Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction.
31 October, Gali Maidan
25 Infantry Division, Poonch and Rajouri Sector
Line of Control, Jammu & Kashmir
Capt. Varun Batra marched into the Commanding Officer’s office and saluted smartly. The CO was in front and Maj. Anuj and I stood on his right.
Maj. Anuj came forward and removed Capt. Varun Batra’s ranks from his shoulders, leaving the shoulder flaps unbuttoned.
He then signaled to the office runner and Hav. Dharam Singh entered the office and stood smartly to attention, holding a tray. The tray had a large goblet full of neat brandy and two Major’s epaulettes.
The CO picked up the epaulettes and dipped them in brandy and then proceeded to put them on Varun’s shoulder flaps, and button them. Once that was done, Varun picked up the glass of brandy and downed it in one go, his eyes watering as the fiery liquid hit the back of his throat.
He stepped back and saluted.
“Congratulations, Major Varun Batra. You are now Officer Commanding Bravo Company”, he said.
Varun shook hands with everyone and thanked them and then marched out of the office.
The CO looked at me briefly and said, “He is a good youngster”.
“Yes, Sir. That he is”, I agreed. I saluted and stepped out of the CO’s office.
Major Nair had been posted to the Kumaon Regimental Center in Ranikhet and we would all miss him. Major Gaur moved from Bravo Company to take charge of HQ Company and Varun took over Bravo Company from Maj. GC Gaur.
We were bang on the Line of Control and liquor was out of the question. The celebration in the CO’s office was tradition and hence an exception. But our celebration in the evening comprised of soda with lime and boiled eggs.
Maj. Gaur sang songs, which no one had heard of. Maj. Anuj looked serious for some reason known to no one. Maj. Yadav was reading about Field Marshall Rommel. Well, he was always reading either about Rommel, Clausewitz or Moshe Dayan. Varun and I were listening to Maj. Gaur attentively. He was years our senior, a foot taller and about 25 kgs of pure muscle heavier. We had no choice but to listen to Maj. Gaur’s belting out song after song from the repertoire of Mukesh’s typical music of longing and separation.
We had serious smokers in that room. Soon, the room looked like someone had set off a tear gas shell inside.
“You will die of cancer. Stop smoking, damn it”, growled Maj. Yadav, momentarily leaving Rommel alone.
“Sir, just one last smoke”, requested Anuj.
And so we sang, smoked, read and drank bad lemonade till 0200 hrs. Varun badly wanted to sleep. Anuj was not having any of it. Varun was almost regretting his promotion when everyone decided to call it a day. We retired to our rooms. All of us went to our bunks and crashed out for the night. We needed a few hours rest before making the long and arduous march to our respective company locations on the LoC, away from the relative comforts of the Battalion HQs.
0725 hrs | 1 November 1996
Bravo Company, 17 Kumaon
Varun was simmering in fury. Military Intelligence sources had confirmed to CO 17 Kumaon that four Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists had managed to infiltrate through Bravo Company location two nights back.
Varun’s mind was churning. He could not understand how it could have happened. He was out on ambush personally six nights out of seven. He knew the lay of the land like his own backyard. He had placed his men and sited his automatic weapons perfectly.
But the infiltration had happened. Somehow against all odds, the terrorists had slipped past Bravo Company.
What was done was done. There was no turning back the calendar. But this was tremendous loss of face for Bravo Company. They had to make it up somehow. Varun launched a manhunt but no one in the nearby village had heard or seen any unidentified person.
Varun and his men had not slept for 24 hours. Another 24 hours and they would be on the brink of collapse.
The air was cold now, with November setting in. Varun sat on the cracked staircase of the local post office, watching school kids going to school. His CHM (Company Havildar Major), Havildar Govind Singh was with him, an experienced grizzly soldier who had seen his share of gunpowder and blood.
Varun was popular with the school kids. He would often hand out toffees to them and they would say “Jai Hind” in return. As a group of school kids walked in front of him, he started handing out orange toffees. With squeals of laughter, the children surrounded him, wanting their share. Soon, Varun was almost out of toffees.
A young Class 5th student walked in front of Varun and put out his hand out. Varun put the last toffee in his hand. As he did so, he noticed the young kid wearing a cheap Casio plastic watch.
“What’s your name?”, asked Varun.
“Junaid”, replied the young student.
