The past few weeks have been a see-saw of happenings and emotions. Yet, here I am again, one year, three months and twenty four days since Akshay, sharing my thoughts with all of you, even as I try to do my best to bring to you more stories of our brave and selfless heroes.
As the wintry months yielded to the warm month of March, a short break took us to Amritsar. We had been waiting to make this trip since so long. To visit the Golden Temple, because it was the last famous place of worship Akshay had been to, before destiny placed on him the huge responsibility of protecting unarmed families and defending our motherland. Many of us believe that we are drawn to shrines ‘jab bulava aata hai (when God calls us there)’ and that is what happened with Akshay-Sangeeta-Naina in September 2016, while driving to Nagrota via Amritsar, to meet friends. This time, Girish and I went to Amritsar with Prabha, Jamuna and Ankit on the invitation of Aasma’s parents and I knew our ‘bulava(calling)’ had come from Harmandir Saheb.
All through the two-day trip, my heart and mind overflowed with thoughts of Akshay. Knowing how happy he would have been at this ‘South meets North’ bonding, and his brother’s choice of Aasma as his life partner, made me also very happy. We had such a good time meeting (and eating!) with the soon-to-be extended family. While Aasma’s smiling mother effortlessly played the perfect hostess, her dad arranged for us to visit Golden Temple and Wagah border. I know Akshay would have loved being there, chatting non-stop with Pawan ji and being big brother to Ankit and the girls. And anyone who has been to Wagah and witnessed the retreat ceremony will agree that the experience unites all Indians with that rush of love and pride for our Nation.
In the Golden temple, Akshay’s smiling presence seemed everywhere. Despite trying my best to stay composed, the meltdown happened as Girish and I sat in the holy precincts of the revered Gurudwara. The tears that could not be stopped were also a release of much pent-up grief and I hope I did not embarrass anyone at such a happy time when celebrations are in the air.
Back in Bangalore, witnessing the energy of patriotic youth celebrating the 41st birthday of Taj Mumbai savior Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan filled my heart with hope and faith. Hope that real heroes who gave their all for India will not be forgotten. In pouring rain, in the open, with no electricity (so no mike), hundreds of bright eyed young people sat silently, in rapt attention, listening to inspiring young leaders like Chakravarthy Mithun and Capt Naveen Nagappa. Every time they were deeply touched, they saluted valour and sacrifice with ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai and Sandeep Bhaiya Amar Rahe.’
Another hero shares his birth month with Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan. Capt. Amit Bharadwaj, fondly called ‘Annu’ by his family, was born on 4th March, 1972. At first glimpse of the bright face of their grandson, the grandparents and the extended family rejoiced at little Amit Bharadwaj’s birth. While mother Smt Sushila Sharma, and RBI officer father, Shri O.P. Sharma were understandably thrilled, 3-year-old Sunita, their first born, fell in love with her baby brother! It was a bond made in heaven which has stood the test of time and tragedy.
Sunita talks of how Amit aimed high since a very early age. Aged around 4, he said he wanted to become someone great – ‘like a pilot or a leader whose pictures were seen in the newspaper’. Once, in a temple, he asked his mother why everyone was bowing their head and was told everyone bows down to God. Since that day, he decided he would become ‘God’ when he ‘grew up’! Little did his mother know then that countless people have since bowed before his legendary valour and sacrifice.
Amit’s sister Sunita remembers him as her little brother who was not only very good at sports but also very intelligent, excelling at his studies in St. Xavier’s Boys school. What set him apart from most others was how he instinctively went out of his way to demonstrate care, kindness and support for others. From giving up his umbrella to the rickshaw-wala who ferried them from school to draping his warm jacket on a child who did not have one, from spending his pocket money to buy food for someone poor to rushing strangers to hospital for timely medical help after an accident/ an epileptic attack, nothing seemed to deter this selfless soul. Sunita recalls how Amit once brought an injured stranger home and administered first aid himself. When his parents tried telling him that it wasn’t safe to bring home people they did not know, he countered his father by asking ‘If I had an accident and lay injured, wouldn’t you want someone to do the same for me?’
