Where do I go from here is a question, I constantly ask myself? Life has been a roller coaster ride. My profession has ensured new friends, new journeys and above all new experiences.
There has never been a single moment I can actually say that I have lived as a free man. Family time, professional requirements, and environmental needs overpowering the self-seeking journey. It’s the routine that kills you, discipline charters your ways, the need for perfection riddles you with paradoxes.Decisions made in a hurry, some immediately regretted, some teaching you lessons, some focused on positivity. Never a dull moment. The flow of adrenalin, the search for adventure, the thirst to conquer danger and fear overpowering sensibilities. Some moments in retrospection give you goose bumps.
What is most beautiful is to be in adversity with almost strangers that become best of friends, camaraderie that sees you through situations and sometimes death itself. The men you command, the connect that you build, sharing moments and events, being applauded, and condemned, but all together as a team.
The responsibilities shouldered ensuring there are no dead men who don’t live to tell the tale and be back with their families. After all what use is a dead comrade, except to be hanging in a photo frame soon forgotten.
It was extreme winters and it had snowed all day and night. Electricity was disabled, no tv, no news. Times when the only form of connect with the outside world was through some local tv channel, with the rod antenna constantly being adjusted to get a better reception.
The snow was deep, fresh and it covered the vast expanses that lay before us. The radio crackled and as I answered, I could hear my commanding officer say, three terrorists seen in a village, 8 kms from where my company post was. Seeking shelter and food for the night.
The information was solid and ratified by some bus driver. I raised my eyebrows in frustration, no inputs from the battalion HQ had ever led us to success. The next was the command, take your boys and cordon off the village by 0400 hrs.
An order at 9 at night, still snowing, visibility almost restricted to 5 ft. Walking the distance would be a nightmare. My brains telling me, to tell the commanding officer that operations aren’t possible. We will get these two terrorists later, cause in the snow they would not be in hiding for long.
The next few sentences sealed my plight. I want these guys terminated. The operation should be flawless and own casualties will not be accepted. Least amount of disruptions to the civilians and no grievances will be tolerated.
While we have to ensure the terrorists are neutralised, we don’t need our own people troubled. After having kept the radio set receiver down, I turned to my buddy and said, khana lagao. Ask the senior JCO and my team NCO to see me. Also tell the Ikhwan commander (released militants working for us) to come over.
My senior JCO who as per me had faked his age while joining, he was 40 but looked well above 50 years, came in slowly, already a few pegs down and langar ka chicken nicely embedded in his belly. Jai Hind saheb, (Maratha way of greeting), jevan pathavto (am sending you your dinner) as if that was his only task. I smiled and told him Shinge saheb ata nigheycha ahey (I have to leave now) get my team ready. Ani apan majhya sangti yah (and you come with me).
All his liquor seemed to fume out, he almost started shivering, saheb barf padat aahey (it’s snowing). I said I know, but it’s an order, go get the team ready, these are the men I want, these weapons and communication equipment to be carried and I also want the nursing assistant accompanying. Saheb if you aren’t in the post and seeing the weather condition don’t you think as the senior JCO I should stay back. I looked at him sternly, he scurried off.
10 PM still snowing, winter parkas and snow boots on, after the initial briefing, we set course. Walking through fresh snow can be painful and tiring. With visibility almost zero, I told them all to put on their torches, to be muffled and put off when nearing the target village. No one spoke, I knew in their minds they must be all, wondering what’s the big hurry.
Why did they have to endanger themselves in low visibility conditions, where the possibility and threat of our team being vulnerable was higher. But no point explaining, wouldn’t make sense to them, as I wasn’t convinced myself. After three halts and a tea break, we reached short of the village. Not a single
Lamp was burning. No one was awake, time was 3am. We were to surround the village, but we still had time. I ordered all of them to take positions around and rest. I knew soon we will be cold as soon as our bodies cooled down.
I could see some smart guys take a swig from their bottles, which I was sure was either rum or brandy. My NCO came to me and said, Sahab since you don’t drink, we can’t offer you anything, but try a sip of brandy. I humbly refused and said I was okay, but inside I was cold and cursing the commanding officer.
That one hour seemed like hundreds. At 4 am we started laying the cordon, I hadn’t even positioned my first section, when we saw flashes of fire from rifles and heard loud cries. One cry went into the air as, hai maa goli lag gayi, the second was Allah tala gir gaya. I had Muslim boys in my team too from this region. My heartbeat was running fast. I couldn’t make out a thing due to the visibility being almost zero now. Someone was hurt, suddenly there was silence.
