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To all the mothers who lost their sons for India

Last updated on: April 12, 2012 13:19 IST

To all the mothers who lost their sons for India

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Archana Masih in Gurdaspur

Lieutenant Navdeep Singh sacrificed his life fighting a heroic battle against terrorists at the Line of Control. Twelve terrorists were killed that night, four by Navdeep himself.

The daring officer, who was just 26, was awarded the Ashok Chakra, the nation's highest gallantry award in peace time.

Every year soldiers die battling infiltrators on India's borders in actions that are testaments to military courage. How often are they remembered?

On the highway outside Gurdaspur, a solemn group of men dressed in white stood by the roadside. "They must be awaiting a dead body," said the driver as we sped on to make it in time for the ceremony at the Wagah border.

On the way back, the following day, the same road was blocked near Gurdaspur. A policeman stood diverting traffic off the highway to a smaller parallel road. We cursed, knowing that the ride would now take longer, but the detour was soon forgotten by the next Chai break.

"They were bringing a soldier's body home yesterday. That's why the diversion." I told my mother after going through a small report in the newspaper the next morning.

The tragedy had occurred three days earlier -- on August 20 -- but was overshadowed by the raging news of that time.

Anna Hazare was fasting unto death to save India against corruption which had become the breaking news, evening news, nightly news and in-between news for the fortnight ahead.

Amidst the hysteria unfolding at Delhi's Ram Lila maidan, a 26-year-old soldier had sacrificed his life fighting a battle so heroic that the country would bestow him with its highest gallantry award in peace time, the Ashok Chakra.

'Don't fire, till I fire,' based on this command, Lieutenant Navdeep Singh had led his commando platoon on the night of August 19-20 in a ferocious gun battle against 17 terrorists near the Line of Control at a treacherous height of 9,100 feet.

Twelve terrorists were killed that night, four by Navdeep himself, in an operation that would last four more days after his death.

Just four months into the Indian Army, the daring officer was struck by a bullet that missed his helmet by a fraction as he bent down to pull an injured jawan to safety.

Lieutenant Navdeep went down fighting for his men and country, but not before shooting down the terrorist whose bullet had pierced his own head.

The bloody encounter was among the most successful anti-terrorist operations conducted by the Indian Army in Jammu and Kashmir in recent times.

That August morning as we returned from Amritsar, we did not know that somewhere down that same highway a martyred soldier was making his final journey home.

Five months later, my colleague Rajesh and I were back on the same highway.

This time to the martyred soldier's home.

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Image: Lieutenant Navdeep Singh, 26, died battling terrorists in a heroic battle at the Line of Control. He was awarded the Ashok Chakra, the nation's highest gallantry award in peace time this Republic Day
Photographs: Courtesy, Lieutenant Navdeep Singh's family

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'My son stopped the terrorists'

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"Many such operations take place on the LoC, but none has been as successful as this one. Like in the Mumbai terror strikes, the terrorists had come in boats -- here they came down the Kishanganga river in two boats," says Lieutenant Navdeep's father Honorary Captain Joginder Singh, who retired after serving the army for 30 years.

"Imagine what would have happened if they had entered Indian soil? How far and deep into India they could have gone? What civil or military damage could they have wreaked?"

"My son did not allow that to happen. He stopped them."

Tears moisten Captain Singh's cheeks. Before him his father had served the Indian Army and fought in the Indo-Pak war of 1965; he himself had retired from the Bengal Sappers as a subedar major, his son was a third generation soldier who had died a heroic death, but even a family military legacy such as this was not formidable enough to steel a father's heart.

While we sat in Captain Singh's drawing room, the tears never left his eyes. It was his mother Jagtinder Kaur who spoke about their eldest son, while the retired soldier sat quietly, speaking sparingly.

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Image: Lieutenant Navdeep Singh's father, Honorary Captain Joginder Singh, who served in the Indian Army for 30 years
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

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Strangers mourned for her son as if he were their own

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"We wake up each morning and think how will the day pass. Often we go to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, it helps us cope," says his mother, her face scarred with sadness.

"Our grief will always remain with us, but we are proud that our son died fighting valiantly. He died as he had lived -- with an immense self pride. Navdeep preferred honour to money and always wanted the respect of a soldier."

At his funeral, many who shed tears for him did not know him or his family. Mourners drawn not by compulsion, but respect for a soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice, defending the country.

