February 16, 2020
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Yogender Singh Yadav, New Delhi

The Paramvir Chakra winner, who took 14 bullets in the retaking of Tiger Hill, has been in and out of operation theatres. Though looking forward to going to his home in the nearby town of Bulandshahr, his leave is still some way off as he is yet to be released from hospital. What he misses to some extent now is the constant stream of visitors-friends, relatives, political leaders, representatives of the media and even complete strangers-that was a routine feature in the early days. Once he does get home, he will have to take on the realities of life even a war hero cannot escape.

The family of Parminder Singh, Unhani Village, Haryana

The dead gunner’s mother (above) and widow are currently squabbling in the courts over who gets the compensation offered by the government. The 19-year-old Suman, Singh’s wife, is no longer staying with her in-laws. The latter allege that Suman’s father is instigating her to fight for the money because he wants it to give it as dowry when he gets her remarried. Parminder’s father, Rajinder Singh, laments that instead of being a model martyr home, they’ve become "the laughing stock of the village".

Charulata and Aparajita, Hyderabad

The widow of Padampani Acharya was seven months pregnant with Aparajita (seen wearing the Mahavir Chakra her father was awarded posthumously) when he was killed. But she says her in-laws gave her all the support she needed to see her through her "nightmare". The government has offered her a job, but she has refused, opting to take care of Aparajita-instead. She has adopted the principle of taking life as it comes from her mother-in-law Vimla Acharya, who has no complaints against anybody. "Like any mother, I too was shocked and cried for some time," says Vimla. "But death is the only truth of life."

Rajbala Datarwal and Anju, village Dongra Jat, Haryana

When her husband Khazan Singh was killed, the village panchayat promised a statue in his honour. Later, local politicians chipped in with promises of free education for Khazan’s three children. But a year later, there is no statue. Worse, Anju, the eldest child, has been denied admission to Class VIII as she lost a year while shifting from Amritsar, where the family was posted, to their village, following Khazan’s death. Rajbala feels it is natural for people to forget, which is why she refused a job the army offered on compassionate grounds. "Then, Kargil was fresh. But later they might have posted me in a remote place."

Uddhab Das’ family, Anchali village, Assam

When Uddhab’s body arrived in the village, thousands congregated there. His death, along with that of Capt Jintu Gogoi from Assam’s upper Golaghat district, had created an unprecedented patriotic upsurge in the state. Common people, angry with the ULFA’s support to Pakistan during the Kargil conflict, came out in droves to join the funeral processions. And a direct outcome was that the numbers of those seeking enlistment to the army-hitherto looked down upon by many in Assam since militancy was regarded a more ‘romantic’ option-increased manifold. In fact, 10 boys from Anchali itself were recruited in the last eight months alone.

Sudique Banno and Mohammed Ibrahim, Akchamal village, Kargil

The two were among the handful of those who stayed back, unlike most of the 20 families who fled the village during the war. While Ibrahim served as a porter for the army, Sudique opted to remain so that she could water the crops. Says she, "Whenever there was shelling, we used to hide in the downstairs room." But now, the government’s compensation package has allowed villagers to build bunkers for their reconstructed homes. Now, Sudique says, "Even if there is this kind of a fight every year, we will remain here."

Families of Bikram Singh and Sukhpreet Singh, Kubbaheri village, Punjab

The survivors of the uncle-nephew duo who were killed in the space of two months belong to a village that has been sending its sons to battle since World War I. Even today, nearly 70 men from its 200 households serve with the armed forces.

Ujjwala Nikam and Vijaya, Karad, Maharashtra

A day after he called her from the frontlines and promised her a tour of Kargil, Ujjwala’s husband Madhukar was killed. It was also the day her daughter-whom she named after Operation Vijay-was born.

Manbhawanti Devi, Tinku and Parveen, Garhi Ruthal, Haryana

In the initial wave of public support, the local leaders named a road in the village after Birender Singh Lamba. Ironically, they forgot to invite his family to the function. The promise to rename the school after him hasn’t materialised either.

Angrez Kaur and Jagir Singh, Dappar village, Punjab

Abandoned to their fate by their daughter-in-law-who ran out on them with the compensation money, children in tow-the aged couple are struggling to survive. "We lost everything with our son Balbir," says the 75-year-old Jagir, too weak to till the land. "No one has bothered about old parents. Neither the Centre nor the state has done anything for those who gave birth to the brave men who gave their lives for the country."

Sonam Wangchuk, Leh

On deputation with the Ladakh Scouts now, the Mahavir Chakra winner knows the Kargil war was different from earlier conflicts in one essential way. "So many died in the 1971 war, but no one knew about them," he says. He acknowledges the role the media played in getting recognition for the lowly soldiers who actually risk life and limb at the battlefront. "The media galvanised the nation. Brought war into the drawing rooms. After Operation Vijay, civilians started recognising the army for what it is. It also made higher-ups more responsive." Such effusive public empathy, he regrets, did not come the way of those fighting earlier wars or low-intensity battles in the insurgency-ridden areas of the country.

Mohammed Ali, Bhimbet village, Dras

Apart from reducing his humble house to rubble, the war also wiped out his entire livestock. Ali was part of the majority that left the area to escape the shelling. Still rebuilding his house, he says: "Who knows when the fighting will start again? No one tells us anything. What we know is from the radio."

K. Peter and Saily Nongdrum, Shillong, Meghalaya

When their son Keishing Clifford Nongdrum-who was awarded the Mahavir Chakra, the first in Meghalaya-was killed, newspapers fell over themselves to cover his funeral rally, which took five hours to cover just 12 km. A year later, they had to pay the local paper to print his picture on the occasion of his birthday. "Of course, it was a nominal amount," they say. "But..."

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