Comic Book Heroes
Capt Vikram Batra, Param Vir Chakra
Volunteered to join a team that recaptured a peak from Pakistani soldiers during the Kargil war in July 1999. Shot dead trying to rescue injured junior officer. Killed five enemy soldiers in hand-to-hand combat.
Col N.J. Nair, Ashok Chakra
Led attack against 100 armed Naga insurgents who ambushed army convoy in Mokokchung in December 1993; showed exceptional bravery.
Maj Sandeep Unnikrishnan, Ashok Chakra
At the forefront of NSG operations at the Taj during 26/11; killed trying to rescue two injured colleagues
Retd Capt Bana Singh, Param Vir Chakra (living)
Captured the 'Quaid' Post in Siachen by killing five Pakistani ssg commandos in hand-to-hand combat in June 1987
Commando Sanjog Chhetri, Ashok Chakra
Ignored grievous injuries to keep up assault on terrorists at Hill Kaka (Jammu & Kashmir), in April 2003, helping his team eliminate all 13 terrorists
Bullets don’t bounce off their chests. Nor do they have superhuman powers to unleash webs or hoist themselves into the air, voluminous capes and all. What they do have is extraordinary courage. Meet the heroes of the Indian War Comics, a series that began in ’08 with a comic on Kargil martyr Capt Vikram Batra. The third one, commemorating Maj Sandeep Unnikrishnan of 26/11 fame, will be released on Independence Day. If the cover is any indication—a fiery-eyed Maj Unnikrishnan aiming his rifle at the enemy against the backdrop of a burning Taj Mahal Hotel, all the while supporting his injured colleague—the portrayal of the protagonist will fit snugly into the superhero mould, though it will also dwell on his early life and influences.
It was ‘Yeh Dil Maange More’, Capt Batra’s famous rallying cry on the icy heights of Kargil, that inspired the series creator, Aditya Bakshi, to immortalise India’s military heroes through speech bubbles. A merchant navy officer and a general’s son, reared on dog-eared Commando comics, Aditya found himself moved to tears after a chat with his father about Capt Batra, who died at the age of 24. “There was a lot of material available on him, but only in the regimental format of historical accounts, which would hardly appeal to children. I wanted to make these heroes known to the widest possible audience, and in a more permanent way than the odd TV programme.” So, armed with a pencil, Aditya began to give shape to his idea, even doing the early drawings himself. Later, the realisation that the text he was penning needed professionally executed visuals sent him off to the Delhi College of Art with an ‘artist wanted’ poster. A student, Pradeep Yadav, came forward and Yeh Dil Maange More, the first black-and-white Indian War Comic—82 pages long, priced at Rs 65 and merging facts and imagination with gusto—was born. While it is public knowledge that Capt Batra single-handedly overpowered five enemy soldiers, approaching their bunker from the back after a perilous climb, the comic drew upon all the resources of the genre to illustrate how it was done—with a little creative licence thrown in. For instance, it has Capt Batra shout out the lines: “Yes, it’s raining bullets and perhaps we die. But what more worthy death can one hope for? Come on men, this is what we dreamed of...to die a soldier’s death and live forever.” It even has a bit role for journalist Barkha Dutt, who interviewed Capt Batra at Kargil.
Encouraged by the fact that a few thousand readers actually bought the comic, distributed by Om Books International, Aditya went on to launch his second comic, the True Maratha, on Ashok Chakra-winning Col N.J. Nair, who ignored his eventually fatal wounds to lead from the front and break an ambush by Naga insurgents. Two more are in the pipeline—on Param Vir Chakra winner Capt Bana Singh, the only one of the heroes who’s still alive, and on Ashok Chakra awardee Commando Sanjog Chhetri.
Capt Batra, the Kargil martyr
So is there a readership out there warming to the idea of an Indian genre of war comics, despite the stiff competition from Marvel and DC comics, and innumerable computer and video games? Says Amit Vig of Om Books International, “The popularity of these comics is rising.” He points out that the Capt Batra comic, of which 10,000 copies were initially printed, will go into reprint soon, and the one on Maj Unnikrishnan will also, he believes, cross the 10,000-copy mark.
Aditya, who has been making the rounds of schools to popularise his comics, claims a growing interest in this genre among school children. Kanika Mehra, a teacher at the Delhi Public School, Noida, seems to agree. The comics, she says, “offer an engaging perspective on war history”, while her student, viiith grader Shivansh Tyagi, concedes it is a format that appeals to him. A serving army general, who didn’t want to be named, also registered approval, but for different reasons: “These comics offer exemplars that children would want to emulate. It helps at a time when we’re losing recruits to other lucrative jobs.”
If it’s inspiration that’s needed, the comics offer it by the bucketloads. Indeed, they overdo it at times. The second comic book, for instance, shows Col Nair charging forth against a hail of bullets, as his word balloon reads: “Come on my brave Marathas. Soldiers of Shivaji. Let’s give it back to them.”
Aditya concedes that the treatment is stylised, even exaggerated, but argues that it’s necessary in order to sell the comics to children fed on a diet of TV and video games. To his credit, he has taken some trouble to make his comics authentic, even if each carries a disclaimer of being an unofficial account. Most of the battle sequences can be traced to an official document or statement, a family member, an eyewitness or simply an open source. Maj Unnikrishnan’s father, K. Unnikrishnan was given a questionnaire to fill up, and Capt Batra’s father gathered information and anecdotes from his son’s school and army units and even provided two letters written by him to his brother Vishal. “I get emotional when I read the comic,” says his father, G.L. Batra.
Unnikrishnan’s father, on the other hand, was initially hesitant about the idea of having his son featured as the protagonist of a comic book. He does not, he told Outlook, want his son painted in the colours of a war hero: “I see him as someone only doing his job, and that’s how Sandeep felt too”. But he eventually warmed to Aditya’s project because he felt it could help spread awareness of the ideals of patriotism and the value of dedicating one’s life to one’s chosen vocation. The release of the comic on August 15 also chimes well with this bereaved father’s own project—to cycle all the way from India Gate to the Gateway of India, reaching Mumbai on 26/11.