We couldn’t move as we had hit the ground not knowing where the enemy was. Didn’t want more casualties. I shouted out to Kishore, report. Kishore shouted to his team. 11 guys only 04 answered, I was devastated. Again, Kishore shouted, BC goli maar doonga, agar koi sahi report nahin dega. And he got 09 guys responding. Two were still missing. I shouted to my team, all responded promptly.
I crawled ahead to a distance of almost 100 metres. Every 10 metres stopping to hear sounds and analysing the threat. There was no sound. I couldn’t make out a thing. It was pointless except to wait for first light. Every minute was a torment. Scenes of two of my boys being lost was heart wrenching. We had conducted so many operations but never lost a boy. Here two won’t answer.
Suddenly I felt someone crawl next to me. It was the youngest soldier I had in my team. Murgeshan from engineers, had just joined a few days back. Sahab aap theek hai? I smiled and I said ‘yes’. I asked him tum kaisa hai? Sahab brandy lagaya, sardi hi maar dalti, militant ka koi darr nahin hai. I touched his shoulder and waited; his presence next to me reassuring. As soon as first light came on, the snow falls also receded. I crawled up ahead, from
My position I could see Kishore having crawled up too. One of my soldiers lay in a pool of blood, crimson in the snow. Two feet from him, there was another body, and it wasn’t ours. No weapon could be seen. Fear engulfed me, that I hope we hadn’t terminated a civilian, that would be hell to pay.
I slowly crawled up, weapon clicked and ready to fire, my boys took position, as soon as I reached my soldier, I realised he was alive, but bleeding. I signaled that he was to be evacuated. Then slowly I crawled ahead to the other body, the body was cold, I turned him around, I saw the weapon. I was jubilant and relieved. The terrorist was dead, he has taken shots at 2 ft into his chest.
My boy was hit on the hip. But I had information of three of them in the village. Two were still around. My boy was bleeding. The nursing assistant told me Sahab, we have to evacuate him. Snow on the roads and I knew no vehicles would play. The nearest road head being 3 kms away, where I could call for a jeep-based ambulance with snow chains. I had only 30 men.
I had to make the decision. We made a makeshift stretcher of a Bivouac and poles. We would need at least 12 men in shifts to carry the casualty and the body of the dead terrorist fastest. I would also need 10 men to beat the track cause the snow was deep, we would have to head through a trail that was not too well known to us. I couldn’t get in touch with the HQ due to screening, in retrospection it actually helped me in taking the decision.
I took that decision, abandoned the operation. I still contemplate on it when I sit and think, of all that I have been through. Often questioning it. Those three kms were a nightmare. Difficult, atleast three times the guys beating the trail themselves falling. My boy bleeding and the nursing assistant trying hard to stop it. One boy carrying the saline bottle. One checking pulse. Me praying that he survives.
My company reacted fast, they sent a gypsy with snow chains without the Quick reaction team or any kind of armed security, except the driver and the commander of the vehicle carrying their personal weapons. A risk that they took without my orders, we loaded the casualty into the gypsy. Each of us wet not by the snow, but by the sweat and the tediousness of carrying two bodies and beating a track.
I told them be careful and rush. But don’t drive rash and get stuck. They had no back up vehicle too. The dead militant was next to us. We couldn’t have carried his body the rest of the way. The gypsy wouldn’t take the load. Now we had to decide what to do.
My NCO said sahab isko yahin barf mein dafna dete hain, badme nikal lenge. I told him that wasn’t an option, we would have to carry him along, because the first thing the Commanding officer would say was. You botched it up. If our soldier didn’t survive then it would be even worse.
The snow wouldn’t stop. My company post was now 10 kms away cause the road head we had carried the casualty to was in a different direction. We began the arduous journey back. The weight we were carrying was just dead weight. We were emotionless and just praying that our colleague would survive.
Those 10 kms took us 6 and a half hours. As soon as I got in the communication zone, the Commanding Officer was briefed. I was expecting him to shout with the choicest of expletives. All that he said was ‘GOOD SHOW TIGER’. Rest up and get some sleep.
We handed the dead militant to the police. Subedar Shinge had not come with me, at the last moment I had told him to take it easy and ensure security of the post. He was ecstatic, excited and started shouting ‘Sahab ki jai’.
About the Author
The author is a military analyst and commentator on national security and strategic issues issues.