THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION. HOWEVER, ALL CHARACTERS ARE REAL (EXCEPT RANJAN)
I have penned down a few thoughts, which passed through my mind when I (and all of us) was trying to so desperately survive in Kashmir. Kashmir is a paradise, a beautiful and bountiful land, peaceful for weeks on end, a peace, which is sometimes suddenly shattered by savage bloodletting. A place which both India and Pakistan will not let go of, India because it is a matter of honor and Pakistan, because it is a matter of survival.
All Indian Army personnel mentioned in this story are real and have served in 17 Kumaon, except Ranjan who is a fictional character.
The locations mentioned in this story are real. Many incidents are dramatised. Some incidents are highly dramatised. Mostly, they took place in my mind.
I left the Indian Army sixteen years back. I have travelled far and wide and have walked with the rich and famous. But never have I seen or come across such bravery, integrity, loyalty and strength of character that was so nonchalantly displayed by the Officers and men of 17 Kumaon. You will forever remain my heroes. I will always tell your stories. You are the Bravest Of The Brave.
Chapter 1: The sophistication of uncomplicated thinking
Day & Date: 0700 hrs, 11 November 1997.
Location: Kala Pathhar (COMMAND BUNKER)
Poonch Sector, Jammu & Kashmir (Operation Rakshak)
Post: Kopra Ridge (Main), Line of Control, 9, 500 ft a.s.l.
It was a misty and cold morning, not that Kashmir had offered me anything else, and I snuggled deeper inside my sleeping bag. I had, just a few minutes back, given an all OK report to Major RK Anuj, the Adjutant of 17 Kumaon. I had told him that all was well. Well, not exactly. The adjutant and I had our little joke going. I would say, “All quiet on the western front” and he would grunt. This morning he insisted on talking and was rather chirpy. Brigade Headquarters was full of paper tigers. The Brigade Commander was biased. Being a Gurkha officer, the GR units never got ROP duty. DSSC should be shut down; it was producing Rommels and Guderians with great powers of hallucination etc etc. I had heard this all before and mumbled a reply in agreement. It never does well to put off your adjutant. The last time had seen me on a 7 day LRP over the Pir Panjal mountain ranges, and a re-play did not seem like a great idea. Suddenly, acute matters of national security demanded his attention; the BM wanted 7 boys for working duty and the Adjutant ran to comply.
Sleep was like a drug and I was drifting back to la-la land. I was back to the ideal world……the canteen was a cafeteria, the hostel was “residence” and even the mere function of asking someone to pass the chapattis was an cool “zap the chaps” or if you were a seventies degenerate, “roll the discs”. Aah…the pleasant burdens of Stephania. Suddenly, a loud rap on the bunker door jolted me back to reality. “Ram, Ram sahib”, Subedar Bhim Singh’s voice rang out and I cursed my luck. This was the last thing I wanted early in the morning. To have such a psycho as a platoon commander was in itself a huge problem. I had to literally beg the commanding officer not to sign Bhim Singh’s AFMSF-10, not once but twice. Bhim was nature’s bad boy. He was an “unfit JCO”. He was in the infantry, thought like a Para Commando and executed like a nurse. Once an NCO “ran amok” in C Company. The NCO was drunk and he chased Bhim Singh all over the unit lines with a khukri, before he was caught, put in QG and charge sheeted. Good friend Bhim returned the favor 2 years later, emulating the act to the T. If there was something called JLQs’ (JCO like qualities), they had certainly given Bhim the go by. 17 Kumaon knew for a fact that in such a sensitive area, only Bhim stood between the CO and a Higher Command nomination. Bhim had the CO a very worried man.
I asked him to sit on a campstool, while Ramesh Chandra, my faithful sahayak of two years, tried to light up the bukhari. He soon got a good fire going and proceeded to pour a cup of tea for both of us.
