"I'm going home soon"
He did. But in a coffin, escorted by mate Joginder to his village in Johragaon, near Aligarh. He died while stalking militants in Kupwara forests.
Yogendra was to get married this June 30. All his mother could say as she clutched her son's coffin was: "Tu to baraat la raha tha. Yeh teri baraat hai?" (You were going to bring a baraat. Is this it). An aggrieved grandfather stroked his hair fondly, saying: "Arre, mera bahadur bachcha." Father Niranjan Singh is heartbroken, as are his three sisters and a brother. Yogendra was their lifeline. But he was also the brave son of a brave mother, who'd written to his mentor saying: "Tell mother, I'm going to observe the dharma of a kshatriya."
Rifleman Yogendra Singh, 23, of Rajputana Rifles was looking forward to coming home. It had been a long journey. From grinding poverty, from that kutcha brick house in Johragaon near Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh to the proud certitude of this uniformed self- assuredness in Kargil. Now there was much to look forward to: a future, a bride this June 30 when he would return home to the admiring gaze of his peers. To marry in style, build that pucca house... That June 7 morning at Kupwara he walked up to fellow rifleman and village neighbour Joginder Singh-"Tell me if you want to send anything home. I'm going soon." Next day, at 3.30 am, Joginder and he were part of a patrol stalking militants in the Kupwara forests. The early morning calm was shattered by a hail of machine-gun fire. Joginder saw Yogendra eerily lit up by the muzzle flashes, spin and fall. He took seven bullets in his chest and side even as he fired back at the flash. By the time they brought him down the mountain, he was dead. So was his future. And the hopes of a desperately poor family whose sole moral and financial anchor he'd been over the last two years. June 10. En route to Aligarh, Joginder, escorting Yogendra on his last journey home, is numb, dazed. "He wanted to carry something for me. Now I'm carrying him home...," he trails off.
Yogendra's body is received with due honours at Delhi airport on a sultry Thursday, June 10. After the solemn shok shastra ceremony at the Parade Ground we accompany the van carrying his body to Johragaon. En route a drip drunk villager who we stop to seek directions from gratuitously picks up a fight, showers abuse, even fisticuffs, on the hapless Joginder, even as villagers scurry to break up the fight. "These are the people for whom we risk our lives," says a sardonic Joginder. "How could I retaliate on an occasion like this?" Dust swirls on the kutcha road that winds 20-odd km into this village, home to 80 families. There's no electricity. Through the pitch black we hear an eerie howling. The primal sound of community mourning. As the van grinds to a halt, grieving relatives claw at its door, craving a look at the coffin which accompanying jawans offload. Yogendra's father Niranjan Singh, a tall, gaunt man with eyes like a desert passes out at the sight of the coffin. Three sisters weep hysterically while half-crazed mother Moorti clutches the coffin's wooden edge repeating, "Beta, tu to baraat la raha tha. Yeh teri baraat hai?" (Son, is this the wedding party you promised to bring here?)
Morning blazes down on the sorry plains. It's a poor village. The ground is unyielding, crops meagre. Niranjan, the sickly father, tends his 20-odd bighas somehow. Yogendra's salary was the family's sole support. The lifeline to a better future for the soldier's teenage brother Kishen. Two years into his tenure in the army it's all over for Yogendra and his family. As the 1,000-strong crowd from here and neighbouring villages await the arrival of the army detachment from Mathura that will offer the final salute, the body is taken out of the casket. The mother's anguished screams rend the air; brother Kishen literally writhes in pain at the sight of the broken, swollen body of his once handsome brother. The village sarpanch admonishes the inconsolable Moorti: "Quiet. Stop weeping. Don't you know sons are born to Kshatranis only so they can be sacrificed in war?"
In the panchayat courtyard where vips-local MP Shiela Gautam, a local legislator, DM Kishen Singh Atoria and SP Prabhat Joshi-wait for the funeral to commence, a bitter but muted dogfight breaks out between the politicians. Gautam has quietly assured villagers upon arrival that the kutcha road leading to the village would be upgraded, named after Yogendra. The mla asks her to make a public announcement. "I shan't," she bristles. "I don't see the need to lie about what's yet to happen." Visiting army jawans, subedar majors from nearby Mathura mutter sardonically-"Politicians never change, do they?" Capt (retd) Jagrup Singh, a septuagenarian, approaches me. "I knew the boy. He looked up to me," he says as he produces a letter Yogendra wrote him just before leaving for Kashmir. "Main har cheez ke liye dil se taiyaar hoon. Ma ko bolna kshatriya ka dharam nibhane ja raha hoon." (I'm ready for anything. Tell mother I'm going to observe the dharma of a kshatriya.)
In the field where he'll be cremated Yogendra is lain on the ground. His frail grandfather totters up, squats next to him, strokes his hair and moans: "Arrey mera bahadur baccha." Tears flow down grizzled cheeks. Gently, he's led away. The soldiers offer shok shastra salute, guns fire thrice in the air. The funeral is over. Not Moorti and Niranjan's despair.
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