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At Home With The Bodies

Perversity of every kind is an ancient tradition in war, and our war in Kashmir is no exception.

At Home With The Bodies
At Home With The Bodies
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

"Pakistan is venal," she said to me one morning during the Kargil war, words I feel sure were spoken many times through those weeks – "Pakistan is venal, but we are not." That day, we woke to news that Pakistan returned to us six Indian soldiers’ bodies, all badly mutilated. A sick, gruesome thing to do; and wherever you looked, it caused outrage, thick and free-flowing. My friend was angry, greatly depressed too. She could not understand brutality that destroyed men like this, even in a war. 

And who could understand it? What possesses people who do such things to others? What was achieved except revulsion and rage? Except six families shattered?

Yet this was war, and war pushes men into some ghastly deeds. In his devastating memoir With The Old Breed, Eugene Sledge writes of the American campaigns on Pacific Ocean islands during World War II. A young Marine who fought the Japanese long, hard and bitter in those campaigns, Sledge had ample cause to hate the men of the East. Nevertheless, he also describes, in detail that’s unsparingly revolting to read, atrocities his own colleagues committed. When I read his book, I remembered my friend. I remembered our conversation, India’s war, and those six ruined families. 

After a battle on Peleliu island, a Marine came up dragging what Sledge assumed was a Japanese corpse. Only, the man wasn’t dead. He "had been wounded severely in the back", writes Sledge, "and couldn’t move his arms." The Marine sat down with his wounded jap. Took out his kabar, his Marine knife. Began... but here, in full, are Sledge’s own words about this incident: 

"The Japanese’s mouth glowed with huge gold-crowned teeth, and his captor wanted them. He put the point of his kabar on the base of a tooth and hit the handle with the palm of his hand. Because the Japanese was kicking his feet and thrashing about, the knife point glanced off the tooth and sank deeply into the victim’s mouth. The Marine cursed him and with a slash cut his cheeks open to each ear. He put his foot on the sufferer’s lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out of the soldier’s mouth. He made a gurgling noise and thrashed wildly. I shouted, "Put the man out of his misery." All I got for an answer was a cussing out. Another Marine ran up, put a bullet in the enemy soldier'’ brain and ended his agony. The scavenger grumbled and continued extracting his prizes undisturbed. 

"Such was the incredible cruelty that decent men could commit when reduced to a brutish existence in their fight for survival amid the violent death, terror, tension, fatigue and filth that was the infantryman’s war." 

What happened to that Marine on Peleliu? What happened to the family of a gold-toothed Japanese soldier who died so horribly on a flyspeck of a Pacific island? What happened to the families of six Indian soldiers mutilated by war in Kargil? 

Searching for some kind of answer to that last question, I made a long trip in a rattletrap Maruti with a take-no-prisoners driver. And through many bumpy, frightening, but always beautiful Himachal miles, through several hours spent in a house in a crowded Himachal town, Sledge and his colleagues and those glowing Japanese teeth – it wasn’t a human being the Marine went to work on, just lumps of gold, now isn’t that the truth? – turned slow circles at the back of my mind. For this was the home of the Kalias, and the elder son of this home led five men on a patrol in Kargil in early May of 1999, and they were the first Army personnel to detect the Pakistani intrusion in the area, and they all returned from the war soon after, mutilated and dead. 

And I had come here to meet this young man’s parents. 

A nation and its far-flung children rose in horrified anger when it heard what happened to Saurabh Kalia and his men. In a real sense, this incident defined us during Kargil. Never before had we been so fervent about a war, so sure that right was on our side; never before had we hated Pakistan so much. And it was the deaths of these men, what happened to them in death, that crystallised those feelings for us. 

Saurabh’s father, Dr N K Kalia, told me that over a million people have signed an appeal seeking justice for the six soldiers. Nearly 42,000 letters and bits of email have poured in expressing sympathy and support, and "we do not have a count of telephone calls coming from every corner of the world." 

All this, because when Saurabh came home to his parents, his body had cigarette burns on it, his bones had been broken, as had his teeth, his ears had been pierced, his lips were cut, his nose chopped, his skull fractured and his eyes removed. 

I could barely stomach reading these details in a letter Dr Kalia had written to explain his son’s death. I could barely listen as this middle-aged couple, this utterly ordinary Indian mother and father in their ordinary Himachali home, spoke to me of what their son looked like in death and how they have had to come to terms with it. 

What happened to Saurabh Kalia was nauseating. But if it was that, the entire tragedy was also inexplicable, and it remains so today. If you are willing to look, he left behind some searching questions. If you are willing to think about them, they will gnaw at you, as they gnaw at this parents. For there seems to be no answers, only questions, and that’s a hard place to be for parents, for a nation, bereaved so brutally. 

If the bodies were so badly mutilated, why did Pakistan not just throw them away? Why even bother to hand them over? Was that country unaware of the opprobrium and outrage that would result? Why did India not make an immediate and loud fuss right there at the border? Why whisk the six dead soldiers away for a closed-door post-mortem in Delhi? 

And the mystifying – there’s no other way to describe them – official reactions to Saurabh Kalia’s death only make matters more inexplicable. 

Among Dr Kalia’s piles of mail are letters from External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, Defence Minister George Fernandes, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and the Army’s Director General (Organization & Personnel) Lt. General HS Bagga. I mention these letters not for the eminence of the men who wrote them, but for the eloquence of the words they use to describe Saurabh: "martyr", "valiant son" and "hero of Kargil" are just some. Jaswant Singh had the richest tributes: 

"Captain Saurabh Kalia made the supreme sacrifice in the defense of our Motherland. He displayed great valour, courage and determination in the pursuit of his goal to push out the Pakistani forces that had intruded into our territory. History will record Captain Kalia’s deeds in golden letters and his name will be a beacon for many generations not only for officers and men of the Armed Forces, but for all Indians. As a father, you have been blessed to have such a gallant son." 