“Sahib, we have lost 3 jawans in the last 2 months and the morale of the troops is not good”, he said. For the uninitiated, a Kumaoni will never come straight to the point. Whatever it is, it has to sound like a good story.
“Yes, Bhim Sahib. I know that. What are you trying to say?” I asked.
“Sahib, there is a pattern to this whole thing”, he said.
God, I thought. There he goes again. He will be gone in minutes, leaving me to nurse a migraine for the whole day.
He continued, “All three men were killed between 0300-0400 hrs. All three belonged to the last patrol of the night. All three were surprised by infiltrating militants.”
I sat up uneasily. Bhim Singh was right. How had I missed this? But, couldn’t it just be co-incidence? What was the proof of a pattern? Not wanting to disturb his flow, I nodded gravely to him. Now he had my full attention.
“Someone is helping them from inside” he delivered his punch line.
“What? Do you mean one of our men………. ” I said.
“No, no Sahib. How can you even think that one of our boys could do something like this? We have given this great army two PVCs and three Chiefs………….” he started. I knew where this monologue was heading. Not wanting another dose of paltan ki izzat, I waved for him to continue.
“I have information that it is none other than Haji Abdullah, the maulvi. He has often requested our 0300 hrs patrol to help him get to the Pir Baba ki mazaar to put a 200 watt bulb. That is the signal to the Pakistani post that all is clear and they should begin infiltration”, he finished.
5 km into Indian territory from the Line of Control is a black out zone at night. No one is allowed to switch on lights inside their homes and if they do, they have to cover the windows with black cloth or paper so that nothing is visible from outside. This is just to make the enemy Arty OP work harder for his salary. What Bhim was trying to say was that the CO had given permission to the 78 year-old Maulvi on religious grounds, to light a bulb at the Pir baba site. This was the only bulb, which was allowed to be lit in the whole area of 5 km. The maulvi, once a week, feigning illness or bad memory, would actually request our jawans to guide/ escort him to the Pir Baba. Then the maulvi would put the bulb in the socket. In the pitch-dark valley, the bulb would shine like a torch. It was the signal to the Pak post that the last Indian patrol of the night had left. Since the patrols only patrolled the gaps between the ambush sites, it was a cakewalk for the militants.
It was certainly a plausible theory. Yes, our boys had died only on the nights the maulvi had requested for our help in putting the bulb on the mazaar. But much of this was conjecture. Who would buy such a fantastic argument? But then, this was Kashmir. The normal rules of engagement, and logic, certainly did not apply.
“How did you come across all this? How could you figure out?” I asked Bhim.
Bhim smiled at me, showing a single row of badly stained and rotting teeth and said, “Ranjan told me”.
Ranjan was our company masalchi (cook’s helper). An avid reader of cheap Bengali pulp fiction, he knew about the vital statistics of film heroines as thoroughly as he knew which Lt. Gen. would become Army Commander. Ranjan was a man in the know of things.
Bhim’s logic had me stumped. How could I go to the CO with this story? And the CO had only last snowfall given the maulvi Rs.10, 000/- from the unit intelligence fund, to repair the masjid wall which had fallen due to heavy snow. The CO had obviously planned it as a brilliant “hearts and minds” campaign.
I dismissed Bhim and set thinking. What were the loopholes in Bhim’s logic? The facts certainly seemed to jell. But without the CO’s sanction, what could I do? What should I do? I was itching to get the person who had killed my men. Was I over-reacting? A million thoughts passed through my head. My mind was in turmoil and I felt lost. Ranjan would talk. My men would know that I was given the information and failed to act; infantrymen always thought in black and white. You were either “Dost” or “Dushman”. You were to be either embraced or killed. And, my men would not judge the maulvi worthy of embracing.
What stopped me from contemplating any action was the credibility Bhim had in the unit. He was a shifty eyed, 5’4 ft guy with kohl lined eyes. He was an alcoholic. He had a few black ink entries against his name. When he spoke in anger, he frothed at the mouth and his eyes spun in their sockets. He was right out of a comic book. And, he was a Services boxer.
