Almost 15 months since Akshay. Down with a fever and throat infection last three days, I sit up in bed as I write, warm water and hot tea beside me. The medicines are helping and its been nice having Girish, Sangeeta, Neha and Pradish around for company and care, and of course Naina’s cheery presence, as she whizzes by on her ‘scooter’, asking me ‘are you feeling better avva?’ Naina has just given me a ‘Golden Trophy’ for an imaginary ‘win’ and I suspect she isn’t liking me in bed, resting! Even as Sangeeta is bringing me hot water and breakfast in bed, my own thoughts go back to Akshay. Is it co-incidence that I, someone who periodically fell ill and had major respiratory and back issues over many years in the past, remained physically fit for 15 months at a stretch? While Girish had a heart attack and other illnesses and the kids went through their own minor health issues, I was the one who was able to shoulder the responsibility of running a full home, with added energy to take care of a little kid’s needs as well. Where did the strength and good health come from? Many questions, no answers.
We passed by Akshay’s Karma Bhoomi on our way to Udhampur (J&K) and this time, did not take the exit into Nagrota. Picked up from Jammu Railway Station by Vikas on a cold morning after an eventful journey from Bangalore, we got to ride all the way up the hilly road in Captain Tushar Mahajan’s beloved white Alto. ‘With all its problems, only Tushar’s father and I can drive this old car now,’ Vikas is saying and we nod, in complete sync with the sentiment of holding on to what Tushar had loved and cherished. I could picture young Tushar driving his prized possession, his first car, a handsome young man, definitely the ‘local hero’ for a whole generation of youngsters, when he successfully completed the toughest possible training to earn the famed ‘Red Beret’ of the Para Commando.
Myriad thoughts like the twists and turns of the Tawi river that runs alongside the road jumbled in my mind. Listening to Vikas’s stories from real life, asking my own questions….. even while filled with a sadness at the thought of being so near and yet so far, I tried to focus on this visit to Udhampur, close to the Martyrdom day of the ‘Pampore’ heroes. Soon we were at ‘Tushar Nivas’ the abode of the ‘Baadshah of Udhampur’, enveloped in the warmth of Tushar’s mother’s hug.
Her lovely face had a smile while the eyes had something else. An understanding of pain and the attempt to comfort without exchanging words. That is what I think Asha and I share……it is felt between us. In less than a year, we met for the second time, after being connected through Tushar and Akshay. With Tushar’s magnificent aura around us, we were soon joined by Tushar’s father, Dev Raj Gupta Ji and young friends Syngdha, Anita, Lakshmi and little Lavanya, for a ‘pot-luck’ breakfast accompanied by chatter and cheer.
I ask Dev Raj ji if there are others in the family in the Armed Forces and he shakes his head saying ‘no.’ Then adds, ‘Tushar ko bachpan se hi Army ka bada shouk tha. Ye usike undar se aaya hoga. Teen saal ka tha aur kahta tha mein Army officer banoonga (Tushar wanted to join the army since childhood. This passion must have come from within him. He was hardly three when he would say I will become an Army officer).’ He was a very active and naughty child with a big circle of friends who were crazy about cricket, and many glass panes in the streets around their home have been broken by Tushar’s ‘fours and sixes’!
The younger of two brothers, fondly called ‘Chotu’, sweet faced Tushar was a student of ‘Little Flower Convent’ in Udhampur up to Class 8 and later of ‘Happy Model Higher Secondary School’ up to Class 12. He joined the National Defence Academy (NDA) in the year 2006 (batch 116) at the young age of sixteen and half and thereafter went to IMA in the year 2009 (Batch 126). Young Tushar’s father, according to close friends, had wanted him to become an engineer like his elder brother, but Tushar remained steadfast and followed his childhood goal. ‘He always wanted to join the army and filled all the forms by himself. He idolized Shaheed Bhagat Singh and had this passion to serve the country,’ Dev Raj ji said. Straight after IMA, Lt. Tushar volunteered for and was selected to join the famed Parachute Regiment in the elite 9 Para SF. Tushar loved the adventurous life and took great pride in being a Commando from the prestigious Special Forces Unit, known for its daredevil operations.
The Pampore Attack and Standoff : 20-22nd February 2016:
This particular terrorist attack in Pampore, a town famous for its Saffron, and situated on the eastern side of river Jehlum on Srinagar-Jammu National Highway, took place two years ago. It started at about 3.45 pm on a Saturday, when militants attacked a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy and in the initial encounter, two paramilitary men, Driver-Constable Rana and Havaldar Bola Ram, and a civilian Abdul Gani Mir, were killed, and nine CRPF personnel were injured. Praveen Kumar, an injured constable receiving treatment in hospital, said, ‘We were coming back from vacation, I saw two ‘pheran’ clad boys on the highway, as soon as our bus reached near them, they fired on us. A bullet hit our Havaldar injuring him seriously, driver too was hit. We retaliated, but after that we don’t know what happened’.
