Amberish K Diwanji


Meeting the brave Indian jawans as we toured the Batalik sector was both pleasant and touching. Pleasant because despite the hardships our jawans face, once they know you are an Indian who too is doing his duty of filing reports, they open up, and always bring forth a cup of tea. I have lost count of the number of cups of hot, extremely sweet and milky tea that I have had on my two-day trip. The soldiers too were very happy to meet people who might have some information about what is happening back in the cities and villages.

Yet, in a way it is also sad. Almost all the soldiers have messages to pass back home. "Please call up my wife and tell her that I am absolutely fine, that she should not worry," a major in the EME requests me. On returning to New Delhi, I call up his wife over the telephone and I swear I could hear the lump in her throat and even feel the mist in her eyes as I inform her that her husband of less than a year is absolutely fine. I offer her any assistance that she may require but realise how futile my words must sound -- she has enough relatives and friends all around, but just one husband who is not there!

If you think it is only the wives and mothers with tears, think again. One of the journalists along with me spoke fluent Malayalam and Tamil. He literally became a magnet for all the Malayali and Tamil jawans (and there were many). By the end of our stay, his little pocketbook was full of telephone numbers from all the towns and villages scattered across the southern parts of our vast country. Though this journalist stays in Delhi, he promised to call up all the numbers and reassure the wives that their husbands were fine.

And some of the jawans had tears in their eyes as they recalled their families. One wet-eyed jawan showed a photograph of his wife and two children, lovingly kept in his wallet, and at this point even my hardened journalist colleague felt his eyes getting moist.

The jawans do not fear death. They live too close to it and know that fighting the enemy is their foremost duty. But like all husbands and fathers, they worry about their families they left behind. Worse, however, is the lack of communication, of not knowing what is happening, of not being able to tell their families that they are still fine. In many ways, not knowing is worse than knowing even the worst.

Jawans we come across keep asking what the country thinks of their effort. They are worried that the nation perhaps hold them responsible for allowing the Pakistanis to sneak in. In our replies, we insist that the entire nation is united behind them, that the country appreciates their brave effort, and that everyone wishes the best and a speedy return to their homes. Abuses, we tell them, is reserved for the politicians. The answer soothes the jawans. "All these years, we were ignored by our country and by our people. At least now it is nice to know that we have the people's support," said an artillery jawan from Himachal Pradesh.

Support from the local people is wholehearted. Though there was the scare in Turtuk when the police nabbed 24 would-be saboteurs a week ago, most of the other villagers have given full support. People from Leh have been sending across cakes and food items to liven up the jawans' rations, while locals from the villages close to action have been acting as guides and porters. The latter two cannot be overstated. In the huge mountains that are extremely difficult to cross, a good guide is essential. And more so are sturdy porters, carting 20 kg on their backs up sheer mountainsides that require complete mountaineering equipment.

Though the jawans are acclimatised, they can never match the local people who have grown up playing in these mountains. "Without the support of the local people, the task would be much tougher and take much more time," stated a colonel.

Stuck in a four-mile long traffic jam while proceeding to Batalik, I met Mirza Hussain, a resident of Kargil. Hussain has just completed the Haj and a pilgrimage to the Karbala, an important Shi'ite site. After a three-month tour of West Asia, he is heading home, worried about his house and future. "My brother told me that our house and shop have survived shelling attempts, but with most other Kargilis having left, what will we do in the town," he asked.

Hussain pointed out that over the past three decades, Kargilis have been asking every government of the day to build an airport and set up the Kargil Scouts, a paramilitary force that can guard the mountains. "We first made these demands to Indira Gandhi. Today, if the airport had existed (it lies half complete) and there had been the Kargil Scouts, these intruders would never have entered one inch of our land," he declared. The government might now take up the suggestions. Even after the present operation is over, the mountainous border will remain vulnerable. One solution is to raise militia from the mountain people who can act as a forward guard for the army.

Intelligence agencies have been alerted and are keeping a watch on some people who might be helping the Pakistanis. The fact is that in these mountains, the Line of Control is an artificial divide between peoples who are essentially the same. For instance, Kargil residents speak in Balti, the language of Baltistan which is now in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. The LC has split families and separated cousins from each other.

Yet, till the rise of militancy in the valley and its subsequent effect on the LC, most families kept in touch with their kith and kin across the LC and even crossed the LC to meet them as and when required. The LC was no hindrance and there was no way that troops of both sides could ever seal the border (given the height and size of the mountains, it is physically impossible to do so). One villager said till the 1980s, marriages would take place between couples across the LC. However, such contact is now difficult to maintain what with a war on. And the poor villagers surely don't have the means to go to Delhi to apply for a visa to meet a relative just a few miles away.

Senior Assistant Editor Amberish K Diwanji has just returned from a tour of duty in Kargil.