29th November 2016: Jaish e Mohammed terrorists had infiltrated from Pakistan, been hosted by local cadre at a Jammu lodge, then driven and dropped for a well planned attack. They climbed a small hillock and breached the wall of Nagrota Cantonment via a tree without being challenged. Well before dawn, they had opened fire with their AK 47s and grenades, killing three sleeping soldiers and a guard…..’
Five years since that fateful day when Akshay led his QRT to save many lives in Nagrota after Jaish terrorists from Pakistan attacked Nagrota Cantonment, we are even more proud of him and the band of brothers in olive green who immediately swung into action and fought so hard. In the long & fierce battle where the advantage was always with the terrorists who were sheltered inside buildings that housed our families, were far better armed with automatic weapons, UBGLs and even anti-tank rockets, it was sheer courage and commitment to nation that made our bravehearts give their all so that trapped families were not taken hostage. Neither were the terrorists allowed to escape. In the hours of fierce battle before reinforcements came in, Kunal, Akshay and Chittaranjan, in that order, courageously sacrificed their own lives to save precious lives of children women & men.
It has also been over 3 years since we as a grieving family decided to do what we could to carry forward that courageous legacy of service through Major Akshay Girish Memorial Trust. Today, it is pride over pain that we feel… having made that small but significant difference to many people who need help…. different needs… different places….. different ways of being connected with many wonderful people…. out there to make a difference.
One such connection took us to the less travelled districts of Doda and Kishtwar in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir. Picked up at the airport and driven by Vikas Manhas, the ‘soldier’s storyteller’, we first drove through beautiful Baderwah, enjoying the hospitality of local people, great food, amazingly scenic peaks and valleys and ancient temples of Vasuki Nag. There was a film crew from Bollywood shooting in the valley, families from Jammu with roots in the hills were driving around Padri Pass to show children their home towns and beautiful villages, and trekkers were enjoying scenic sights on their climbs. As always, we visited many families of braveheart soldiers and bonded with brave wives, sweet children, supportive siblings and trying to be brave parents, much like us.
What was different in this trip was that we got to see for ourselves, the tremendous work that the Indian Army is doing for local population through multiple initiatives under ‘Operation Sabhavana’. In fact, I must say we were very lucky to meet wonderfully motivated Rashtriya Rifles personnel of all ranks, deployed under Delta Force. What we saw went far beyond what we thought they do to ‘win hearts and minds’ by running schools and providing much needed medical services for locals in remote areas. Youthful energies are being channelized into sports, many keen to join the forces are being coached to help them clear tough entrances. Their many talents from art and craft to music and singing, painting and stitching are being encouraged. And the response is there for all to see.
Women’s Empowerment initiatives have led to training and support not only for sewing pretty clothes, masks and jute gift bags but also providing equipment and training for vacuum packing of famous & abundantly harvested Kishtwari walnuts, exotic saffron and even lavender oil. I was so happy to see the young women’s self-help groups hygienically shelling and packing the walnuts that I made a small video and posted it to twitter and the warm response was in the form of orders from across our country! Yes, they are just starting out and yes, there were some delays in delivery of orders because of distance and limited courier services, but know for sure that these are just hiccups. Encourage their efforts and many such groups will enhance their earnings while we enjoy the best produce at reasonable prices.
It was as recently as June this year that a CO from Rashtriya Rifles connected with us as a friend of Akshay’s CO. A few weeks later, he asked if we at MAGMT could help a talented young girl with dreams, born without arms, get prosthetic limbs. On an impulse, I said we would do our best. Things moved with speed and amazing Anupam Kher, actor with a heart responded to my message on social media. Between July and September, Sheetal had made 2 trips to Bengaluru, got the best team of doctors led by Dr Pramod, had stump surgery and prosthetic arms! Preeti Rai of Being You and I had grown really fond of Sheetal as we spent lots of time with her, took her and her parents around Bangalore and watched her joyfully embrace the new experiences. So, meeting young Sheetal and her family again, this time not in our city but trekking up to in their home in Kishtwar’s hills, having her show us around, meeting her friends and their goats, hearing about her school and upcoming class 10 exams…. as we chatted sitting in a place as beautiful as heaven, with our feet in the river….priceless!
We were certainly surprised at how safe and comfortable we felt going around seeing places regarded by most as ‘dangerous’. Like in most other towns across India, even in Doda and Kishtwar towns, shops and markets were bustling, playgrounds were full and women in traditional attire were walking early morning to stay fit! We went right from the sparkling Chenab valley up to Sinthan top in the majestic Pir Panjal mountains beyond which lies Srinagar. There were horse rides, talented young musicians and Muein Raja singing most soulful songs starting with ‘teri mitte mein mil jaavan’. Unfortunately, we did not have time to go across, but urge you all to plan a longer vacation in the coming months and years. We were also met by very senior officers heading Delta Force and were facilitated to meet many families of soldiers who have sacrificed lives defending the nation, ex-servicemen, and young widows without source of income and children who need support. We have committed to doing our bit, means permitting. It does feel like Akshay, our guiding light, is taking us places….. and making us aware of what else we need to prioritise in the years ahead.
The good news is that locals are talking peace and terrorist infiltration has been controlled to a great extent in recent years. That of course is because the Rashtriya Rifles, primarily raised as a Counter-Insurgency Force in the nineties, to deal with terrorism in the valley, is led by motivated COs, young officers, JCOs and other ranks volunteering to take on dangerous tasks to keep us safe. That in about 25 years they have neutralized over 17000 terrorists which includes over 9000 killed and remaining apprehended / surrendered shows how effective they have been. Tough against terror with healing touch and support for local people has been the focus. The response is now visible with people approaching the army for help and being vocal in their appreciation.
As I come to the end of this post, can’t help but revisit memories and conversations with Akshay. ‘Next year I will volunteer for an RR tenure ma…. it is an experience I do not want to miss’, he would say. No wonder every young smiling soldier I saw there reminded me of Akshay. Yes, they are like our sons too. And we are very grateful to each of them and to their families who sacrifice their sleep to keep us safe. Akshay made it to the stars instead of to RR…. but he seems to have made sure we are connected to his brothers who are doing a tremendous job in difficult circumstances. That the Indian Tricolor is fluttering in all its glory over homes, meadows and mountains of J&K warms the heart and makes hopes soar. The appreciation we heard on change taking place and praise from local people for help they get from the army in these remote places is real. Yes, peace and development will need more time, patience and effort from all stakeholders…. but the right start has been made.
Jai Hind Ki Sena!