The Lashker-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists seemed to be on a ‘fidayeen(suicide)’ mission, as after carrying out the attack, they did not flee. Instead, they entered a huge Government run Entrepreneurship Development Institute (EDI) building nearby. At that time, at least 120 people, mostly students, few faculty members and other staff were trapped inside the campus. Safety of civilians being the first priority of the Indian Army, the Special Forces were called in even as a cautious encounter with the militants holed up inside began with the use of small arms. A cordon was set all around the building to make sure the terrorists could not escape at any time, even as the gunfight continued till late night.
I would like you all to see the pictures below to try and understand how complicated the situation was. The huge multi-storied EDI building had dozens of rooms and the terrorists could have hidden anywhere. Civilians were in danger of being killed if the counter attack had been aggressive. It is that understanding that will take us forward in saluting the valour and sacrifice of the three-young brave-hearts who gave their all to succeed in thwarting the maniacal mission of the LeT terrorists to cause maximum damage. It is a well-known fact that these terrorists are not only brainwashed, trained for cruelty and armed with the deadliest weapons, but are also on mind altering drugs to keep them awake and not care about killing and dying.
The efforts to evacuate trapped locals began under the leadership of Captain Pawan Kumar, 10 Parachute Regiment. Born on Army Day on January 15, 1993, this 23-year-old was destined to be a part of these operations when he had refused to go on leave after a previous injury in an encounter in Pulwama.
Speaking about Capt Pawan Kumar, Lt Gen Satish Dua GOC Chinar Corps said, “He had voluntarily taken upon himself to lead his men into this most difficult phase of the operation.” That he led his team to deliberately clear the building in which the terrorists had been holed up and evacuated civilians to safer places, is testimony to his leadership and maturity. After cautiously evacuating civilians from the premises, Capt Pawan Kumar, in the wee hours of Sunday morning, led his men from the front as he entered the building and drew a fatal volley of fire, to which the daring commando and his team quickly retaliated. He later succumbed to his grievous injuries but not before fixing the location of these terrorists thereby facilitating the progress of further operations. In the exemplary display of raw courage, leadership par excellence and esprit-de-corps, he has become a part of military folklore.
It was after Capt Pawan Kumar’s martyrdom that young Capt Tushar Mahajan, 9 Para SF took on the responsibility of continuing their complicated mission. If they were absolutely sure that there were no more civilians trapped inside the building, maybe they could have waited till the terrorists had tired or run out of ammunition. Unfortunately, that question did not have a clear answer. Tushar went in once again leading his mean from the front.
I have said this before and say it again. The high officer casualties in the Indian Army is because our officers live and die by the motto of ‘Service Before Self’ and the IMA Credo of ‘The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.’
A sad commentary on how anti-terrorist operations in the valley are so difficult for our men in uniform is borne out by the way local youth are politically instigated and paid by separatists to add fuel to the fires. While the EDI building had been cordoned off from all directions, witnesses said youth resorted to heavy stone pelting on the security forces in Pampore. Scores of boys blocked the highway at different places in Pampore town after the news of encounter spread in the area. Reports said that youth pelted stones at security forces at Frestabal, Drungbal and Kadlabal. The youth blocked the roads with logs of wood and burnt tyres on roads. Police swung into action and fired several teargas shells. “Two youth received minor injuries due to tear gas shelling. They were discharged after first aid,” a doctor at SDH Pampore said.
Youths from adjoining areas tried to march towards the site of encounter and help the militants in making an escape route. An injured person confessed that he marched towards the encounter site along with his friends and several villagers. “With an aim to save the militants, we were trying to move towards the encounter site but police fired pellets, teargas shells. They also fired in the air and prevented us from approaching the encounter site…My other friend also sustained pellet injuries in his face,’’ he said, while showing pellet marks on his body. As per reports, a day after the encounter, mosques in several localities played songs and recordings praising the terrorists.
The Pampore encounter finally ended after 48 hours when all three LeT terrorists were gunned down by our Special Forces. Our motherland had lost three more valiant sons in Capt Pawan Kumar, Capt Tushar Mahajan and Lance Naik Om Prakash.
Home They Brought Our Warriors Dead….
Tushar’s father Dev Raj ji recollects, ‘I had no knowledge that Tushar was part of the ongoing operation in Pampore, but when I came to know about the martyrdom of Captain Pawan Kumar I was sad for the whole day. How many more of the most wonderful children will attain martyrdom? Tushar has made the entire nation, especially his hometown proud. Though I have lost my son I am proud that he laid down his life for the nation, an honour which only a few can get,’ his father added. As 26-year-old Tushar’s mortal remains reached the headquarters of army’s Northern Command at Udhampur, his mother Asha ji broke down and almost fainted while hugging her son’s coffin.
“We are sad that we have lost a brave son of the soil but the martyrdom of Tushar, whom I know since childhood, has set a benchmark in nationalism for others to follow. This is the distinction which makes him stand apart from others,” Parveen Kumar, a local resident said. Tushar’s roommate & ‘Buddy’ in the Academy, Kshitij Mishra wrote in his tribute; ‘A very simple guy, to whom you could go asking for help any time and you won’t return disappointed. An excellent cross-country runner, firer, sportsman and in academics too he was a genius. An all-rounder in the true sense! Tushar Mahajan was a man who wore his heart on his sleeve. I have been lucky enough to have known him, to have lived with him for a year, and to have been his brother from another mother. If the phrase “Nerves of steel and a heart of gold” could epitomize a person, there could be no man more suitable than Tushar.’