The town's municipal corporation swept the streets the morning of the funeral, soldiers from his regiment gave him the final salute, a state cabinet minister representing the chief minister laid a wreath on his body wrapped in the Indian flag.

Army officers whom the family did not know condoled with his parents, telling them about the valour of their son. "Pata nahi kitni duniya hogi (I can't fathom how much of the world was there)," says his mother looking back at that day of loss and mourning when strangers mourned for her son as if he were their own.

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Image: Lieutenant Navdeep on a trip to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. His parents go there often seeking solace for their grief
Photographs: Courtesy, Lieutenant Navdeep Singh's family

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'There is no threat to my life'

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'Don't worry I am very safe. There is no threat to my life,.' Navdeep used to tell his mother on the phone whenever she grew anxious about his safety defending the Line of Control, the cease-fire line separating India-Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir, where Indian soldiers have died battling Pakistani terrorists.

He never complained about being posted at such a difficult and sensitive area, in fact he loved it and wanted to stay on. Mother and son did not talk much on the phone because connectivity was limited at his location, but Navdeep would call 3, 4 times whenever he came down to Srinagar.

'Mummy, you must come and meet me in Srinagar. It is beautiful, more beautiful than any other foreign country,' Navdeep would tell his mother who had previously been in the legendary city of beauty as a BEd student in 1983, a few years before militancy ushered trouble into paradise.

His enthusiasm wiped away their concerns and they were happy that their son had found the life he had aspired for.

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Image: Lieutenant Navdeep Singh with his parents at his Passing Out Parade
Photographs: Courtesy, Lieutenant Navdeep's family

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The tragedy of a soldier's death

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Navdeep had given up a job in Chandigarh to join the army. He had a degree in business management, but his heart was set on the army since he was a boy.

His father and grandfather had been junior commissioned officers, but Navdeep dreamed about becoming an officer someday.

The letter for his Combined Defence Service exam came to the address in Kolkata from where he had completed his management degree. A friend telephoned him about the interview and Navdeep travelled to Bhopal for the entrance test.

Four months later, he was on his way to the Officers Training Academy in Chennai.

"The course started on 9th April, 2010 and ended on March 19," says his mother, meticulously remembering every date pertaining to her son's tragically short-lived military career.

The day he joined the Ordnance Corps in Kanpur...

The day he left to join the the 15 Maratha Light Infantry in J&K for a two-year stint mandatory for all non-infantry officers...

The day he passed through Pathankot en route to joining the unit in J&K when they met for 45 minutes at the station...

It was raining that day.

'Go back home now, it's getting late,' he had told her. It was the last time they would see each other.

The night of August 19 when he died preventing infiltrators from crossing the Kishanganga river which forms a part of the Line of Control in the Gurez sector perilously close to Pakistan occupied Kashmir.

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Image: Lieutenant Navdeep, right, at his unit, 12 days before he was martyred
Photographs: Courtesy, Lieutenant Navdeep's family

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'What Navdeep and his men achieved was out of this world'

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'Don't fire till I fire,' Navdeep had told his men; waiting till the terrorists were just metres away before opening fire to ensure that the infiltrators did not escape.

When Navdeep finally opened fire, there was no way the terrorists could have got away. He actually waited to literally touch them, crowd them into a little rock strewn slope from which the only choice was death or bullet aided.

...the terrorist who shot Navdeep, was just five metres away. This was the distance at which Navdeep was fired at, pulling in his buddy to safety as he fell dying. There could not have been a nobler death.

In a salute to the young officer, retired Major General Raj Mehta -- who spent 30 hours at the site of Navdeep's martyrdom in homage to a fellow soldier -- gives a meticulous description in his article 'Au Revoir, Navdeep Singh' published on the South Asia Idea Web site.

"He led the operation with 26 men against 17 well trained-fully armed terrorists," Major General Raj Mehta told Rediff.com. The general, who has served seven tenures in Jammu and Kashmir, physically retraced Navdeep's entire operation in Gurez.

"He had positioned his men behind boulders and put himself at a point of least cover behind a rock which just about covered his body," he said in a telephone interview.

The encounter lasted about 7 or 8 minutes ending with Navdeep's martyrdom.

Of the 90 cartridges (3 magazines) in his AK-47, only 9 bullets remained.

