April 05, 2020
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Remains Of A War

Lives rebuilt, some gone awry... A year later, Kargil’s survivors seek remembrance

Remains Of A War

Time weakens the most retentive of memories; images that swamp our consciousness one day are fated to slip away into oblivion, giving way to ever-new fetishes and concerns. True to the fickle nature of public memory, an event that so aroused our emotions just a year ago is already but a dim recollection for many today. Perhaps, momentary catharsis is all we asked for - a little patriotism at prime time, to go with dinner. But not so for a little girl in Maharashtra’s Karad township - she will always remember the war at Kargil. She was born the day her father died fighting there on those lonesome peaks last summer.

Twenty-four-year-old Sipahi Madhukar Nikam of Seven Maratha Light Infantry had called up at the local post office just the day before. He’d promised his wife Ujjwala a tour of the icy theatre of battle: "I’ll bring you here after our child is born. You watch me from a safe distance." The very next day, the very same phone brought news of broken promises; a relative who took the call was informed that Nikam had died in battle. Just half an hour later, Ujjwala delivered a daughter.

Now, about a year later, the 21-year-old widow recounts with a steely calm tone how no one had mustered courage enough to break the news to her, she’d known only when the body was brought in the next day. Cutting her reminiscences short, a relative complains of the non-allotment of a petrol pump to the family. Ujjwala pays no heed to the interjection; she seems to intuit that grumbling doesn’t befit a soldier’s widow. She’ll only say things that add to the dignity of his memory: "I’ve named my daughter Vijaya. After Operation Vijay. I want her to become an officer, I want to put her into a good school..."

Like Ujjwala, an excruciatingly long and lonely year later, the women, men and children who lost a crucial part of their own at Kargil are back to rebuilding their lives from scratch. Yes, it’s been a year since the war that so caught the nation’s imagination broke out. In fact, it was exactly this week 12 months ago that the first Indian patrol was sent to the Kaksar area near Kargil after two shepherds reported Pakistani military presence there. The 50-day war that followed killed 518 Indian soldiers.

Brave men, survived by families marked by the same tenacity. Families who have coped with stoicism and dignity with events that have changed their lives forever, striving to plug the emptiness that fills their days with little, mundane businesses of life. They have managed to find composure despite their misery and personal loss. Not breast-beating or loud lament, but a quiet forbearance unites them. And a pride that rightfully belongs to those who have paid in blood for the nation.

As Outlook correspondents all over the country fanned out to make contact with the many families of those martyred at Kargil, they met with a brave bunch of people who had taught themselves to contend with their losses in the past year. And, in some cases, even derived some honour in their bereavement. Like the mother of a martyred soldier who said: "Luckily or unluckily, we lost our son in the most glorious way. Sometimes we draw solace and pride from his death." Not that there aren’t those who still have to endure great trauma, suffer penury because of delayed compensations, remain caught between paucity and pain. But by and large, those who lost their men at Kargil have managed cope with their respective tragedies, recharge themselves emotionally and look ahead with a measure of optimism.

In return, they claim little else but a place in the nation’s memory, a general sensitivity. More than compensation, an odd gas agency or petrol pump, they hunger for acknowledgement that they are special to India. An assurance that India will remember and honour the sons, husbands and fathers who sacrificed themselves for us - this year and every year.

"But people are already beginning to forget the soldier," observes Rajbala Datarwal, widow of itbp’s Havaldar Khazan Singh, who was killed in a landmine explosion at the Banihal pass. It was at his well-attended funeral that an emotionally-charged panchayat had promised it would build a statue to honour him in their native village Dongra Jat in Haryana’s Mahendragarh district. Some months later, at a function in the neighbouring Ratna Kalan village, local politicians fell over each other to guarantee free education to all three of the martyr’s children.

Today, the statue is nowhere in sight and the panchayat members sheepishly avoid Rajbala. She still doesn’t doubt their sincerity: "They must’ve meant it at that point but these feelings lose intensity with time." What distresses her, though, are the unkept pledges on education. With her eldest daughter Anju being denied admission to Class VIII because she missed a year, she’s been running around trying to convince authorities that their life had been thrown out of gear for the past 12 months. "I know people feel compassion for children whose life goes awry because their father dies for the country. It’s just that the sympathy seems to be waning rather quickly."