Lt. Thomas, my company 2-i-C was a youngster with 4 months of service. He literally lived with the men. I had seen him translating “Platoon Leader” for the men, though his regimental spirit took a nosedive when he was requested by the CHM to translate a Playboy story. Could I trust Thomas? No, I decided. He was much too young for paltan politics. One call from the Adjutant would have him on his knees.
When I took my decision, my own calm surprised me. It was as if the fact was always at the back of my mind, unable to come forth. I could not crosscheck the facts with a third party. I could not go to my CO. I could not have another death in the company. My mind was made up. Mentally, I had already passed orders for the execution of Haji Abdullah.
I started preparing for the kill.
Chapter 2: To Stalk a Whisper
Day & Date: 2300 hrs, 19 November 1997
Location: MMG bunker, Charlie Company, LoC
Poonch & Rajouri Sector, Jammu & Kashmir
It is fascinating; the amount of detailing the Indian Army is capable of. When they set out to collect information you can’t stop the flow. In a week’s time I had enough information about Haji Abdullah to write a book. I had his bank account number, the records of the extent of property in his name, the names of his three wives, the newspaper he read, the source of the cardamom he liked in his morning tea, the names of his relatives across the border and details about his habit of keeping a dog in his house.
The Haji had three credits of over Rs.70, 000/- each in the local bank. He had just purchased a house in Jammu’s Talab Tillon area for Rs.12,00,000/- and he had an alternate career going, as the local Shylock. Someone was giving the maulvi huge amounts of money. I remembered the first line of the first page of Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” in which the author quotes Balzac, “Behind every great fortune, there is a crime”. What was the maulvi’s secret?
Bhim and I sat staring at the fire in the bukhari as the silence engulfed us. The intermittent sound of small arms fire could be heard in the night…some Pakistani soldier trying to drive away the loneliness, which only the nights in Kashmir can give you.
“I agree. The Haji must die”, Bhim said, interrupting my thoughts.
“Who will kill him? How? He is a revered figure in the whole area. His death will spark a riot”, I added, looking towards Bhim.
“Sahib, the maulvi is a HM (Hizb-ul-Mujahideen) man and definitely on their payroll. His daughter is married to one of their cadres. We can kill him with a sniper rifle and somehow blame it on Lashkar-e-Toiba” said Bhim. If Sidney Sheldon had started writing in Hindi, I did not know about it. I looked at Bhim incredulously.
“The militants are constantly warring with each other for turf in Kashmir. And sahib, what is the value of a human life here? If the cover up is good, no one will even investigate. The army has no time and there is almost no police in Kashmir. We will go and cry over his dead body and even the CO Sahib will not raise a fuss because of the Higher Command issue”, Bhim said.
The COs Higher Command ambitions were the most discussed subject in the unit. My CO was a highflier, Staff College type career officer. And here I was, trying to desperately clear my Part B Military Law paper and planning the murder of an old priest, in cahoots with a deranged imbecile. My regimental forefathers would turn in their graves if they heard something as sacrilegious as an officer planning a very un-officer like operation based on the theories of a delusional cook’s helper.
I could not smell alcohol on Bhim’s breath and that was a good omen. Not enough of a good omen to start a crazy covert operation, but it was something.
“Pratap Singh is the best choice for the operation, Sahib. He is our ace marksman and sniper”, Bhim continued.
Pratap was indeed very good, though another weird character. Charlie Company seemed to be infested with them. Pratap was the silent type and few had heard him speak. The rumor was that Pratap had the same expression on his face the day he heard the news of his father’s demise, as the day he was informed that he had been blessed with a son. His face was blank. Originally from 9 SF, he was posted to 17 Kumaon after he suffered an injury in Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka.
“I was thinking of him, too. He is the perfect person. He can keep his mouth shut and is very competent”, I said.