On hearing about his son’s death, Capt Pawan Kumar’s father Rajbir Singh’s first reaction was, “I had one child, I gave him to the Army, to the Nation. No father can be prouder.”
The young bravehearts’s death and his father’s comments were in stark contrast to the developments in his home state Haryana, which was burning due to agitation by the Jat community demanding reservation, and JNU in Delhi boiling with debates of anti-nationalism. For Captain Pawan Kumar, a Jat and a Jawaharlal Nehru University degree holder, all that mattered was love for the country and not calls of “azadi” on the campus or reservation demand by his community members in Haryana.
Capt Abhimanyu, who was seen wiping his tears while paying tributes to his friend Capt Pawan, said that his sacrifice had taught a lesson to the youth of the state that if one has to lay down his life, it should be for the sake of one’s country.
Lance Naik Om Prakash, 32, was also injured during this gunbattle and succumbed to his injuries later. He had been earlier awarded with the “Asadharan Suraksha Seva Praman Patra” by the prime minister on August 15, 2013 for gallantry in counter-terrorist operations.
His younger brother Sanjay was informed at 2 pm on Sunday that Lance Naik Om Prakash had been gunned down by a group of terrorists holed up in a government building. The news left Sanjay crestfallen, but he was seized by an even greater problem – breaking the news to his brother’s wife, Krishna Devi (32), and daughters Muskan (7) and Simran (3).
Even as Chikhal – the martyred soldier’s village in Himachal – mourned his loss, Devi remained unaware of the tragedy because she was visiting a relative in Solan. “I am going there to bring bhabhi and the others home. Please don’t talk to her about this,” Sanjay said, adding that the family has only been told that Om Prakash is injured. “He was brave. I miss him but also feel proud that he laid down his life for the country,” he said, adding that Om Prakash’s death has hit their father Nek Ram and mother Dropti Devi hard. ‘In Om Prakash’s death, an elderly couple has lost their son, a woman has lost her husband, and two little girls have lost their father,’ said Ram Lal, a Government teacher in the village.
While the Nation honoured the two young officers with the Shaurya Chakra (Posthumous), the facebook posts by Tushar and Pawan speak more about their courage, commitment to duty and maturity than all that I have written in this post.
‘Kisiko reservation chahiye to kisiki ko azadi bhai, humein kutch nahin chahiye bhai, bas apni razai (Some want reservation, others want Independence but I do not want anything, except my blanket) – This was the last Facebook post by martyred Capt Pawan Kumar.
His brother officer, Capt Tushar Mahajan, referring to loud displays of Patriotism, had posted this telling statement on 26th January 2016; ‘So jayegi kal lipatkar Tirange ke saath almarih mein….Desh Bhakti hai Sahib, tareekon par jaagti hai (It will go to sleep tomorrow, along with the Tricolour in the almirah….. Patriotism it is Sir, awakens only on certain dates).
Rising Security Concerns
At this point, my thoughts wander. ‘No attacks in built up areas can take place without some local support’, is what we were told when we went to Nagrota. We were also told that the demography of this previously safe region was changing, as the Government has been encouraging settlers in forest lands. In the past week, the Army Chief has been vociferously criticized by politicians of the hue of Azam Khan and Owasi for his concerns over national security because of illegal immigration into Assam and close by regions. Why is it that those who ensure the freedom of speech and movement for the rest of us countrymen have no right to their own freedom of speech? Protected politicians are free to divide and rule and soldiers must continue to keep shut, even though they are the ones who fight for and die protecting our freedom? Is the Irony lost on the rest of our citizens? I sincerely hope not.
The TV is on as I come close to finish writing. Beautiful, talented Sridevi has left for her heavenly abode and all of Bollywood is talking about their great loss and how she has left too soon. While sharing their sentiments, please do spare a thought for the fact that the ages of our own bravehearts was less than half of Sridevi’s. Naina looks at the TV and with a look of grave concern on her tiny face says, ‘Avva, that aunty’s beta has gone dead.’ I gently correct her impression saying, ‘only that aunty has gone sweetie. Her two betis are fine’. Naina smiles. I feel the urge to weep. May her kids forever stay blessed. RIP Sridevi. That you will have great company up there is something to cheer about?
Even as I come to the end of this tribute to the Pampore Saviors, my thoughts run along to the similarities they share with Akshay. The passion to serve our motherland since a very young age, their lively, helpful, loving and attractive personalities which belied that single minded focus to follow their calling. And finally, when faced with a situation that demanded indomitable courage to save others, each of the young soldiers displayed leadership as they fought fiercely and succeeded. They did so sacrificing their own lives, so that many people they did not even know, could return safely to their own homes. I hope this attempt to pay tribute to brave-hearts I myself have not met, somehow brings them closer to all of you.
As always, I look forward to your comments, feedback and suggestions, even as we move ahead, connected through Akshay.
Love and God bless you all.