“Jai Hind, Junaid”, said Varun.
“Jai Hind, Sir”, said Junaid, and walked away.
Govind was watching this entire scene with a puzzled look in his eyes. It was as if he knew there was a problem but could not put a finger on it.
“What’s the matter, Govind?” asked Varun.
“Sahab, that boy was wearing a Casio watch”, Govind said.
“Yes, Govind. It is a cheap imitation watch available for a few hundred rupees”, he responded.
“Sir, its not about the quality of the watch. It’s about the time. The time now is 0730 hrs. The watch was showing 0700 hrs”, he said quietly, realization dawning upon him.
Varun’s face turned ashen.
“And it is 0700 hrs in Pakistan”, he whispered.
Varun turned and walked quickly to Junaid.
“Hey buddy, can we talk?” he said.
“Yes, Sir”, said Junaid happily. His friends in school would think that he was somebody very important, speaking to army officers.
Varun took out a hundred-rupee note and kept it in Junaid’s hands and said, “That is a month’s supply of toffees, Junaid”.
The look on Junaid face was of pure ecstasy.
“Who got you this watch, buddy?” he asked gently.
“My chacha (father’s brother) got it for me. He works in Delhi”, said Junaid.
“He must really care for you, right?” asked Varun.
“He used to, but now he keeps to himself. He came home late at night two days back with three of this friends and has not talked to me”, complained Junaid.
“Tell me more”, said Varun.
Suddenly Junaid took a step back, frightened. His face turned red.
“What’s the matter, Junaid?” asked Varun
“My father said not to talk about my Chacha to anyone. Now I will get a beating at home”, said Junaid, close to tears.
“What’s your father’s and Uncle’s name?” Varun asked.
“Mudassir Ahmad Lone is my father and my uncle is Afzal”, Junaid answered.
“Don’t worry. I will not tell anyone. I promise. Now run off to school”, said Varun.
Junaid scampered away to rejoin his friends, and was soon out of sight.
Varun’s mind was in a whirl. He sat down with Govind on the same post office staircase.
“Govind, we don’t have time. We need to launch the operation in the next one-hour. Call Subedar Diwan Singh on radio. He should come with 2nd platoon. I want him here immediately. Tell him to skirt around the village and not be seen. I will meet him here”, Varun instructed.
“And yes, find out where little Junaid lives”, Varun added.
Govind hurried to comply.
At Charlie Company location, my 5A phone rang. It was Maj. Anuj on the line.
“Gary, take a platoon and rush to Varun’s location. He needs help”, said Anuj.
“Roger, Sir. Leaving immediately”, I answered.
I gathered 1st platoon of Charlie Company and within 5 minutes we were on our way, fast jogging to Varun’s aid.
At 0815 hrs on 1 November, Bravo Company identified Junaid’s house and a cordon was laid. It was a modest house with a ground floor and a floor above.
Laying a cordon in broad daylight is almost useless. You lose the element of surprise. Every man and his dog can see you. But it had to be done.
Varun made his operational plan. He would enter the house along with three other soldiers of Bravo Company and flush out the terrorists.
The plan was faulty. To enter into a house in broad daylight against armed terrorists was madness.
I asked my radio operator to raise Varun on the radio set.
“Golf Alpha for Victor Bravo, come in, over”, I said.
“Victor Bravo for Golf Alpha, ok over”, responded Varun.
“Hold entry till we arrive. We will be there in 30 minutes, over”, I ordered.
“Roger, Golf Alpha. I will hold….out”, Varun confirmed.
I started running towards Varun, my platoon following fast. We gave up tactical movement. We just ran towards Bravo Company. Something told me that all was not well.
The Bravo Company cordon settled in. Varun, as per procedure, sent a scout party to nose around the house and see what they could find. He had Bravo Company surrounding the house with binoculars but no movement had been spotted. Possibly, the terrorists were lying low.
Three men of the scout party crawled towards the house, taking cover of rocks and bushes. Slowly, they crawled closer towards the house. They signaled to Varun communicating that they could see no movement.
The scout party moved a little closer to the house. They must have been 15 meters from the house, well camouflaged by the bushes, when the window above them opened slowly. A terrorist looked out, pulled the pin of a high fragmentation grenade and dropped it in the middle of the three-man scout party.
The grenade exploded and screams of dying men rent the air. Body parts flew up in the sky and rained down on Bravo Company; body parts of their brothers.
