The Price of Freedom & Of Promises Not Kept

Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, sacrifice leaves a memory no one can steal.

Before we treat 15th Aug 2018 as another holiday (mid week, albeit), let us stop for a moment to pay homage to thousands of soldiers who have paid the ultimate price of giving & maintaining for us that holiday. Going back 72 years, we hoisted the Tricolour in Delhi and declared our “tryst with destiny.”

Seven decades has seen India through tremendous changes in some parts of the growth landscape and stagnation in some other parts. Deterioration in a few. The Armed Forces of India has gone through its fair share of ups and downs. We have developed as a force to reckon with with the tag of being one of the most professional armies in the world. Our track record as Peacekeepers in the UN Peacekeeping missions across the world is phenomenal and our soldiers have done us proud. Historically, Indian soldiers fought under the British rule in both the World Wars before 1947 to keep Britain safe. Post independence, we fought Pakistan and China to protect our sovereignty and safeguard our national interests. In the last 70 years plus, Indian Army has also battled insurgents across the country to keep citizens safe. They continue doing so in different parts of the country.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance and that vigil is maintained by our Armed Forces. They sacrifice in more ways than one. Not staying with their families, not watching their children grow, not being around for milestone days, and, finally, the ultimate sacrifice of signing off their life to protect us.

Are we worthy of that sacrifice?

Indian Army has answered this country’s call several times and will continue to do so. It is engaged in both military and civil operations whenever & wherever necessary. It is time to honour that commitment & dedication. Every soldier who serves unflinchingly & every soldier who pays the ultimate price expect only one thing – respect & honour for the work done by the Armed Forces. The Services must know we are a grateful nation & are thankful to them.

We, in India, do not have a National Military Memorial where one can go and pay tribute to the brave hearts. There are a lot of people who ask the question – why do we need one?

War memorials are erected world over as a mark of respect & remembrance for all those who died in the service of the nation. Each memorial is unique and acts as a historic touchstone. They link the past to the present and remind every generation to remember & respect the sacrifice of those who died, fought, participated and affected by the conflicts.

Eight years ago, the Government of Karnataka, made a commitment to build a National Military Memorial. This was not at the behest of the Indian Armed Forces or the Ministry of Defence. It was an initiative taken by the state government. Personally, I was very happy that there was one state government  willing to take the first step to honour our soldiers. While the Memorial Park has come up beautifully with lush green landscaping, a central exhibition hall with models of warfare technology, a 210 foot flagpole with a 78×48 feet flag next to the names of 22,600 martyrs, the Veeragallu (literally meaning the Heroes’ Stone)  is still incomplete and yet to be installed.

The soldier never asked for it. The citizens did not even know about it. Yet, a promise was made. We urge the Government of Karnataka to honour that promise and complete the project with a committed deadline. We owe a debt to all the fallen soldiers that we can never fully repay, but, we can honour them & their sacrifices.

Come, join us this 72nd Independence Day, as we celebrate the freedom we have, because of the heroic sacrifices of our brave hearts. Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We don’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream Every generation must fight for it, protect it and hand it to the next one, for them to do the same.

Happy Independence Day to all! Jai Hind!

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A Soldier Never Gives Up…You Can Only Die Once, So Make Sure It’s Worth It

You can only die once, so make sure it’s worth it.

For a long time I have wanted to write about the bravery, never say die attitude of our soldiers. Two movies actually pushed me to start the process – American Sniper and Baby. Both these movies brought home the truth that there is something about a soldier that inspires, motivates and propels us along. George Patton said, “The soldier is the Army. No army is better than its soldiers. The Soldier is also a citizen. In fact, the highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one’s country.”

I am sharing with you stories of those brave hearts who bore arms for India, fought to protect her and us, allowing us to enjoy our freedom today.

The First Braveheart – Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai

A Pakistani historian wrote, “Two tricks of fortune conspired to cheat Mohammed Ali Jinnah of Kashmir – the loss of a day and half of pillaging in Baramulla and the reckless bravery of one Indian army officer, who…made an attack on the invading forces as if he had the whole Army Division at his support.”

That Indian officer was Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai, the first Commanding Officer (CO) of 1 Sikh, who became a trail blazer in our first war with Pakistan.

Prior to the accession, Maharaja Hari Singh had realised that Pakistan had no intention of honoring the Standstill Agreement he had signed with them. October 1947 saw a revolt by deserters of J&K State Forces, aided by the Pakistani Army and the tribesmen from Northwest crossing the border into Kashmir. Pakistani raiders

Raiders killed people mercilessly.

Raiders killed people mercilessly.

captured the border town of Uri, Mahur and started pillaging Baramulla. The looting was beyond human imagination.

It is this attack on the people of Baramulla that distracted the Pakistani raiders from their objective of capturing Srinagar. That the situation was grim became an understatement. A country that had fought for independence from the British, was now fighting internally to save her citizens and territory. The acceptance of accession came with the responsibility to protecting people & property of J&K. The Instrument of Accession was signed on 26th October 1947 and the Indian Army landed in Srinagar on 27th October 1947.