On graduating from Rajasthan University, Amit, by now well known in his neighbourhood for being a blend of kindness and courage with dreams of unity and peace, decided he wanted to serve the nation by becoming an IAS or an Army Officer. He cleared the written CDS exam the first time but not the tough SSB interview. Undeterred, he made it in his second attempt with a medical rider- he had to have corrective sinus surgery. Determined not to let anything stop his donning the Olive Greens, Amit underwent the surgery. Conscious of the fact that he had a large mole on his back, he told the doctor to remove that as well, ‘without any anesthesia,’ justifying his choice with ‘as a soldier, in case I am ever tortured by the enemy, I should be able to bear the pain’. This remarkably focused young man was selected into the Army in the year 1997 and joined the 4 Jat Regiment as Lt. Bharadwaj. From June 1998, his regiment moved to Kaksar area of Kargil.
Destiny connected two young bravehearts, Lt. Amit Bharadwaj and Lt. Saurabh Kalia like never before. Saurabh, the son of Dr N K Kalia, a senior scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and Vijay Kalia in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh was born on June 29, 1976 and after his graduation, this academically brilliant young man was selected for the Indian Army. Commissioned on December 12, 1998, Saurabh joined his and Amit’s Regiment, 4 Jat in January 1999. His first speech in his Regiment had just two lines. “Today I am proud that I have joined 4 Jat & one day 4 Jat will be proud that Saurabh Kalia joined this Regiment.” These were indeed prophetic words.
In the Kaskar area of Kargil, Amit was very happy that someone younger had joined his Regiment and he was now the older ‘subaltern’. Saurabh became Amit’s ‘baccha’ or ‘youngster’ in the Regiment as Lt. Amit took him under his wings, mentored him, became his friend and also taught him all that he had learnt as a soldier-leader.
Murders Before the Kargil War
The Kargil war may have officially started on May 26, 1999, when the Indian Army & Air Force jointly launched ‘Operation Vijay’ to throw out the Pakistanis who had surreptitiously intruded into and occupied icy, unmanned peaks on the Indian side of the LOC in Kargil sector of J&K. However, crossing the LOC into Indian territory by Pakistani rangers and terrorists dressed in civilian clothes had begun months before war was declared. The cowardly intrusion to steal part of our territory was first detected on May 3, when two local shepherds named Tashi Namgyal & Tresing Morup reported seeing strangers on a ridgeline in the Batalik sector.
The 4 Jat Regiment was one of the two units asked to verify these reports. Lt Saurabh Kalia led a 5-man patrol comprising sepoys Arjun Ram, Bhanwar Lal Bagaria, Bhikha Ram Moola Ram and Naresh Singh who braved heavy snow to get to Bajrang post in Kargil sector. But as they neared their objective around 3.30 pm on May 15, they were suddenly fired upon by the Pakistani intruders who had occupied the Bajrang Post in large numbers. Lt Saurabh and his small team fought back, even as they reported the incident back to battalion headquarters, seeking urgent reinforcements. Out-numbered by an unexpected enemy that was armed to the teeth, the patrol soon ran out of ammunition. Hours later, long before the reinforcements could arrive, Lt Saurabh and his 4 men were surrounded and captured.
Getting to the Pinnacle of Courage and Sacrifice
To find and rescue ‘baccha’ Lt. Saurabh and his team, Capt. Amit led a search party of about 35 soldiers and reached the Bajrang post. Hit by a fierce volley of enemy fire, he quickly realized that the enemy numbers at the high post were much greater than they had anticipated. Four of his men had already been hit from the enemy position of strength that gave them a clear view. Amit knew they did not stand a fighting chance. Taking a quick decision to save his soldiers, he ordered his men to retreat, report the situation to the base camp and get help. It is when faced with ‘do or die’ circumstances like these that the true mettle of an Indian Officer shines. A beacon of courage and sacrifice, Capt. Amit Bharadwaj rose to the situation to protect his soldiers and defend his country ‘at the peril of his life’. I hope all you readers will try and visualize the situation to understand what happened next.
