Day & Date: 19 July 1996
Location: Transit Camp, Sundarbani (Jammu & Kashmir)
The army camp at Sundarbani has no evident reason to exist except to feed passing army men. A small mess and camp on the left hand side of the road is immediately followed by a signal detachment. That is the beginning and the end of this dot on the map. It is quiet and non-descript. But beyond the meandering roads of Sundarbani were small towns with names like Surankote, Bhimbar Gali, Krishna Ghati and Mendar. Poonch lay further to the North, at the feet of the Pir Panjal mountain ranges. These names sounded odd and new to our ears.
Major RK Anuj, Adjutant 17 Kumaon, walked up to where Varun, Capt. SK Anand, Lt. Padmaja Kishore and I were standing.
“Hi guys”, said Anuj. He was unusually cheerful, which boded well for us youngsters. With Anuj, you never could be sure and a response would surely have to be measured. It could be an ambush. It could mean…if you are so cheerful it means you are free and have no work, or…why shouldn’t you be held accountable for the state of the rain forests in Brazil etc. But even with Anuj, sometimes a ‘Hi’ was simply a greeting.
“Hi Sir”, I answered. Anuj was just 3 months senior to me but had already acquired the aura of a full colonel.
“So, what’s up? Had lunch?” he asked.
Varun looked at Maj. Anuj with suspicion and then decided that it was a genuine question with no hidden meaning. It was safe to answer this question.
“Yes Sir. What about you?” asked Varun, tentatively.
“Yeah, I just finished mine. Hey, we have a holiday tomorrow so that we can settle down and get our bearings right. Training starts the day after”.
We got into our vehicles and soon our convoy was rolling up the hillocks. I looked back to check is the convoy was moving behind us and saw that it was gently gathering speed. Naik Khima Nand of Charlie Company had a good game of teen-patti going at the back of our one-ton truck. A few boys had joined in and betting was in progress. The Indian army soldier can do anything under the sun. He can make tea while walking in the snow; repair a punctured radiator using resins and produce ice cubes in a Belgian crystal glass full of Thumbs Up in the middle of a desert exercise deep inside Mahajan Field Firing Range at 50 degrees centigrade. The last one is another story altogether but we don’t want to waste time on inconsequential gossip, do we?
Naik Khima Nand was the ‘danda man’ of our vehicle. It is very difficult to explain to a civilian what a danda man is, or what his responsibilities are. Suffice it to say that each heavy vehicle needs one to sit in the rear. It is written in some godforsaken army order and that is logic enough. Our danda man was obviously winning and letting the world know. Soon enough, he was taking bets from Subedar Bhim Singh who was the co-driver of the water tanker right behind us. My regimental forefathers at the Kumaon Regimental Centre would weep in heaven if they ever saw this spectacle. Is this why they taught field craft and sign language to our brave soldiers? So that they could place teen-patti bets?
Our journey continued for hours and the greenery grew denser as we climbed higher. A chill was beginning to set in as the sun was well into its westward journey. Suddenly we took a left turn and into what seemed like an army-training zone. The ominous signboard said “Trespassing Prohibited”. In Punjab it would have meant that an MP (Military Police) would have escorted you out of the army area. In Kashmir it meant that you would be shot. The laws of engagement were different in Kashmir.
Soon a larger and much warmer signboard greeted us “Welcome to CITS – Sarol”. CITS or Counter Insurgency Training School, Sarol was the nursery where troops and officers were given their first exposure to anti-terror operations. This is where we shed our conventional warfare mindset and learned the basics of operating in small teams. Here, the focus was on irregular warfare and special operations.
I opened the door of my rickety one-ton and stepped out. I winced with pain as my back straightened after five hours of bad roads and worse driving. Stretching my body, I looked around. The advance party of 17 Kumaon waited for us serving hot tea, biscuits and pakoras. Beaming cheerfully was Maj. PK Nair, leader of the advance party and Officer Commanding HQ Company. I saluted him and he grabbed me by the shoulders, happy at seeing known faces.
“Thum kaise honge?” said Maj. Nair with an air or cocksureness, which said…try finding fault with my Hindi now, you idiot. Maj. Nair’s Hindi had shown little improvement even after twelve years with Kumaoni troops. His Hindi became part of the officer’s mess folklore after he regaled us with stories of a beautiful romantic movie he had seen called “Dhilwaale Dhulaniya le jaate honge”.