On record, in black and white: these are unequivocal acknowledgements of the valour of the son of this Himachali home. For a sorrowing family, they must have come as some small solace. 

And so I find it hard to comprehend the peculiar reality Saurabh’s parents must grapple with: Captain Kalia is conspicuously missing from the long list of Kargil veterans awarded decorations. So are his patrol-mates. For these Indian heroes, there is no Param Vir Chakra, no Vishisht Seva Medal, not even a Mentioned-In-Dispatches. Nothing, "History will record Captain Kalia’s deeds in golden letters," but India is unwilling to honour him.We were so moved by his courage, so revulsed by the violation of the man’s body, so loud in condemning a "venal" Pakistan. But India remains unwilling to honour him. 

Why? 

In its October 2 cover story, Outlook magazine has one answer to that. For Kalia and his men were from the 4 Jat Regiment and Outlook report tells us: 

"(The) 3 Punjab, 4 Jat and 16 Grenadiers (regiments) took the brunt of the battle in the first month… And yet none of these three units received a single gallantry award… (T)his discrimination prompted Lt Gen H B Kala, the ten Western Army Commander, to write to (Army Chief) Gen Malik. Kala (complained) that his own 4 Jat Regiment had been ignored for the gallantry awards… (T)he vice-chief, Lt Gen. Chandrashekhar, (replied) saying that there was no question of decorating these battalions or the men and the army would punish them for failing to detect intruders in Kargil."

 "Punish them." Think of it. 

Presumably the vice-chief meant the intruders were detected later than they should have been. Still, think of it. Saurabh Kalia’s patrol stumpled upon the intruders whom thousands of other Indian soldiers then fought for ten weeks to throw out. They paid for that discovery with their lives, with the barbarism that found them in turn. Some of the country’s most exalted men said some exalted things in praise of this Saurabh Kalia. Now his own Army chooses to "punish" him for his pain. 

In this soldier’s home, I sat eating a sumptuous lunch that, in a happier time, he might have joined me at. I sat surrounded by flowers and portraits and innumerable tributes to him. I sat there, and the thought came to me that this "punishment" was about the most mindlessly perverse thing I had ever run into. 

Unless, of course, you count his mutilation. Unless you count the war itself. For perversity of every kind is an ancient tradition in war, and our war in Kashmir is no exception. 

So as I rode homeward from that house in Himachal, our continuing enmity with Pakistan slowly crowded all else out of my thoughts. It didn’t help that when you travel in Himachal, Army convoys regularly rumble past. They just seemed to punctuate the depressing questions, ever more questions, that bubbled up.

 Just why did this family lose their son? Why do we send some of our finest young men into this cauldron of "violent death, terror, tension, fatigue and filth"? Why have we been doing it for half a century? When will it end? Is outrage reserved only for those who torture during a war? Or should we also turn it towards the men – Indian and Pakistani alike – who keep peace so distant that brave soldiers are lost to that cauldron daily? Who urge us to define ourselves by how much hatred we direct across the border? Who rouse us to such lock-stepped hostility that a favourite chimera, the machinations of the "foreign hand," can blind us to all that is shameful within our own countries? 

I know, as I write, that some would say I must not ask such questions. For they "undermine" the country. It is "unpatriotic" to raise them at a time when our soldiers are fighting and dying for the "glory" of the motherland. 

At war in the Pacific, Eugene Sledge had frequent thoughts about just such "glory". There was the time he saw a fellow Marine standing over the body of a Japanese officer killed on Okinawa. The Marine. 

"held his rifle… with both hands and slowly and mechanically moved it up and down like a plunger. I winced each time it came down with a sickening thud into the gory mass. Brains and blood were splattered all over (his) rifle (and clothes)… Replete with violence, shock, blood, gore and suffering, this was the type of incident that should be witnessed by anyone who has any delusions about the glory of war." 

Not much glory there. Nearer home, six men died in bloody horror on our border, but it is anti-national to ask why they died. The six are deliberately overlooked for military awards, but true patriots will not question that strangely dissonant note from the Kargil victory trumpets. Well inside our borders, men die screaming deaths in police custody, but it is a slap to our national well being to mention such homegrown brutality in the same breath as torture from across the Line of Control. 

This is what patriotism has come to mean to us. This unwillingness to air doubts, or let them be aired. This deliberate, unquestioned hatred of Pakistan, coupled with a complacent certainty of our moral superiority. This steady, unstinted, rah-rah fervour over the endless, wearying, blood-sucking war we fight with Pakistan. No matter how many of our uniformed youth die. Nor how sickeningly. Nor how miserably they live on the frontlines. We pretend there is "glory" in what they do and think that gives us the right to demand enormous sacrifices from them. 

But does it really? 

The lesson Sledge learned in the Pacific, the one we can learn from the tragedy that overwhelmed the Kalia family, is this: there is nothing glorious about war. There is nothing glorious about this one war we have fought for half a century, that we are no closer to resolving than when we began. 

What happened to those six men on patrol outraged us, as it should have. Nevertheless, this is war. As you read this, there are "decent men" fighting fiercely all along our border. As you read this, decent men are witnessing and committing and falling victim to incomprehensible brutality there. War does that. As it did in Kalinga, as it did in Chechnya, as it did on that flyspeck in the Pacific, as it always has done. 

And it seems to me that as long as we in this part of the world – Indian or Pakistani – keep war going with our neighbour, it will bring us more perversity and more incredible cruelty. More mangled bodies. War cannot be waged without all that. 

Now that is the horror that will have to outrage us some day.  

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