Challenges that the Army faced were enormous:

1. Shortage of time and resources – mobilising & moving Army Units long distance in a short span of time was the first hurdle.

2. Difficult & unfamiliar terrain – Jammu & Kashmir was unfamiliar and difficult terrain for our troops. Unfamiliar because they had never battled there, difficult because it was winter and the severe cold climate had adverse effects on men & weapons.

3. Pressure of war – Indian Army did not have any time to prepare for a war of this kind. We had gained independence two months prior to this and were still sorting out internal political, social and economic issues. This was a firefight – either we fight now or we have nothing left to fight for was the message.

Under such circumstances, 1st Battalion Sikh Regiment (1 Sikh) was chosen to be air lifted & inducted into the burning

Troops landing in Dakotas.

Troops landing in Dakotas.

Valley. Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai was the CO who was ordered to take his Battalion from Gurgaon to Srinagar. His briefing at Army HQ prior to departure included just two points –

1. Uri was captured by the Raiders & Baramulla was being pillaged by them.

2. 1 Sikh was to protect the city of Srinagar and facilitate subsequent landing of Indian Army units at the airport.

Never in the history of warfare had such an airlift taken place…with so little notice and planning. 30 Dakota aircrafts with men, weapons and equipment landed. Reliable communication or intelligence was wishful thinking at that time and Lt Col Rai had to prioritise his tasks and devise methods of executing also.

Baramulla when pillaged by the enemy.

Baramulla when pillaged by the enemy.

Some wise man had said a long time ago, “Fortune favours the bold.” The CO took the bold decision of seeking, fighting & destroying the enemy in and around Baramulla, away from Srinagar city and airport. This tactical engagement of the Raiders was to earn more time for our troops to land. Adequate men were left behind to protect the air field and the rest of 1 Sikh moved to Baramulla on 28th Oct.  Lt Col Rai chose to occupy a delaying position between Patan & Baramulla to prevent the enemy from advancing towards Srinagar. A fierce battle ensued between 1 Sikh and the Raiders…more than a thousand Raiders against approximately 180 – 200 Indian soldiers. These bravehearts fought with disregard to their own safety and delayed the enemy movement towards Srinagar.

In this conflict, the Raiders presumably spotted the CO and a few men moving from one position to another and fired incessantly on them. The CO and those few men with him were all killed.

Indian soldiers fighting to save the Valley.

Indian soldiers fighting to save the Valley.

The courageous Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai inspired his men to give their best in the wake of enemy attack, even when they were out numbered. This “reckless bravery” helped us gain more time and allow more troops to land in Srinagar. As a result, we were able to protect the city also. Lt Col Rai became the first Commanding Officer to land in J&K after the accession, the first CO to achieve martyrdom and to be decorated with the Maha Vir Chakra.

His valour and sacrifice have inspired all ranks of the Sikh Regiment and the Regiment continues to be one of the highest decorated regiments of the Indian Army, with 72 Battle Honours, 15 Theatre Honours and 5 COAS Unit Citations besides two PVCs, 14 MVCs, 5 KCs, 67 Vir Chakras and 1596 other gallantry awards, The history of the Regiment spanning 154 years is replete with heroic deeds of bravery and courage which have few parallels if any.

 

A War…Hundreds Of Martyrs…A Lifetime Of Memories!

“We sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would harm us.” – Sir Winston Churchill.

This was the thought that I carried in my head all along my journey from Srinagar to Drass and Kargil. It is almost fifteen years since we fought the last war with Pakistan…a war in which many a parent lost their child, many a wives lost their husbands, many a children lost their fathers and I lost dear friends.

The last 15 years life has moved on for everyone…everyone except the snowy peaks that saw the bloodshed and those who died in that war. It is true when they say, “For our tomorrow, they gave their today.”

Zoji-La at 11,649 feet

Zoji-La at 11,649 feet

Driving through the icy Zoji-La

Driving through the icy Zoji-La

My journey started from Srinagar at 0700 hours and we reached Drass at 1830 hours. The scenic beauty of the region must be seen to be experienced. No amount of words can do justice to what nature has created. Sleepy villages that echoed of school children’s laughter, apple and apricot trees lining the roads, snowy peaks that were at a distance initially and gradually came closer as we started our climb to Zojila, icy mountain air that was crisp and kept me refreshed all through out, the gushing sounds of the Sindh river as it flowed on our right and the magnificent white glacier on the left. With every turn and bend, I truly felt I was one step closer to heaven…in more ways than one!

A quick stop at Sonamarg for lunch and an interesting chat with the Commanding Officer posted there opened my eyes to the hardships that our army faces on a day to day basis. Having travelled to Jammu and Kashmir many times earlier, I had never been to this part of the state beyond Sonamarg. And when one is young, the romance of life is very different!