The third scout member was still alive, though badly injured. Varun could see the soldier’s stomach torn apart. The soldier struggled to get up. He was suffering from shock, trauma and severe blood loss but he used the last ounce of his to slowly stand. He was staggering to keep balance but he was on his feet. With tremendous will power, he unslung his AK 47 and pointed it towards the window from which the terrorist had thrown the grenade.
“No”, screamed Varun.
The soldier fired at the window, letting loose a long burst of AK 47 fire, bullets smashing into the wall. The young brave heart had used up the last ounce of life. He collapsed, his weapon still in his hand, and breathed his last.
The martyr died heroically, knowing that his impossible yet defiant action had assuaged Kumaoni honor. His father would soon receive his body, wrapped in the tricolor and the Commanding Officer would personally tell him that his son chose to die on his feet and that his son had honored the nation and the regiment.
Cold waves of fury swept over Varun. He had seen his men being mercilessly killed by a faceless enemy.
At that moment, something snapped deep inside the recesses of the mind of Major Varun Batra. The decision was made.
“Sir, we must use the rocket launcher”, said Subedar Diwan Singh Rawat, Senior JCO Bravo Company.
“No, Diwan Sahab. Junaid’s parents may be inside”, Varun responded.
He motioned to Govind and Govind ran to comply.
In a few moments, he had ten men of Bravo Company surrounding him.
“I am going to enter the house. I need 3 volunteers who will go with me,” Varun said.
All ten soldiers raised their hands. That was to be expected. Varun picked three of the best and quickly explained the plan. They would enter through the main door, but there would be no grenade thrown in. They would enter with their AK 47’s only.
“Koi shaq ya sawaal”, he asked.
“Nahi sahab”, all three replied.
“Kalika Mata ki Jai”, Varun said to each man, shaking hands.
“Kalika Mata ki Jai”, each man responded.
My radio set crackled. I stopped running. I was panting badly with sweat streaming down my face.
“Hi Gary Sir”, it was Varun on the radio.
A cold wave of helplessness gripped me. Why was Varun not using RT (radio telephony) procedure, the laid down procedure for speaking on radio? What was wrong?
“Golf Alpha for Victor Bravo, do you…..?” I asked.
“Gary Sir, it was an honor to serve with you,” Varun said, cutting me short.
“Varun….Varun”….I screamed into the radio set. No response.
I could see Bravo Company troops surrounding a wooden house about half a kilometer away.
I started sprinting towards the house. Now there was no holding back.
Varun crawled to the entrance of the house, his team of three volunteers following at a spacing of 5 feet. As he reached the main door, he gave the hand signal to stop. The team froze.
Varun got up to a half-crouch and stepped back from the door, his team behind him with the fire selector switch of all weapons on automatic fire mode.
His right leg shot forward and smashed into the door. The door caved in and Varun moved in with his weapon aiming at the great darkness beyond.
They separated into two teams of two men each. Varun led Team One. Havildar Jaidev Singh Rautela led Team Two.
The ground floor was searched room by room. No one spoke and all communication was by hand signal.
Varun signaled to Jaidev’s team…all clear. Lets go up. I will lead.
He slowly moved up the wooden stairs, knowing fully well that one small mistake could mean death. He climbed till the landing and then signaled his team to follow. The team followed.
They slowly reached the first floor. The team led by Varun turned right. The other team turned left.
I reached the encounter site and asked CHM Govind where Varun was. He informed me that there was an encounter in progress.
I cursed Varun under my breath. He could have waited. Now he was inside the house and I could not enter. There had been fatalities because of friendly fire before and I did not want to accidently shoot Varun or his men.
“Why did he enter the house when I told him not to?”, I angrily asked Govind, raising my voice.
“Izzat”, Govind said softly. He wanted to say that it was Varun’s right to avenge the deaths of Bravo company men and it was a matter of honor for an officer. Govind could not find the right words to explain to me, and so he used the one word that all army men understand, one word that brooks no argument or discussion.
Govind hesitatingly continued, “We are Kumaoni, Sir. We will always choose death before dishonour”. I had heard this a million times in the regiment. This was the regiment of Maj. Somnath Sharma and Maj. Shaitan Singh. “Vijay ya Veergati” was in the DNA.