The same uncomfortable realisation struck K. Peter and Saily Nongdrum when they went to a local Shillong daily to have the news of their son’s birthday printed on March 7. They were asked to pay: "It was just a nominal amount, but..." Not so long ago, the dailies had been jostling to cover the huge funeral rally for their son, Capt Keishing Clifford Nongdrum, who’d so heroically captured Point 4812 at Batalik. Holding his tears back, the father rationalises, "My son has been awarded the Mahavir Chakra, the first in Meghalaya. I’m sure everyone remembers him. People just hesitate to speak about just how much they remember."

More uncanny is the understanding Maj Padampani Acharya’s sexagenarian mother Vimla Acharya, in Hyderabad, demonstrates towards the ebbing public interest for the Kargil martyrs. Having seen her seven-month pregnant daughter-in-law through her son’s death in the Dras sector last year, she has learnt to make peace with life’s troughs. Says she: "It’d be nice to have people remember the jawans, yet it can’t really happen. First, public memory is short. Two, the government’s priorities keep changing. How can anyone be expected to remember the Kargil jawans when thousands are suffering from drought conditions?"

For the Bhattacharyas, the little gestures made by those who do remember are enough to live by. Their son Kanad’s death at Dras last July made him a local hero - the steady flow of casual visitors who still come to pay respects is a great source of solace. Bystanders deferentially offer to guide anyone keen on visiting the martyr’s house on Calcutta’s bustling BT Road. "The army authorities too visit frequently and offer help," says Kanad’s mother Purnima. "We thank them and say no. It’s not as if we expect any compensation, we can fend for ourselves. We just hope help reaches those who really need it." For them, the spontaneous respect of their neighbours is all that they need to see them through the tremendous personal loss.

What can be more satisfying for a soldier’s family than the feeling that his death is perceived as special and noble? Even inspirational, sometimes. Like Gunner Uddhab Das’ martyrdom which set off an unprecedented patriotic upsurge in Assam, firing young imaginations in his native village Anchali in Barpeta district. Explains a proud uncle, Bhabesh Das: "For the last 10 years, joining the army was looked down upon by many youngsters in this area; militancy was regarded as a more ‘romantic’ option. But since Uddhab’s and Capt Jintu Gogoi’s deaths, many young boys have begun to get enlisted in the army." The tide has turned, the past eight months have seen at least 10 getting recruited from Anchali alone. Uddhab’s father Bandhuram is overwhelmed with it all: "Many who come to me pledge to send their children to the army. Others want to know the procedure to enlist. Administration people, army officers, unknown villagers... they still keep dropping in to ask after our welfare."

Such spontaneous public support was a rarity in the past, says a Kargil hero, Sonam Wangchuk of IV Assam Regiment, on deputation with the Ladakh Scouts. Back on duty in Leh after receiving the Mahavir Chakra for exceptional bravery at Kargil, he rues humbly that sacrifices made by soldiers during the 1971 war and the insurgency conflicts have generally gone unnoticed. Mass attention for the army came only after Kargil, thanks to an upbeat media that virtually dragged the battlezone into our cities and villages. "The media galvanised the nation. Brought war into the drawing rooms. After Operation Vijay, the civilians started recognising the army," says Wangchuk.

But because hype is created easily, it also disappears easily. Ask Paramvir Chakra recipient Yogender Singh Yadav of 18 Grenadiers. The 19-year-old’s story was relayed to every nook and cranny of India when he helped recapture Tiger Hill. He then was brought into the Base Hospital in Delhi with a bullet wound in his chest, seven in the legs and six in the arms. The youngster indulges in the nostalgia of those days: "My room would be flooded with visitors. They allowed everyone to meet me. Army officials, ministers, leaders, journalists, locals would swarm the place. But all this only for about two months." Still in hospital, Yadav often feels lonely now. Uncomplaining as only soldiers can be, his tone does turn a hint wistful as he remembers the admiration he attracted when Kargil was top-of-mind for the nation.