Sun peeping behind the Ghumri range

Sun peeping behind the Ghumri range

All throughout the drive to Drass from Sonamarg, I kept thinking about what some of the officers had shared with me. The logistical support of the Indian Army, the medical camps they set up during the Amarnath Yatra and the collaborative work they do with the local administration all through out the year…left me overwhelmed and immensely proud of belonging to a community called “Army Brats.” I can’t thank my Dad enough for having been part of this glorious organization, which has given us so much in life…including the man I love 🙂

As we crossed Zojila, I was awestruck by the beauty of the stark landscape around me. I was sitting in a semi open jeep, so I could indulge in some photography on the way and I wasn’t disappointed at all. As we climbed higher, we saw less and less of human population on the road as the villages and towns are far and few in between. At Ghumri, a roadside board brought a smile to my face…an enterprising local had put up a board of selling “hot momos.” We did look for the shop, but it was closed!

Approaching Drass, a feeling of melancholy crept over me. I was excited to be there, yet, the thought of our army standing guard, fighting to protect us from an enemy who actually wasn’t an enemy 70 years ago, brought home the futility of war… for war means fighting and fighting means killing. As we entered Drass and were driving to the place where we stayed a couple of nights, my driver pointed out and said,”Madam, Tiger Hill!” That was enough to get my adrenalin rushing…finally I had reached the place where I had come to pay homage, not only to the friends who had died fighting, but all 543 martyred soldiers and the 1000 plus who were injured. The ones who are alive continue to carry the horrors and scars of those fateful days.

Vijay Path & Tololing Range in the background

Veer Bhoomi

Veer Bhoomi

Drass War Memorial

I’m not going to recount what happened between April – July 1999. Historians have chronicled the Kargil War very well and my readers can refer to that if they want to know what the war was all about and how it was fought.

I am writing for my fellow Indians to realize they have forgotten that there are soldiers out there who have sacrificed everything, just so that we live peacefully where ever we are. When I meet people in urban areas who have no clue about what it is to live at altitudes ranging between 10,000 feet to 21,000 feet and eat tinned food for 7 – 8 months in a year, not talk to your family for the same period, bear temperatures from 5 degrees to minus 40 degrees…I keep thinking that every Indian must make the effort of travelling to such places to experience a wee bit of what our Indian Army goes through. Just the road trip should suffice to understand.

Tiger Hill, Rhino Horn & Batra Top

Tiger Hill, Rhino Horn & Batra Top

Walking through the gates of the War Memorial, as I tread softly on Vijay Path, I could not control my tears. So overwhelming was the emotion that I broke down. I wept for the martyrs, for the families who had sacrificed and the families who continue to sacrifice . The officer, a young Major,  who was briefing us about the Memorial, had just completed 7 months on a snowy peak at 18,200 feet altitude and had come down to Drass after that rigorous stint. What could I say to someone like that…all I could do was listen to his experiences and feel humbled. Havaldar Razak’s ability to narrate the events of April – July 1999 had all the listeners weeping…there wasn’t a single dry eye in the audience. Such is the ambience at the War Memorial.

George Patton said, “The soldier is the Army. No army is better than its soldiers. The Soldier is also a citizen. In fact, the highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one’s country”. 13 JAK Rifles, 18 Grenadiers, 2nd Rajputana Rifles, 8 Sikh, 1/11 Gurkha Rifles, 14 Sikh, 2 Naga, 12 Mahar, 17 JAT and soldiers from other regiments and battalions have more than proved it. The army believe in only thing completely – that they are here to protect the nation at any cost. It is because of that single minded focus that the rest of the country is able to live in peace. A look at our immediate neighbour is proof enough for us to be grateful for such an army Like Alfred Tennyson opined,

All our heroes!

All our heroes!

Operation Vijay

Operation Vijay

 

“Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die”

My Dad, who served 37 years in the Indian Army, who has been part of various wars and conflicts, once told me, “What you don’t know going in is that when you come out, you will be scarred for life. Whether you were in for a week, a month, or a year—even if you come home without a scratch—you are never, ever going to be the same.

When I went in, I was twenty. I thought it was all glory and you win lots of medals. You think you’re going to be the guy. Then you find out the cost is very great. Especially when you don’t see the friends you were with when you went in. Living with it can be hell. It’s like the devil presides in you. I knew what I had signed up for then, yes, and I would do it again. But the reality of war—words can’t begin to describe it.”

For such an army, let us salute whole heartedly. Let us not forget what they endure and support them in whatever way we can. I ask everyone

Sunrise outside Drass town

Sunrise outside Drass town

Sunrise while driving through Drass

Sunrise while driving through Drass

who is reading this – have you ever stopped to ponder the amount of blood spilt, the volume of tears shed, the degree of pain and anguish endured, the number of noble men and women lost in battle so that we as individuals might have a say in governing our country?

As I left Drass that early morning, I felt a sense of calm and peace that came to me for I had discovered one more purpose in life. A mission of creating awareness about the army I love and respect, of  the humane aspect of being a soldier, of the stoic and sensitivity of the men in uniform.

Honour the lives sacrificed for your freedom. I thank the Lord above everyday for giving me this life that is protected by such a gallant & brave army. Thank you Indian Army!!!

Jai Hind!