Now the problem before us was the cover-up operation. Firstly, how do we ensure that the hit does not have Indian Army written all over it and secondly, how do we pin it on Lashkar.
As usual, Bhim came up with a crazy scheme. It was decided that the maulvi would be shot from at least 1300 mtrs, using a 7.62 mm Draganov sniper rifle. That was the maximum effective range of that weapon and would give us ample time to flee.
We knew that after the morning namaz, the maulvi sat on the masjid courtyard in a rocking chair, sipping cardamom tea and reading “Inquilaab”, an Urdu daily published in Poonch. This was a daily ritual. Lt. Thomas would go with a morning patrol and scout the village for nothing in particular. While the maulvi had tea, Thomas would be around the masjid area, speaking to the locals and distributing toffees to the village children and would generally be seen as non-intimidating. Suddenly, a rifle shot would be heard and the maulvi would be dead. Thomas would return fire and launch a manhunt and would provide security to the maulvi’s immediate family. No one would suspect the army, as the army would be there in full view of the public, who would naturally vouch for the army’s innocence. There was only one hitch, though. Thomas was not to be told about the operation. He would participate, unsuspectingly.
We were working under the assumption that Pratap would be game. No, we are not talking about a soldier willfully disobeying orders of a superior officer. We were talking about the Adjutant, perhaps even the CO asking questions. The cultural structure of the infantry being what it is, Pratap would sing like a canary. Unless he believed that the orders came from above. Bhim said that it was the only thing to do. I put my foot down. Lying to the CO was ok. Lying to my men was not. With infantry soldiers, it’s always about face. Once you lose face, no course grading or promotion can wipe the slur. It’s like the legendry Betaal. You can tell it any story, but it will, in the end, always ride your back.
And what if the secret was leaked before we got started? We could always deny it and claim that words were said in anger. It could be written off as a whiff of josh; not too bad for an infantryman. But what if it became known after the act? There would be hell to pay. It would begin by me losing my job, and probably getting Court Martialled. It would also result in Bhim losing his. Pratap would be exonerated, being too junior to refuse illegal orders. As I saw it, Bhim did not have much of a career. He was always “about to get Court Martialled” on one pretext or the other. But I was fixated on a permanent commission. I would one day Command 17 Kumaon. What the devil should I do?
I told Bhim that I needed to sleep. He saluted and trotted off as I made my way through the meandering fire trenches. The permanent defenses looked as innocuous as mud pies in the shadows of the night. I saw my troops huddled in the cold, as a steady drizzle started to drench the landscape. I pulled the hood of my issue-type coat parka over my head and buried my hands in its pockets. A soft staccato of automatic fire from the Pakistani post across the LOC echoed against the mountain walls, as if to affirm that there was still life worth taking in this desolate landscape.
“Ram, Ram Sahib”, the voice was a soft grunt and could have belonged to none other.
“Ram, Ram Pratap. Kaise ho?” I asked.
“By the grace of Kalika Mata, I am fine sir”, he replied. Pratap was staring at me and I wondered what it was. It seemed that he wanted to say something. He shuffled around and his thumb played with the safety catch of his Draganov. It was an eerie click sound, the kind that makes the hair on the nape of your neck stand on end. He mumbled something, as I strained to catch his flow.
I could not hear him, and so moved closer to him.
“The Haji is like my father in age, and I would under normal circumstances never think of harming a single strand of hair on his head. But then, Sahib, my father would never plot the killing of people who are his children’s age”, Pratap said.
He continued, “This man is evil. He is greedy and like a leech, feeds on the blood of men. I do not think it is wrong to kill such a man. It is a soldier’s duty to kill such a man. In combat, if possible, or in stealth, by deception, if the need so dictates. To kill him is not murder, but a slaying”. Pratap used the Sanskrit word “vadh”, which I have loosely translated here.
