Special Senior Correspondent
When India was at its last war, I was a student, holidaying somewhere near the high altitude training school in Gulmarg, Kashmir. On the way back at the Srinagar airport, tri-coloured coffins crossed my path. It was perhaps my first direct contact with the Kargil war. I read about the battle, about the men who fought it. A brief emotional outpour and I forgot all about it.
Five years later in 2004, on a road trip to Ladakh, we stopped in Drass for a tea-break. The houses still had bullet marks and the highway was dotted with warning signs: " you are in the enemy fire range". You could sniff the war and its stories around. But we drove ahead, leaving it all behind.
This time around, Kargil was a decade old. And a war, which I saw and read about so often, was almost right before my eyes. Early June morning, 2009, we had started our drive from Kumathang towards Batalik sector (Kumathang-the valley of winds is the headquarters of Army's 8 Mountain Division in Kargil). Our destination was Batalik's peak 4812 and with us was Colonel Ajit Singh, who had captured that point. As the engines rolled, Colonel Singh recounted his battle story.
On June 30th, 1999, four companies of 22 Grenadiers had launched an attack on the vertical Pt 4812. Singh was commanding the Hindustan Muslim company of around 80 men. Each soldier armed with 5kgs weapon and a 20kgs of supplies bag. The upward climb started at around 8:30 pm. It was sharp, under constant enemy fire and time bound. Before day break, the men had to reach the top. Barely 70 metres from Pt 4812, the enemy had sensed the troop presence. There was constant heavy fire and they pelted them with stones. And when all else failed, luck mattered. In a brief moment of helplessness, Singh decided to change the battle cry. Instead of the regular 22 Grenadiers' cry Sarvaodhya Shakti Shaali... he asked his Muslim Company soldiers to shout Naare-e- taqbeer Allah-ho Akbhar. As it echoed in the cold mountains, the firing stopped. Singh says maybe the enemy mistook them for their own men. In this brief moment of stillness and confusion, over 27 men reached the top. They held the ground for over 96 hours, without food , supplies and little energy reserves. Singh lost over 18 men, but won the peak.
Our five hour drive had ended now and we were at Pt 4812. The memories buried in these mountains were all pulled out. Colonel Singh's men seem to be all around, in the victory signs, the soundless mountains and even in the uneasy calm. Like the ace sniper Abid, who fought for 72 continuous hours and died with his finger on the trigger. His sahayak Ahmad, who was his closest companion in the war. Havaldar Lekh Ram, who escaped the bullet, but died as a boulder ran over him. Sepoy Amrit Lal, who fought enemy bullets to reach pt 4812 with food reinforcements. Manoj Pandey, who pulled out the enemy mortar gun with his bare hands. All men, who deserve much more than an occasional memory.
The mountains in Kargil were unforgiving. They still remain so. Steep, bare, and breath- taking difficult to climb. During the war, they were even snow covered. Like one of the officers says, the soldiers were like sitting ducks, so vulnerable to enemy fire.
The mountains have been recaptured. It took 62 days and over 530 lives then. When you look at them, it's hard to digest that a strong Army nation could let the intruders come in so close- barely three kms away. When you look at them again, it's hard to believe that men could inch up, facing the volley of fire. The victory in Kargil is perhaps as unbelievable as the initial security debacle. We may debate India's security plans, top men who goofed-up. But there is no way we debate the bravery that saved Kargil. And there is no way that we forget it.
See pics: Kargil revisited, 10 years later