The Heroes of Kargil - A Tribute

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Postcard from the Ridge

Morale through the mule mail, the battle cries of Buddhists, the search for spies and extreme courage under fire. The vignettes of a cold, hard war.

White flags signify a ceasefire. Ever since the war over Kargil first started in early May, white flags have come up on the LoC thrice, but not as a gesture of peace. The purpose was grim: an occasion to exchange the dead. The first time flags were raised was by the Pakistanis when they were returning the body of Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja who had bailed out in search of Flight Lieutenant K. Nachiketa. The second time, when India returned the bodies of three Pakistani soldiers; the third on June 9 to receive the bodies of six Indian soldiers. The macabre exchanges take place at post 43 in the Kargil sub-sector. 

The Pakistanis' hate-love relationship with things Indian is legend. It continues even during combat. A curious mix of items were found in the pockets of the three dead soldiers of the Pakistan Army's Northern Light Infantry. While two of them were carrying letters they had intended to post to their families, one of them had a photograph of Hindi film actress Sonam in his wallet. It seemed to be a case of being united in death. The bullet that went through him also pierced right through the picture of Sonam's pretty face.

An evening in the life of the Bofors men. It's 8.00 p.m. and the darkness has begun to descend on the horizon of a mountain ridge in the Batalik sector, at least 20 km inside the loc. On a rocky mountain plateau, men of the artillery are busy with their weekly ritual: a soldier reverentially distributes prasad. It's a Monday when the men of the artillery forsake liquor, meat and cigarettes. After the prasad is distributed, the soldiers charge towards the battery of six artillery guns. Shouting "Bajrang Bali ki jai", they prepare the 12-tonne Bofors guns and load the 43-kg shell. As soon as instructions to fire are conveyed by the Fire Direction Centre close to LoC the guns go off, fire balls followed by thunderclaps. "We are serving dinner to the enemy," chuckles a JCO.

Faith reigns supreme in battle and mirrors India's diversity. Convoys of Hindu and Sikh troops proceeding from Leh to the battle front religiously halt at Gurdwara Pathar Sahib, associated with Guru Nanak Dev, on the Leh-Kargil highway to pay their obeisance, amidst cries of "Bole so nihal". Jawans and officers of Ladakh Scouts sought the blessings of the Dalai Lama who was visiting Leh before joining battle formations in the last week of May. On the Batalik-Leh road, a company of Ladakh Scouts gets prasad from the local lamas who read scriptures as the soldiers raise their battle cry: "Ki Ki So So Lhargyalo (The gods will triumph)."

The army's biggest morale booster: letters. Soldiers struggle in this high-altitude battle; breathing is difficult in these walls of rock and snow that soar 17,000 ft and above; a normal day is icy cold at minus 13 degrees Celsius. But they're willing to bear all that as long as they get letters from home. So the army's Postal Service Corps is running a mule mail, using the hardy animals to deliver the letters to the unlikeliest of battle zones. The mules trudge up to 35 km in the mountains and the mail runs through a hand-it-down line of "link parties" once in three days to soldiers up front. "They can survive without food but not letters," says a major of the Grenadiers in Drass. 

What do soldiers eat as they fight in these glacial wastes? Their 20 kg backpack carries, apart from ammunition and hand grenades, survival rations of gur chana (jaggery and gram) and mathri (a savoury). Their supplies are replenished once in three weeks by the link parties. It's called a "glacier ration", light in weight but high in calories. "You consume the minimum, so there's no need to defecate for three or four days; also you never know when you will get the next replenishment" says a para commando. Water? Melted snow. Adds a major of 1 Bihar: "Getting aloo-puris once in a while up there is like a luxury". 