Pratap had never spoken so much, in anyone’s memory. Indian army jawans are not known for Bhagwat Gita quotes and this speech was unusual as it was disturbing. I sniffed for traces of alcohol and found none.
Then it dawned on me. Pratap had sensed my hesitation in ordering this mission. This was his way of telling me that he was willing to pull the trigger on his own. That the consequences, if any, were his to bear. And that he truly believed that the maulvi should die.
I kept my hand on Pratap’s shoulder and said, “I will let you know”.
Pratap nodded and grunted as he stood stiffly to attention. Then he trotted off into the night. I made my way back to my bunker. Ramesh Chandra was waiting with a curious expression on his face. I asked him what it was, and he smiled uncomfortably, as only a highlander can.
“Sleep, sahib. You need it,” said Ramesh and shut the door of my bunker as he made his way out. With a sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach I realized that even Ramesh knew about the operation. Charlie Company wanted the killing. They had committed me to the kill.
That night, I did not sleep.
Chapter 3: The Measure of The Shift
Time and date: 0100 hrs, November 23, 1997
Place: Chand Bibi slope a.k.a. Checkpoint Charlie, LoC
Poonch & Rajouri Sector, Jammu & Kashmir
I hated the name of the place were we lay. About 2 km downhill, on the southern slopes of the feature occupied by us, was a hill slope called Chand Bibi. What a medieval South Indian queen had to do with Kashmir foxed me. But the name was used, and there on the map as well. With the latitude only wielded by 25 year old acting Majors in Kashmir, I approved military history’s grandest sex-change operation. Chand Bibi became Checkpoint Charlie. The troops knew nothing about the legendary checkpoint between East and West Germany, naturally assuming that it had everything to do with Charlie Company.
Bhim lay to my left and Pratap to my right. From Checkpoint Charlie, we could see the masjid and it’s courtyard clearly in the bright moonlight. For some reason, Bhim tried to use a PNVD. Annoyed that it did not work, he set about playing with pine needles. Pratap was watching the courtyard with rapt attention, through the scope of his Draganov. He obviously could see nothing, but that did not deter him. He seemed deep in meditation, his lips moving silently in some primeval incantation. They say that hill folk can talk with the jungle spirits and Pratap was beginning to spook me. He would mumble something and then every few moments, he would let out a low “hrrrr”. I tapped Bhim on his shoulder and motioned for him to get up. Pratap lowered his rifle and we crawled back a few paces, careful not to let out silhouette show against the moonlit skyline.
We walked uphill to our post, expertly negotiating the trip wires, flares and M-16 anti-personal mines, which dotted the approach to our company location. Bhim whistled to the sentry on duty who, had I not been there would have waved us in. In my presence, he wanted to know the password. We satisfied his security needs and entered the camp. It was very difficult to let go of established procedures. Sentries challenging visitors is not a practice they encourage in Kashmir. Here they breed trigger-happy fingers. Any movement is replied to with fire. That is the law of Kashmir. And here we were, on the Line of Control, which has been so often described as the most dangerous place on earth, trying to do inane nonsense.
I walked to my bunker and took off my shoes and socks. I hung my parka on the wooden hook by the door and stepped out of my trousers. The thermal long johns clung to my legs and I sat down tiredly on my bed. Instinctively, I reached for the bottle of Old Monk and poured a long shot into my glass tumbler. Unthinkingly, I did a “bottoms up”. It must have been at least 3 or 4 large pegs, which burned down my throat and punched my guts. I was breathless as my eyes began to water. I looked at the calendar. 13 months without leave, and every single day spent trying to motivate my men, survive and drive away loneliness. 13 months of operational emergencies and postponed leave plans. 13 months of trying to stop the infiltration of fanatic Mujahideen, who just kept coming. I walked to the bunker door and looked outside. It was snowing.
I touched my cheek and found it was wet. Maybe I was crying. I do not know. Then the alcohol hit me and falling on my bed, I passed out.
