Day & Date: 21 July 1996
Location: CITS, Sarol (Poonch & Rajouri Sector)
Jammu & Kashmir
“Softies”, Varun said with clenched teeth, sweat streaming down his face as he sprinted down the dirt track, finishing off the 5 km BPET in just under eighteen minutes. He was panting and glaring at the smiling Armored Corps officers who were having tea outside their tents, some of them clothed in their night suits. The Armored Corps guys waved at us, oblivious of the venom being spewed in their direction.
Infantry officers have a unique relationship with officers of the armored corps. We think of them as soft, stylish, un-soldierly, over confident and comfort loving, each progressive sobriquet more insulting than the last. There is an underlying layer of envy, too. We see them as non-conformist as against our almost Calvinistic obsession with protocol and hierarchy, their comfort loving officer’s mess as against our “forever in operations” style camp stools and their penchant for motor transport; it’s upsetting to see them zoom in their Jongas and Gypsies, past our never ending bedraggled lines of sweat stained and bleeding bodies coming back from a LRP (Long Range Patrol) or a cordon and search operation. However, most of this is perception. Armored Corps offices may not like to walk when they can ride a Jonga, but none can deny that they are top-notch professionals.
I followed behind Varun, with Sam bringing up the rear. I was surprised to find the young officer lagging behind on a run, only to be told later that he had finished in the first lot and had gone back to pick up a water bottle he had dropped.
Maj. Anuj and Maj. Gaur had finished and soon and Anuj, true to form, whipped out a packet of cigarettes, which he then started distributing like candies at a birthday party. With each inhaled breath of smoke, both officers had increasing looks of contentment on their faces, as if they had just found a solution to the vexing Kashmir problem. Wiping sweat from my face, I walked up to them. Even a dyed in the wool and thoroughly OG officer like Maj. Anuj would not send me on another BPET. Not immediately, anyway.
“Ready for the FIBUA class, Gary”? Anuj asked me. FIBUA (Fighting In Built Up Areas) class was right after breakfast. All Grewals and most Gauravs in the Indian Army are affectionately called Gary. All Chauhans and Chowdharys are Chow. Don’t ask me why. That’s just the way it is.
What should I say? Yes Sir. Three bags full Sir. Charging inside a house full of terrorists, each substance abused fractured mind brainwashed for holy war, guns blazing and stun grenades popping my eardrums is my idea of fun, Sir. Let’s do this every day of our lives, Sir.
“Yes Sir”, I said, albeit a little too loudly.
We walked back to our tents. As I entered mine, a steaming cup of tea awaited me. Ramesh Chandra waited, with a glow on his face; a glow which usually was the result of not exercising in the morning, having hogged the famed Indian Army aloo-puri combo in great volumes and washing it down with sweet and steaming tea. The crook must have told the CHM (Company Havildar Major) about the workload he was suffering from, a workload, which naturally comes from working with the Company Commander sahib.
I quickly took a bath, changed into fresh battle fatigues, or camouflage dress, as we like to call it and headed to grab a bite at the makeshift officers mess. Maj. Yadav was having his usual toast and tea. Maj. Anuj was trying voodoo on the omelette, hoping that if he stared at it for a substantially long period of time it would turn back into a hen. Maj. Gaur has finished a few omelets, a few cups of tea and was now going through a few cigarettes.
Maj. Nair was trying to speak to Hav. Dharam Singh in Hindi. Dharam Singh deserved an Oscar for looking like he understood every word. The CO was not there. It was a perfect setting. I quickly gobbled down my breakfast and had my cup of tea. It was sweet and satisfying.
As we walked to the indoor shooting range for our first FIBUA class, I could not but help notice the beauty of the place. Snuggled amongst mountains and blessed with clear mountain streams and pine trees, Sarol looked like heaven. No one casually passing by, not that there was any chance of it, would have guessed the deadly trade that was plied here. In this piece of Himalayan heaven, soldiers were taught how to kill cleanly and efficiently. Sarol was also the place that first introduced to us that dreaded word so alien to the infantry lexicon – deception. We settled down in the open-air amphitheater type classroom, chatting and generally having fun.
When the explosion happened, it happened with a force, which left us stunned. Mud and debris flew high and rained down upon us. We were rooted to the ground and simply did not know how to react. Suddenly, masked figures in Pathan suits rose from the bushes close to us, firing on us, weapons on full automatic mode. Varun was the first to react, diving down and taking cover. Immediately after, all of us were on the ground. Sam thought he had died. Maj. Gaur’s first reaction was to ensure the safety of his cigarettes. Major Anuj was the only one who looked excited. Typical Anuj. He must have been thinking, “Golly, oh golly…nothing better than a full metal jacket 7.62 mm AK 47 burst in the stomach right after breakfast”.
“Settle down, gentlemen. You are now dead,” the voice over the PA system said. Having spent a lifetime taking orders, this part was easy. We settled down.
“My name is Col. Balvinder Singh Sandhu and I am your FIBUA instructor. My boys have been watching you take a leisurely walk after a sumptuous breakfast. We ambushed you and killed all of you. You were sitting ducks”. Col. Sandhu laughed at his attempt at humor. Needless to add that he laughed alone.
Col. Sandhu was a six feet tall and athletic looking Guards officer. He had paratrooper’s wings, which impressed us all.
