colleagues, chose bullets. But crawling up, inch by inch, along the steep, smooth incline in the face of blanket firing by the intruders made the troops’ task like a “suicidal mission,”
And while we all learnt about the Charge of the Light Brigade and memorized the famous poem by Lord Tennyson, we have failed to write poetry or sing in praise of our heroes of Kargil. A friend, Pratap Deshpande, had recalled last week, how that assault to stop Russians had ended with very high British casualties and no decisive gains, but the lines of the poem emphasise the valour of the cavalry in bravely carrying out their orders, regardless of the obvious outcome. And rightly so. Our braves went further – not just in obeying orders regardless of the outcome, but also in ensuring a decisive victory. That we forget that, hurts.
The re-capture of Tiger Hill (Point 4660) was the other major victory which was a physical and psychological blow to Pakistan . Tiger Hill is 5062 metre high with sharp conical features, which stands majestically among the mountaintops a few kilometres north of Drass. One cannot miss it, or help admire it, as one drives along NH 1A from Zojila to Kargil. Who can forget the sight of the Tricolour hoisted atop Tiger Hill on 4th July? This broke the back of the entire Pak resistance. In India, a wave of jubilation and relief overtook the mood of our people.
The Indian Air Force supported the Indian Army with ‘Operation Safed Sagar’, but its effectiveness during the war was limited by the high altitude and weather conditions, which in turn limited bomb loads and the number of airstrips that could be used.
The victory came at a very high price. As per official reports, India lost 527 braves and 1,363 were wounded. The loss on the Pakistani side was between 357 and 453. The Indian Army declared the mission successful on July 26, 1999. Since then, the day has been celebrated annually as Vijay Diwas.
In his book on Kargil From Surprise to Victory, General V P Malik (the Chief of Army Staff during OP Vijay) recounts mainly how gutsy infantry units which, with minimum acclimatization, fought doggedly uphill to dislodge the Pakistan Army’s stalwart Infantry troops settled in strategic gun positions and fortified sangars. He writes ‘A reflection on the Kargil War will never be complete without a mention of the brilliant junior leadership that we witnessed during the battles. It was an eye-opener for those who lament that the armed forces are no longer attracting the best talent, or that the training in our basic military institutions has got diluted, or that our young leaders are less motivated.’
‘The Cassandras and pessimists were proved wrong! In every battle, the young officers were upfront, not hesitating to make any sacrifice to uphold the regimental and national pride and dignity. With great determination, high morale and exemplary leadership, our troops performed superbly. There were countless acts of most extraordinary valour, courage and grit to achieve what would have appeared impossible under normal circumstances.’
On this Vijay Diwas, I watched martyr Amit Bharadwaj’s father on TV. The proud father was saying; ‘I am proud of my sons sacrifice for the country. He was the first in our family to join the army. He could have been a doctor or engineer but chose to join the Armed Forces and through him, I have seen this is the one organization that has vast knowledge and culture and most importantly, knows how to sacrifice for the country. Everybody should be ready to sacrifice for our country.’
Unparalleled bravery by young officers like Vikram Batra, Manoj Pandey, Padmapani Acharya, Anuj Nayyar, Vijayant Thapar, Balwan Singh, Amol Kalia, Sachin Nimbalkar and living legends Param Veer Sanjay Kumar and Yogendra Singh Yadav must never be forgotten. Commanding officers like Ravindernath, Khushal Thakur and Lalit Rai displayed steely resilience and single-minded devotion to duty. Air Warrior Ajay Ahuja gave his life for saving his brother officer. And for every courageous, gallant act recognised and honoured, there were many that went un-noticed and unsung in the fog of war.
These legendary tales deserve mention not only in our military history books but also in the textbooks of our primary and secondary schools, to be able to inspire young children.
Akshay was inspired too. He did not waver in the face of unexpected and grave danger during the Nagrota terrorist attack. When he gave up his all – as have thousands of brave soldiers in the past, he joined his band of brave brothers in bringing honour to his family, his unit, the Indian Army and our country.
I urge each one of you to watch this video.
P.S. If the kids in the family havent seen the Hindi movie Lakshya, please do encourage a watch.