Chapter 4: The Calm Calculus of Reason
Time and date: 27 November, 1997/ 1900 hrs
Place: Command Bunker, Point Kala Pathhar, LoC
I sat on the campstool rubbing my throbbing temples, trying to remember what I was supposed to do. I have always believed that for the men it’s always easier to bear loneliness. They are many and they live together. They laugh and share. Many of them (in pure regiments) are related or even neighbours. Officers have loneliness to contend with. They live alone for months on end without company. How much does one talk with his sahayak? How many meetings can you have with the JCOs? How many times can you brief the CHM? In the end, it’s you with your thoughts. If you can manage that, you can manage operations. If you cannot, you slowly start going mad.
Bhim sat a few feet away. He was digging his nose like he had found religion. His eyes were spinning in their sockets and spittle was dribbling down the side of his mouth. He looked like the villain’s chief sidekick in a Faustian drama and worried me more than the Mujahideen.
Pratap stood at ease in the corner, under the Battalion deployment map. His face was blank as always. He did not speak at all, and seemed to have become a little quieter, though no one would have believed the possibility existed.
Lest anyone attribute noble thoughts to us, let me make clear that we were worried men. A bunch of scared men planning the murder of a priest, that’s what we really were, and nothing more. There is no glory in killing unarmed people in cold blood. Irrespective of what a low-life the maulvi was, we would all carry the burden of our act to our graves and if we decided to go ahead with this, we must live with our shadows. Bhim had no conscience and he lived in the “super-present”, a euphemism for a person who did not allow the psychological after-effects of an act go beyond the now. He believed that he was not responsible for what he did; a stark antithesis to my Don Vito Corleone. I did not know Pratap well since he had been in Charlie Company for just 3 months. Well, his company commander of 5 years, Major DS Rawat did not know him either. Either Pratap had a developed super-consciousness or was an un-evolved dolt. Both types scared me. At least, with a dolt you knew where you stood; if that’s a consolation.
I was dying to swallow my pride and call off this damned tamasha. The maulvi could be implicated in some act and arrested and the police told to take him to Jammu. In Kashmir, these things are easily arranged. But that would be seen as conniving and low; a dishonorable enterprise. Troops often spoke of bold officers who had gone as far as issuing weapons to their jawans to sort out their personal affairs in their villages and then swore before a GCM that the jawan was on parade. That was the expectation here and this officer was way too low on delivery, an honest appraisal.
What could help me? A posting out of Charlie Company or going on leave for two months? Was killing the maulvi easier?
“Sahib, the troops would be very happy with this kill”, said Bhim with the same nonchalance with which anyone else would demand an extra ration of rum.
I suddenly felt very tired. I did not want to kill the maulvi and was very amenable to the idea of getting him implicated in a “padded up” case. I would just place a few detonators and maybe an AK-47 in his house and get a “turned” militant to give witness. That should see the maulvi booked under TADA. And dead of old age, I thought comfortably.
“Sahib, I am calling off this whole operation. It’s in direct violation of the Army Act and as an officer, I cannot and will not allow it”, I said in one single breath.
Bhim’s face fell like that of a groom who has been denied his conjugal rights. His lips moved like the fish one sees in an aquarium and he seemed sorely distressed.
“The morale of the troops is already low. Your decision will kill them,” Bhim implored.
“I cannot disregard the Army Act to raise the morale of the troops, Bhim Sahib”, I said, raising my voice. Bhim did not know that this whole Army Act thing was totally hollow, coming from a person who had flunked the Military Law paper 3 years in a row. What made it spectacular was that in this paper, you could actually take reference books inside the examination hall.
It was the wrong thing to say. An officer was supposed to walk with his troops and lead them to the very gates of hell. If he was worth his salt, his men would follow him down the throat of the devil. That was Indian Army teaching and our bread and butter. But all said and done, even the Regimental spirit would quail at defending murder. Kill in fair combat and you could expect praise, but this maulvi thing smelt of a contract kill.