When Amit ordered his men to retreat, he decided to stay back alone, to keep the enemy occupied, while also giving his men ‘cover fire’ so that they would get back to camp safely. Capt. Amit’s buddy Havaldar Rajvir Singh, a father of two, refused to leave his officer alone. Knowing this was a mission impossible to return alive from, Amit pleaded with Rajvir saying ‘you have a family- wife and children who need you. I am not even married. Please go back’. When Rajvir did not budge, Amit tried ‘you cannot disobey your officer’s orders.’ But Hav. Rajvir reportedly stood his ground saying ‘you can punish me for disobedience after we get back Sir. I will not leave you alone at this time’.
That is how Capt. Amit and Hav. Rajvir became a two-man fighting army to defend and save their brothers. Not only did they help save 29 soldiers of their Regiment who retreated, reports say they also killed about 10 Pakistani infiltrators. Hugely outnumbered by the enemy, both brave-hearts were hit by a number of bullets while fighting to their last breath. As per the norm, because their bodies could not be retrieved, the families were told their loved ones were ‘missing in action.’ Imagine their 56 day wait, emotions oscillating between hope and despair, prayers and tears…and try and comprehend the strength needed to cope with such a situation.
Families of the Warriors
Meanwhile, Lt Saurabh Kalia and his men were held in Pakistani captivity for over twenty-two days and subjected to demonic torture. The mutilated bodies of all five bravehearts were returned to India on June 9th. Postmortems were conducted by a panel of doctors from Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi. The death certificates of our soldiers revealed what will never be forgotten by any caring citizen. Young Saurabh had his eye-balls gouged out, ear drums were punctured with hot rods, nose, upper & lower lips were smashed; the index finger was cut (as this finger is used to fire a rifle); forearm & right shoulder was broken. The other soldiers had been similarly tortured. Cigarette burns were visible all over their bodies; their private parts were chopped; back of the head was smashed by a rifle-butt so badly that the skull was visible. These six brave soldiers went through this living hell for 22 long days before being finally shot dead by their Pakistani captors. After violating all international human right laws, Pakistan blatantly denied the torture of the six soldiers and rejected India’s demand to punish the guilty.
For the past nineteen years, Saurabh Kalia’s father has been fighting for justice for his son. He and many of us feel that our soldiers torture and murder in captivity should be declared as a war crime by the UN. He talks about the time he had met the Indian Army Chief after the Kargil war. “The army chief visited us and he told us, Capt. Saurabh Kalia’s sacrifice had woken up a sleeping nation” says the father, pride and pain visible in his eyes. Are we finally awake or will it take many more sacrifices to unite us to take a stand that supports the rights of our soldier-protectors?
Meanwhile, Capt. Amit Bharadwaj and 5 other soldiers lay where they had been martyred until Bajrang post was recaptured on July 13, 1999. Their bodies were finally retrieved 56 days after they had shed blood on 17th May 1999. When their mortal remains could be recovered, it became obvious that Amit Bharadwaj had a heroic death, his weapon held in his hands despite his body ridden with bullets. A few years earlier, on a visit to India Gate, Amit had pointed to names of martyrs and told his friend, “One fine day, you will read my name here.”
For those of you who think I am strong after losing Akshay, I bring to you the story of Amit Bharadwaj’s sister Sunita. A young mother of two when Amit was reported missing, Sunita was the first one to receive a phone call that shattered hopes of her brother’s safe return. On 5th June 1999, the caller, who did not give his name, told Sunita he had seen Amit’s body from afar. Knowing that her parents awaited his return since the Army letter only stated he was ‘missing’, she did not want to say anything that broke their hearts and spirits, unless the bad news was officially confirmed. So, this brave sister kept her own grief locked up for five long weeks, doing all she could to support her parents as they hoped and prayed for Amit’s return. He arrived finally, draped in the Tricolour.
Sunita knew then that she had to stay and care for her shattered parents. Disregarding social norms, she moved back to her parental home with two little daughters and her supportive husband and has stayed there, shouldering her dual responsibilities ever since. A year later, she gave birth to a son. For Sunita and her parents, the birth of the little one signaled Amit’s return to the family. Strangely, the baby even sported the very same birthmark Amit had, and after a fall as a baby, has a scar over the same eyebrow as Amit’s! A tiny miracle, Sunita’s son did help usher in light into their dark world. Today, Amit’s ties with his Regiment remain stronger than ever through Sunita, who is every soldier’s sister in the unit since 1999, when she first sent Rakhi’s meant for Amit to his brothers in 4 Jat. And Twenty years after Amit’s supreme sacrifice, officers and soldiers from the Regiment continue to visit the family, opting to stay in ‘Amit’s home’ rather than in any Mess or Guest house. Such are the ties of unending loyalty and respect.