Travelling on the Kargil-Srinagar highway is both nerve-wracking and frightening. With more stretches coming under the firing range of the Pakistani artillery and air defence guns, it's a highway of terror. The narrow, winding road is littered with memorials of those killed by Pakistani shelling in the past. At night, travelling with head lights on is a sure invitation for potshots from across the loc. Shelling disrupts traffic but only momentarily. The army vehicles and private trucks with essential supplies don't stop. On at least two occasions, the India Today team escaped shells by metres. The thumb rule to ducking enemy fire, as the truck drivers will tell you, is not to stop, even if a shell misses you narrowly. Artillery is an "area weapon", meaning in a few seconds the second shell will land at the same spot. "Even the enemy gives you a few seconds to escape death," says the driver of a petrol tanker. 

How are areas, which the Pakistanis can't see, being pounded with such precision? Though shelling has somehow spared Kargil town this time -- only two shells landed in the civilian areas in the last four weeks -- security agencies are concerned and intrigued by the continuous and precise pounding of the nearby Baru area which has offices of the military and district administration. Suspecting that Pakistani shelling is being directed from the Kargil area by an enemy agent with a high frequency wireless set, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) has requisitioned a direction finder, an instrument which can home in on the clandestine wireless set-up. The shelling is a continuing nightmare, and weary locals have developed a sixth sense to judge if the shelling is "ours" or "theirs". Every now and then, they look skywards, not praying to the gods for relief but to listen for the whistling of the shells. 

Kargil is now a town of bunkers. At least 1,000 of them have been built in the past year. Those without access to bunkers have migrated to safer places. District administration officials have bunkers at their residences. The shelling scare has reached the army, doorsteps as well. Soon after half a dozen shells landed around the Brigade Headquarters, trenches were dug inside the army complex at a feverish pace and jawans on sanitary duty reinforced their pickets and built more and more bunkers. 

With the media clampdown by the army in the war zone from June 5, Kargil has few journalists left for on-the-spot reporting. For information-hungry reporters, officers and jawans in base locations are the only source left to gather nuggets of war operations. The brass may not talk to reporters, but journalists get a warm welcome from the soldiers in the war zone. Cut off from the rest of the world, the soldiers entertain the roving journalists, update themselves on the war news, and even convey "all OK" messages to their anxious families. We were handed several hurriedly written letters, addresses and phone numbers by jawans and officers. One young officer requested us to personally visit his parents in Chandigarh to tell them he was fine. "Tell my parents that I will return soon," he implored us. Even our Ladakhi driver, Tsering Dorje, was given several letters by Ladakh Scouts jawans to deliver to their families. 

The war may be raging 200 km away from Srinagar in Kargil but passengers aboard the Indian Airlines and Jet Airways flights to Jammu and Srinagar hear a strange announcement being repeated constantly by the air hostesses: "Keep your window shutters down, it is a safety requirement." The reason is they don't want anyone to see or photograph what's outside: MiG 29 fighter escorts sent to protect every commercial flight in and out of Srinagar. After the loss of two planes and one helicopter to Stinger surface-to-air missiles, the Government isn't taking any chances. 

Cricket as war. That's always the subscript when India and Pakistan clash on the cricket field. But its larger import was clear on June 8 when the World Cup match was as keenly watched by senior officers of 15 Corps as the progress of the battle in war-torn Drass, Kargil and Batalik. As troops celebrated and burst crackers even as they fired their big guns, it became clear why an India-Pakistan cricket match is like war. Officers said the victory was a huge morale booster to the troops on the front. 

The honour of doing battle is all very well, but the soldier hungers for peace. "Saab, shanti vaarta ka kya hoga?" (Sir, what will happen to the peace talks?) was the common question asked by soldiers on the front. But when they do get around to fighting in this undeclared war, their morale is amazingly high. On the way to the hospital after being evacuated from the battle front in Batalik, a wounded jawan of Ladakh Scouts was unfazed by bullet injuries in the abdomen. "I will come back soon and sort these b***s out," he said determinedly. At another place, jawans of the Sikh Light Infantry politely told our photographer not to take photographs. Said their JCO: "Shoot us when we come back victorious." 

By Ramesh Vinayak in Kargil and Harinder Baweja in Srinagar

Courtesy: INDIA TODAY

Kargil War Heroes

 

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