I got up. Military etiquette demands that when a superior officer gets up, his juniors get up with him, without delay. Bhim got up after a time lag of 5 seconds. The insult was intended and stung like a rebuke. I ignored it and walked outside. There was a chill in the air and the air smelt of pine. I felt like singing. There was no burden on me and I could sleep an easy man. I would still sort out the maulvi, but differently. There was no point in leading a Kamikaze attack and getting your backside kicked. There were smarter ways of fighting a war and all you needed was an idea.
I asked the company runner to inform Thomas that I wanted to meet him and then walked towards my bunker. I was in a mood to celebrate and Thomas would join in. As I climbed the stairs of my bunker, a hearty “Good evening, Sir” greeted my arrival. There was Thomas, all five-and-a-half feet of him, grinning like a good-natured Afghan hound. He had a copy of “Ops of War (Volume-1)” in his hand. He was determined to crack Part B in one shot. Today was his off day, as in it was no-ambush-day for him. Today, he would drink foul masala tea, read Ops of War and sing crazy Malyalee songs of longing and separation. To dissuade me from consuming alcohol in vast quantities, he always (concocted, I suspect) had stories of relatives who had died of unimaginable suffering by cirrhosis of the liver. He was trying to scare me into quitting booze. I, on the other hand, never drank rum unless I was scared witless; a common enough phenomenon on the Line of Control. I preferred whiskey on the rocks. But ice was hard to find in Kashmir (we had no electricity), and during winters, it would have been sheer death to put ice cubes in your drink.
I poured a stiff shot of rum, and under the disapproving glare of my Coy 2-i-C, I sighed deeply in contentment. I was like a man who had married of all his daughters and was absolved of all responsibility. Thomas wanted to know if I had seen the “Titanic”. I told him that I hated romantic tragedies. Thomas, never good at taking a hint, proceeded to tell me the story. He had seen the movie with his girlfriend and it was a sentimental issue for him. He babbled on and on, and seemed to be determined to take me through each frame of the epic. By the time I had downed my fourth large, I could not have cared if the damned ship floated or sank. Well, it did sink in the end and it seems lots of people died. Thomas had a sad puppy-dog expression on his face.
“It’s really sad when people die, Sir”, he said. Thomas had never said anything this profound and Titanic must have really moved him.
“Yes. It’s sad. But then someone has to kill the bad guys because if they are not stopped, they will kill the good guys”, I tried, by way of explanation.
“But Sir, for the bad guys, we must be the bad guys”, Thomas probed.
This was getting nowhere. So, I asked him about his Part B preparations and his plans for the YO course.
“I will do my best not to let you and the company down, Sir”, said Thomas with no mean degree of passion. Three years in the NDA had addled his brains and he salivated at the thought of getting an AXI. I, his current idol, on the other hand, had never been tried or convicted of any crime remotely resembling good course performance. A series of Charlie’s and Bravo’s dotted my professional knowledge landscape. I was the black sheep in every course, and only a deep sense of Kumaoni brotherhood in a few instructors had helped me avoid an RTU.
But I knew the lay of the land better than anyone else. I knew the rocks, the streams and the hiding places of the mountain deer during the mating season. I had the best int sources in the brigade and Charlie Company ran on remote control, even with the most number of black and red ink entries in the history of the unit. I was a good company commander (forgive the modesty); but the way I was going, picking up the next rank would have been a killer.
Thomas had started singing in his language, which to my tone-deaf North Indian ears sounded like guttural bushman sounds. He had a full-throated voice; out of place in a church choir but very much at home on the drill square. Suddenly, he hit a high note…his voice cracked and fell all over the bunker. Jesus, he was possibly our best company support weapon. Thomas was, in all probability, scaring the Pakistanis more than our AGLs.
As if to acknowledge my appreciation of Thomas’s operatic skills, a burst of small arms fire sounded across the LOC. The same lonely enemy soldier trying to drive away loneliness, I thought. I remembered the poem I had read when I was in school.