Speaking with Sunita, I realise that for her, the memories of her little brother are so bright that she remembers every little detail as if they happened just yesterday. How when he came on leave, Amit would go straight from the railway station to her house to first pick up his nieces Vydehi and Jhaanvi. He would pull out the chocolates as they shrieked in delight and take them along everywhere he went, spending all available time with parents and the extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins he loved so much. He wrote very well- in Hindi and English, and the family has preserved precious excerpts from his diary, some written shortly before his martyrdom. Sunita’s little girls are all grown up now but ask them and they will express how much they miss their ‘mama(uncle)’ because he was taken away too soon and they really did not get to spend enough time with their hero.
Adrija tells me that even today, Saurabh Kalia’s younger brother Vaibhav expresses his own loss to his father saying, ‘Papa, you have another child in me but I have forever lost my one and only brother.’ I am suddenly overcome with grief thinking of how huge Neha’s loss is. For the rest of her life, she has lost a sibling she grew up with, a million memories to deal with for the 30 years they spent together. All those of you, who like me have a sibling, will understand, that it is one thing to grow up an only child and a completely different thing to have to deal with losing a sibling you love.
Will Vaibhav, the first one to ‘identify the body,’ ever be able to forgive leave alone forget, what was done to his brother Saurabh for 22 days before he was killed? Or that families of our soldiers who bore the torture and died for our motherland still await justice? Sadly, public memory and gratitude is much more short-lived. What else can explain the fact that while elections, financial scams and human rights of stone pelters dominate debates and discussions, rarely if ever do newspapers and television channels talk about the sacrifices of our soldiers, who always have and always will, give their all to defend our ‘vibrant democracy(?!).’
To each of you who have reached out, saying you find strength and inspiration reading what I write, I have to confess that I myself have been through the most terrible lows and have even contemplated the unthinkable, to escape grief and despair. Having interacted with incredible people like parents of martyrs Maj. Sandeep Unnikrishnan and Capt. Tushar Mahajan who are doing so much for others after losing their most precious, courageous wives of bravehearts like Col Jojan Thomas, Major Shafeeq Ghori, Maj Padmapani Acharya, and beautiful, ‘sorted’ children like Sufiya, Saif, Meghana, Philly and Aparajita among many others, I am today stronger and more positive about the future. I think of what Hav. Rajvir Singh’s children may have had to cope with back home in their village in Haryana and hope they have also grown up and settled down well by now. In the years to come, kids like Umang, Naina, Rehaan will also grow up as brave, humane and responsible citizens. An asset to our Nation.
As I come to the end of this post, as always, I look closely at Akshay’s picture….. maybe for some sign of approval…? I see those bright eyes glistening, the faint smile a tad deeper….and feel he knows what I am doing. Bringing you stories of our unsung heroes. I hope Amit Bharadwaj, Saurabh Kalia and Rajvir Singh will also approve of this post. I also hope that just in case some of you as young people are going through trying times, whatever the reasons may be, you will also draw on courage and perseverance to never give up on life and your dreams of a happy tomorrow.
As always, I reiterate what I have been saying all along. I am guided by my brightest star and am learning as I go along this path of staying connected with all of you, through Akshay. Please do tell me how you feel about this post.
Today, is Martyrs Day. We were not born when three young freedom fighters Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Shivaram Rajguru and Sukdev Thapar chose martyrdom over bowing their heads to the East India Company. They were hanged on 23rd March 1931. The irony is that few today realise the huge role they played in igniting the fire that led to our freedom from British rule. I know you join me in paying tributes to all our heroes since.
To each one of you on this journey with us, I can only say ‘take care’. Stay blessed and stay smiling. Love and best wishes always.
Photo Credits: I am very grateful to the families of our bravehearts, particularly Sunita Dhonkaria and member of Desh, Adrija Sen for these precious pictures. Some have also been sourced from the internet.