“Hum theek honge, Sir”, I responded with a straight face. Maj. Nair was an absolute delight to be with.
“This is 2nd Lt. Sam” said Maj. Nair, introducing me to a skinny, tall youngster by his side.
“Good evening, Sir. I am 2nd Lt. Shahnawaz Abdul Malik. You can call me Sam”, he said. I liked him immediately. He seemed an affable sort of fellow with a determined face and big, kind eyes.
“Welcome to 17 Kumaon, Sam” I said, shaking his hand.
“Thank you, Sir”, he said and then excused himself. He has guests to attend to.
Unloading of material started immediately after tea and by the time I had seen the surrounding area and gone through a round of passive smoking with Maj. Anuj, my bed had been laid and my luggage neatly unpacked in a standard Indian Army issue type 180-pound tent. My faithful sahayak stood by the tent flap with a grin a mile wide.
“Ram, Ram sahab”, Lance Naik Ramesh Chandra, said. As with all Kumaonis, his ‘sahab’ sounded like ‘saaaaab’ with the volume riding on the back of multiple ‘a’ and ending abruptly at ‘b’. He stood at attention with his hands by his side, his heels raised. It looked as if he was a rocket about to take off.
“Ram, Ram Ramesh. Kaiso ho?” I said, shaking his hand.
Kumaonis never let the chance to tell a good story slip by. In five minutes I had the entire unit gossip on my fingertips. The terrorists knew that the Kumaonis were coming and the word had spread as far as Islamabad. The ISI was understandably disturbed about us, especially Charlie Company. We had the Pakistan Army worried.
Ramesh, this simple village lad, believed all this from the core of his heart. You may well find such naivety surprising but in battle it is known to have moved mountains. It was simple, really. What you truly believed, you could accomplish. People call it brainwashing. Well, whatever works.
Much later, having bathed and changed our clothes, we gathered in our makeshift officer’s mess for a simple meal of vegetables, chapattis and dal. Having finished dinner, we walked back to our tents for a good night’s sleep.
The lanterns were dimmed and we were relaxed as the next day was a holiday for us. Our chattering slowed to a low hum and only the smokers amongst us were awake.
Our tents were pitched at the bottom of a small hill, no more than an undulation in the ground. Covered with grass, it was the ideal place for Anuj and the ‘cancer’ brotherhood to grab a last smoke before sleeping. Suddenly, we heard voices and about a dozen figures started walking down the hill, taking a small track to our right. I got up from my bed and walked to where Maj. Anuj and Maj. GC Gaur were sitting. The figures came closer. All were dressed in black dungarees and all were armed. Each person carried an automatic weapon and a side arm. I could not recognize the regiment these men belonged to and their weaponry looked strange. They wore no ranks and some of them were masked.
“Are these Rashtriya Rifles guys, Sir? Which weapons are they carrying?” I asked Maj. Gaur. I had heard about RR people wearing black.
“51 Special Action Group of the NSG. These guys are trained for anti-terrorist operations. The main weapon they are carrying is a Heckler & Koch MP 5 and the pistol is a Glock 9 mm. The sniper rile is a PSG 1. I trained with them at Manesar”, he said.
“But what is the NSG doing in this place, Sir?” I wanted to know.
“That’s beyond your pay grade, buddy. Now let’s catch some sleep” Maj. Gaur smiled.
We walked back to our tents and prepared to sleep. I could not stop thinking about the dozen black clad soldiers walking down the hill, silently. What was the NSG doing here?
I knew that the NSG was the nation’s premier anti-terror force. It was divided into various operational units. 51 Special Action Group was the anti-terrorist wing. 52 Special Action Group were the anti-hijack experts. Both these were drawn from the army. The Special Rangers Group (SRG) was drawn from the police and the para-military forces and was responsible for VIP security of some of the undesirables who comprised of our parliament and state assemblies.
For the superstitious, there are things, which are symbols of what may happen, good or bad. A guest at home in the morning is a good omen. A crow crowing at night is the harbinger of bad news. What did a dozen black cats walking down a hill mean?
I shut my eyes and tried very hard to sleep.
Major Gaurav Arya (Veteran)