"What Navdeep and his men achieved that day was out of this world," adds Major General Mehta, remembering at this point the exceptional courage of another great hero and a friend, Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, the youngest officer ever to be awarded the Param Vir Chakra, India's highest wartime honour.

'I will not abandon my tank. My gun is still working and I will get these bastards....'

Major General Mehta, then a young officer himself, had heard Lieutenant Khetarpal say this on the radio set in the 1971 war with Pakistan.

Positioned 10 kilometres away, he had caught the frequency and literally heard his friend die through his crackling radio set.

Khetarpal's valour had stopped the enemy advance, denying the Pakistanis a crucial breakthrough and saved the day for India in the historic Battle of Basantar.

"Arun destroyed four tanks; Navdeep killed four men," says General Mehta, a soldier passionate about honouring our military dead.

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Image: Lieutenant Navdeep, left, with colleagues during a unit movement
Photographs: Courtesy, Lieutenant Navdeep's family

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Then came the phone call...

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Mrs Singh had a fitful sleep the night her son died. She was in her bed in Gurdaspur when her son was battling terrorists in an area that is cut off by snow for six months of the year, a stone's throw from Pakistan occupied Kashmir.

She dreamt of Navdeep that night. Wearing his bullet-proof patka, his back towards her.

"I wasn't worried about him, but was sad. I woke up at 4 and went to the gurdwara as morning broke."

As the day progressed, so did her listlessness. There was a wedding to attend the following day and as she was preparing for it, the door bell rang.

Outside stood men asking for Lieutenant Navdeep's home.

Since they were in civilian clothes Mrs Singh thought they must have come from Navdeep's unit and called out for her husband. When the couple returned they found that the men had left.

They went out and saw the men at the front gate. "They told us they would come later. I was confused, but my husband had a feeling that something was not good," says Mrs Singh, dabbing her eyes with her dupatta.

And then came the phone call. Not once, but thrice. Mrs Singh answered the first two calls. They told her Navdeep was injured and in a hospital in Srinagar. They decided to leave for Srinagar immediately, when the phone rang again.

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Image: Lieutenant Navdeep's mother at the family home in Gurdaspur. Her grief is heartbreaking
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

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The loss of Mrs Singh should not be hers to bear alone

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Mrs Singh does not say what the phone call said, but that trip to Srinagar was never made.

It was her son who journeyed back to her the next day, wrapped in the Indian flag, in a military convoy strewn with flowers.

Martyred four days after Independence Day, Lieutenant Navdeep Singh was honoured with the Ashok Chakra on the country's other day of big national celebration -- Republic Day.

On a cold morning in January, his father Honorary Captain Joginder Singh walked up to the President alongside Navdeep's Commanding Officer Colonel Girish Upadhya -- a two-time winner of the Sena Medal for gallantry himself -- to receive the honour.

As Captain Singh stoically stood listening to the citation being read and televised throughout the country, Mrs Singh sat in the VIP gallery, weeping silently.

That evening at the ceremonial tea hosted by President Pratibha Patil to celebrate Republic Day, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar came up to her and told her how proud they were of her son.

Sitting in her home in Gurdaspur, Mr and Mrs Singh open the cylindrical tube, taking out the Ashok Chakra citation carefully so that the edges don't get turned, spreading a newspaper to prevent it from getting stained.

Then as carefully, Captain Singh opens the case bearing the Ashok Chakra, the medal gleaming on a royal blue satin box.

"We will get the citation framed," Mrs Singh says softly, looking at the green parchment with the Indian emblem and the Presidential seal.

The sadness on her face is heartbreaking.

In the war memorial in Jammu dedicated to soldiers and paramilitary personnel who have died in Jammu and Kashmir, Lieutenant Navdeep Singh's name has still not been added to the granite columns, seven months after his martyrdom.

It is an unfortunate disregard for a fallen soldier, especially so for a nation that does not have a national war memorial, in spite of five wars since Independence and sustained battles with terrorism.

Soldiers who lay down their lives in heroic battles at the frontline must be honoured and remembered -- much after the pomp and pageantry has settled down after the Republic Day parade.

The loss of Mrs Singh and other martyrs' mothers should not be theirs alone. It should be ours too.


Image: Mr and Mrs Singh with the Ashok Chakra
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

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