“Gentlemen, I have served for ten years with 1 Para Commando (Special Force) before returning to my parent unit. I have also served with 51 Special Action Group of the NSG. I am not going to teach you tactics. I will teach you how to kill without fuss or ceremony. I will teach you to shoot without thinking and aiming. It is called reflex shooting”, he said.
Col. Sandhu spoke for an hour, going into fine details of FIBUA filled with great anecdotes from his past experiences. He gave us a 15-minute break for tea. This was to be followed by live practice.
While stretching our limbs, our instructor was given a nickname. Balvinder Sandhu would be called “Bull” behind his back. With the nickname decision behind us, and hot tea inside us, we were ready for some action.
The training was conducted at furious speed and in near dark. You could not see properly, you did not have the luxury of aiming; the training area was a labyrinth of rooms and dark areas and targets popped up from nowhere. The cardboard figures were not just of terrorists but also of civilians. The idea was to kill the terrorists and leave the civilians unhurt. This was the first time we were firing semi-automatic weapons from a range of ten to fifteen feet. The whole experience was surreal, with smoke and flash-bangs going off regularly. Half of us were almost blind and deaf by the time the first training session finished.
When the results were declared, Maj. Vijay Singh Yadav was at the top of the list (no surprises there) followed closely by Maj. Anuj. The rest of us had “killed” a few civilians. Varun had shown undue respect to the terrorists by killing only civilians. Varun has not so much as touched a terrorist. In fact, with him around we did not need terrorists. Maj. Anuj gave him a long “you-better-improve-fast” stare.
“This was the first time. By tomorrow I am going to be rocking”, he said.
We walked back for lunch, all the time looking over our shoulders waiting for Bull to pull his ambush stunt again. However, even ex-paratroopers eat lunch and we were sure he was somewhere doing just that.
Lunch was an elaborate affair. Dharam Singh wanted to give us Chinese food to eat. I felt sorry for the Chinese. If they ever ate Chinese food prepared under the supervision of Dharam Singh, they would give up all claims over Arunachal Pradesh. However, we were all famished and so what if the noodles were bathed in tomato ketchup? And so what if the noodles were served with vegetable cutlets and sambhar? And so what if such a combination was never heard of in the history of gastronomy? We were guilty of changing the man’s name, for God’s sake. The least we could do was to eat his food without complaining.
We retired to our tents for a bit of rest. At 1600 hrs, we gathered at the Weapons Training Wing where we were introduced to the venerable AK 47 and it numerological cousins like VZ 58, AK 56 and distant relatives like RPGs, IEDs, pressure plates, impact fuses and their ilk. This was what the enemy would use against us.
“The enemy will attack when you least expect it. He will not wear a uniform. He will not follow the established rules of combat and soldiering. And, he will not have or show any mercy”, Maj. Karkhanis, our weapons instructor intoned.
“You must never forget that Kashmir is like a beautiful snake pit. If the terrorist kills civilians, he achieves his target. Should you ever do that, God forbid, you will be court martialled. Collateral damage is a reality of counter insurgency operations but we must keep it to the bare minimum. Keep your emotions and temper in check. Where a bullet will suffice, try not to use a rocket launcher”, he said smiling, pointing to an 84 mm Carl Gustav rocket launcher kept in the corner.
“Sometimes a friendly gesture can diffuse a situation. Do not do anything, which will alienate the locals. Always respect womenfolk, elders and local religious teachers. However, should you come across cross border terrorists, shoot to kill. Show no mercy. They have crossed the border to declare war on India. India has sentenced them to death. You are here to carry out that sentence,” he added. This rousing speech was met with a gentle snore from the back of the class. Maj. Gaur was a happy man. He was not merely dozing. He was sleeping the sleep of the righteous.
“Sir, get up,” I whispered, gently nudging him in the ribs. This did not work. Maj. Gaur was a mountain of a man. I pinched him and this woke him up. He smiled. I smiled. The class ended.
We retired to our tents for a bath and change of clothes.
Dinner was fried rice with steamed vegetables, both independently exquisitely tasty. However, together they did not amount to much. We focused on the steamed vegetables. After dinner, as we gathered around for our ritual smoking and passive smoking session, some officers wanted Dharam Singh to retire. The younger ones wanted him shot. Varun, overcome with emotion, even volunteered to pull the trigger.
In peacetime, Officers Mess’ always has an officer who is the designated Mess Secretary who further appoints a Food Member and a Wine Member to help him. But this was an operational area and no one wanted the buggery of deciding the daily menu. Cursing Dharam Singh was far easier. And so we were condemned to eating roast chicken with plain rice and boiled eggs.
As the training progressed, our conventional mindsets started to melt away. We started speaking softly and started slouching. We stopped saluting, because saluting a senior in a counter insurgency area was akin to signing his death warrant. Some started growing a beard. All of us stopped wearing ranks.
As the days passed, we found that working in small teams was the key. No speaking when sign language could be used. The instructors at CITS Sarol drilled these and a hundred other things into us day in and day out.
House entry drills were done over a dozen times everyday. We practiced ambush, counter-ambush, raid, CQB (close quarters battle), road opening party drills, weapons training, explosives, map reading, first aid, cordon and search and it went on an on. Sarol looked more and more forbidding after every sunset.
We were taught how “sources” worked, and how intelligence was gathered, analyzed and acted upon.
By end of six weeks, we had undergone drastic changes in the way we operated, thought and spoke. However, the most remarkable change was that we were transformed into a fighting unit that could think like the terrorists and fight a very different kind of fight. We had turned into something that the mujahedeen would fear.
We had become “shadow warriors”.