Inspired by the same zeal, local leaders, administrators, policemen - all had come in droves to condole Naik Birender Singh Lamba’s death at his Garhi Ruthal residence near Narnaul in Haryana last year. "They were in such a tearing rush to name the road into the village after him that we didn’t even get to know when it happened. Then they promised to name the primary school after him, build a statue in his likeness, a park in his memory," recalls widow Manbhawanti Devi. "Now they’ve all disappeared." So? She has decided that if her dead husband deserves parks, schools and statues in his name, and if no one else does it for him, it’s her duty to do it. Her three children in tow, these days Manbhawanti spends most of her compensation money building gates and statues all over her village.

For some, compensation has brought more pain and acrimony than relief. Deserted by their daughter-in-law and grandchildren - who’ve taken off with all the money - the aged parents of Subedar Balbir Singh, who was killed at Batalik, waste away in Dappar village of Punjab’s Patiala district. At 75, Jagir Singh is too weak to till his land for survival and too heartbroken to fight for money. He’s resigned: "No one has bothered about old parents. Neither the Centre nor the state has done anything for us who gave birth to these children."

The fruits of war have been more bitter still for others. Killed last June, Naik R. Kamaraj of 117 Infantry Battalion would’ve hated it if he saw his family in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district fighting over the spoils of his death. Father M. Rajagopalan, a retired schoolteacher, alleges that daughter-in-law Dhanalakshmi has walked out on them after parting with a mere Rs 50,000. The widow, on her part, claims she tried to help her in-laws as much as possible. "I had to walk out when they started expecting me to bail out their extended family. If I have to take care of my son, I couldn’t afford to support such a huge number of people. There’s nothing selfish in my action; it’s just an act of self-preservation."

A similar fight grips the Singh household in Haryana’s Unhani village that lost its 21-year-old son Gunner Parminder Singh. The family hasn’t yet seen a jot of the compensation money as mother-in-law and daughter-in-law fight tooth and nail for it in the district court. The 19-year-old widow Suman has left (or maybe was asked to leave) the house. Says father Rajinder Singh: "Instead of being a martyr family that everybody should look up to, we’ve become the laughing stock of the village. They’ve reduced us to this by taking away our son and throwing us some bits of money in return."

What wouldn’t Sipahi Hiderpal Singh of Three Rajput regiment do to be thrown these reparatory bits of cash? Having lost a leg and his right eye in a mineblast in the Hanifuddin sector, he frets about his penury. "The dead soldiers are lucky actually. They don’t have to live without limbs. And their families have received at least Rs 10 lakh," he says, more than a trifle embittered by fate.

Other soldiers, maimed in action and now recuperating at the Artificial Limb Centre in Pune, have similar heart-wrenching feelings to share. Fighting fit through their lives, they’re at a loss with the physical disabilities war has thrust upon them. They describe themselves as aak or abk - Amputated Above or Below Knee - trying to cope with their reality by inducing a numbing otherness on it. Again, not having received their compensations yet because the money is released by the army only after medical records are completed, the cash crunch is agonising.

A representative voice, Lance Naik N.B. Gurung, 38, with an amputated leg after he was injured at Poonch last July, wonders why some soldiers have got compensation and others haven’t. He reveals his vulnerable worst: "I’m the only earning member of the family, I’m very unsure about what lies ahead."

Eerily enough, the civilians who got caught in the cross-firing in and around Kargil and Dras seem to have a better idea of what lies ahead. They’re preparing for it. Villagers at Akchamal near Kargil, most of who’d left for the nearby Minje village during the war, are now back. Most of their houses were destroyed. Now, they’ve built new houses with compensation money. Each new house has a bunker. Says 17-year-old Sudique Banno, who’d stayed behind during action: "Even if there’s this kind of war every year, we’ll remain here. Now we’re prepared for any war!"

The true sign of a nation’s preparedness lies in much more than fortified houses and bunkers. It involves more than paying up compensation money to families of martyrs. More, much more than naming roads and building statues in the likeness of dead warriors. Because when a soldier is on the battleground, giving the fight all he’s got, he should have the comfort of knowing someone will take care of his family if anything were to happen to him. And that he won’t stand forgotten on some plaque or park statue. That’s the least a nation can do for him at that lonely moment...


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