I know I shall meet my fate,
At some disputed barricade….
“Sir, missing home?” Thomas asked.
“No, yaar. Just feeling relaxed after a long time,” I replied.
I wanted to share so much with Thomas but the youngster had just joined the unit. I did not know him well enough. Anyway, how well do you need to know a person to tell him that you were planning to kill a priest?
Thomas left immediately after dinner. No youngster wants to spend his free evening in the company of his Company Commander, more so in the infantry. He would rather talk to the pine trees.
I turned off the bedside lamp and, pulling my sleeping bag over my head, tried very hard to sleep.
Chapter 5: The Fist of God
Day & Date: 0400 hrs, 1 December 1997.
Location: Kala Pathhar/ Command Bunker
Post: Kopra Ridge (Main), Line of Control, 9, 500 ft a.s.l.
An urgent knock jolted me out of my dreamless sleep and I reached for my AK-47.
“Ram Ram Sahib”, CHM Shamsher Singh Rautela said.
I asked him in and he saluted.
“Sahib, please step outside. It’s very urgent”, he said.
I swung my legs over the camp-cot and grabbed my jacket. As I stepped out of my bunker, I saw a group of Charlie Company jawans standing in a group. There was a cloth bundle at their feet. I stuck my hands deeper inside my jacket and looked at the cloth bundle closely. Shamsher handed a torch to me and I flashed it at the bundle. It was a young boy of no more than 19 years. My eyes fell on the epaulets on the boys shoulder. “KUMAON” stared at me and I looked back at the face. It was covered in blood, and the jaw was supported by a bandage. He had been shot in the mouth. I did not even remember his name.
“Who…” I began.
“Sepoy Mohan Bhatt, 2nd platoon, Sir. The maulvi had again requested for our help today”, said Shamsher.
I stared at the young body. Who was responsible for this death? Waves of anger and shame swept over me. I gritted my teeth so hard I thought they would snap.
I motioned to Shamsher to take the body away.
I closed the door of my bunker and sat down on my cot. Was there any point in crying and lamenting? What kind of a sick world did I live in? What Army made a 24 ½ year old take such life and death decisions? It was so bloody unfair.
But it was time I grew from a boy into a man. If I was unwilling, Kashmir and God’s own Indian Army would do it for me. Less than 25 years and I was already a father figure to 130 men. My resolve gave me strength. I no longer envied my Delhi friends who were zooming around on their bikes with their girlfriends. I had a country to protect. I had men to command. I had made an oath to choose “death before dishonor” and I would not be found wanting.
I prayed to God to forgive me and give me the courage to face Mohan’s parents. They would tell his fiancé in a few days time. She would be a widow before marriage, because hundreds of miles away a man had refused to be an officer when it mattered the most.
I picked up the 5A and cranked the handle.
“Pratap ko bhejo”, I said into the mouthpiece.
I would pass an irrevocable death sentence on Maulvi Haji Abdullah. He had Kumaoni blood on his hands. Charlie Company would not rest till he was killed and buried. This time, there would be no comebacks.
Chapter 6: The End
Poonch & Rajouri Sector, Jammu & Kashmir (Line of Control)
25 Infantry Division, XV Corps, Northern Command
In the next 2 months, three attempts were made to kill Haji Abdullah. He managed to escape every time.
Thomas’s attachment with 17 Kumaon ended in March 1998. He went back to AOC. Capt. Pawan Rawat was posted as Company 2-i-C of Charlie Company.
In April 1998 a loud explosion was heard from the Maulvi’s porch, an hour before sunrise. A part of his house had caved in. When villagers cleared the rubble, they found the maulvi in two pieces; his lower body totally separated from the upper half. He was lying over the body of his dog.
A year later, 17th Battalion, The Kumaon Regiment was de-inducted from Op Rakshak.