As Varun peeked into the large hall, he could see a single terrorist walk to the window to peep outside. 500 meters away, Naik Pratap Singh got the opening he wanted. The opening was just for 5 seconds but that was more than enough for a trained infantry sniper.
The Draganov 7.62 mm is a Russian sniper rifle. It is simple, sturdy and accurate. It delivers. Varun saw red mist coming out of the back of the terrorist’s head. Milliseconds later, the head exploded like a watermelon and it was then that Varun heard the sound of the shot.
There was confusion in the room and sound of movement. Varun moved in, followed by his buddy. 3’o clock to Varun was another terrorist. He saw Varun and fired. The shots were fired in fear and were wide. Varun fired a three round burst into his chest. The terrorist flew back and crashed into a wooden almirah.
In the other room Jaidev moved, keeping the wall to his left. As he moved into the room, looking through the sights of his weapon, a burst of automatic fire hit him in the leg. Jaidev screamed and collapsed. Varun ran to help his men.
There were two terrorists inside the room and were using Junaid’s father Mudassir, as a shield. One terrorist was pointing his weapon at Jaidev’s buddy. Jaidev’s buddy, a young athletic soldier called Manoj, was pointing his AK 47 at the terrorist. Varun saw that there was only one way to end this classical Mexican standoff.
Varun took a risk and very silently changed the fire selector switch to “single”. Now, whenever Varun squeezed the trigger, only one shot would be fired.
Varun looked at Manoj. No words were spoken. I don’t know if you believe in telepathy, but for men who live and die together, it is real. The decision was taken. Manoj suddenly dived to his right hand side and let loose a controlled burst at his target. His target slumped.
Simultaneously, Varun shot Mudassir in the thigh, smashing his femur beyond repair. Mudassir screamed and collapsed, leaving his brother Afzal exposed. Varun had not moved his weapon from his shoulder. He raised the barrel a few inches and shot Afzal twice in the chest, using the double tap shooting technique. Two rounds were fired in quick succession at the same target using the same sight picture. Afzal’s body spun around and crashed into the floor.
Varun quickly moved to where the terrorist shot by Manoj, lay. His breathing was shallow and his face had lost all color. He was moments away from death.
Varun spoke into his radio set “This is Victor Bravo. All clear. One friendly injured. Sanitize area. Out.”
Bravo Company rushed inside.
5 November 1996
Battalion Head Quarters, 17 Kumaon
We bid farewell to our 3 martyrs with tears in our eyes. The injured had been shifted to the 25th Infantry Division Military Hospital at Rajouri.
The Commanding Officer’s briefing had started a while back and would finish any time soon.
“Gentlemen, we have our orders. There is enhanced infiltration at Balnoi Gap, ahead of Mendar. Gary, you will move with Charlie Company and for administrative purposes, will be attached to 14 Maratha Light Infantry. Come back to us in one piece.”
“Varun, you have been nominated to attend the ASMT (Army School of Mechanical Transport) Course in Bangalore. You will leave on 17 November.”
“Thank you gentlemen”, said the CO, and finished his briefing.
Later in the evening, we gathered around in Maj. Anuj’s room. We would be leaving for our company locations tomorrow morning, but today we would celebrate. Of that we were determined.
Out came the lousy lemonade and boiled eggs. Suddenly Varun entered the room with a bag. Maj. Gaur, Maj. Anuj, Maj. Yadav, 2/Lt Sam and I looked at him in curiosity.
Varun, that great king of drama, slowly put his hand inside the bag and one by one, took out two bottles of Peter Scott.
No one spoke. We were speechless with wonder.
“Its called superior management, gentlemen”, Varun smiled.
Maj. Anuj quickly walked to the door and latched it. If the CO found out that we were drinking, we would all go on very extended LRPs (Long Range Patrols) over the Pir Panjal Mountain Ranges.
We threw away the lemonade and Varun poured the golden liquid into the glass. Soda followed the whiskey and we looked at this light golden liquid in wonder.
As we raised our glasses and said our cheers, Varun held up a strip of Disprins.
“Gary Sir, drink up. It’s going to be rocking”, he winked.
Maj. Gaur lowered his voice and said, “Did you hear about that operation the MARCOS did at Wular Lake?”
It was going to be a long night.
I winked back, raising a toast to all the heroes of 17 Kumaon.
Major Gaurav Arya (Veteran)
17 Kumaon Regiment