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E-Mail this column to a friend Kargil is now the most richly decorated real estate in the world

Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

    Until last year, Siachen was the most highly decorated and commemorated battleground of Indian military history. And on Siachen it was Bana post, the one most coveted by both sides, that received the largest number of gallantry awards: one PVC, one MVC, three VrCs and six Sena Medals shared by two battalions - 8 J&K Light Infantry and 3/4 Gurkha Rifles.

Before 1987, this post called Qaid was in Pakistani possession till Subedar Bana Singh and his men captured it. After this debacle, Benazir Bhutto used to taunt General Zia-ul-Haq about losing Siachen and suggested he wear a burqa. After the loss of Kargil, the women in Pakistan were asking Nawaz Sharief to wear bangles.

On August 15, 1999, Siachen, although higher in meters, was superseded in sheer numbers of gallantry awards by Kargil. The haul on these icy heights was the biggest ever.

Kargil is now the most richly decorated real estate in the world. Some of its key heights, first captured in 1948, were recaptured twice in 1965 and both times returned to Pakistan after the Kutch and Tashkent Agreements. In 1971 these were retaken. At least three MVCs, two VrCs and other smaller awards were won by Kargil.

In 1999, Kargil hit the jackpot. Never before have so many gallantry awards been conferred in such a confined space, restricted to three mountain ridges in Dras and Batalik: Tololing, Tiger Hill and Juber-Khalubar. Equally, never before has the intensity of combat been so fierce, terrain so difficult and the enemy so defiant.

There are some outstanding features in the battles that have been recognised in the awards list. Many brave actions however, have gone unsung and got buried in the debris of fire. These are the uncharmed heroes, the unheralded casualties of war - the unknown jawan.

Just about 16 of the army's more than 360 infantry battalions were employed in combat at Kargil. The history of successes in battle will be written around half a dozen key heights: Tololing, Tiger Hill, Point 5140 and Point 4875 is Dras and Khalubar-Juber in Batalik. These Bofors-battered mountain peaks have been honoured for their impregnability and dogged determination with an unprecedented galaxy of gallantry awards - four PVCs, nine MVCs, 61 VrCs and scores of Sena Medals besides distinguished bravery awards for senior officers.

Nearly 60 per cent of the awards are posthumous, including the needless media overkill and needling of one regrettable posthumous error. Perhaps the most striking feature of the Kargil gallantry list is the exceptionally high percentage of winners below officer rank. For example, two of the four PVCs are 19-year old Jawans. This is not only unprecedented it is also unique. Similarly 39 VrCs are JCOs and other ranks.

The battalions that have bagged the awards are those who provided a foothold on the key ridges and later fought their way up, peak by peak, destroying the enemy. 2 Rajputana Rifles, 18 Grenadiers, 13 JAK Rifles, 17 Jat and 1/11 Gurkha Rifles lead the list followed by other battalions including the Ladakh Scouts. Four MVCs and several VrCs for 2 Rajputana Rifles and two PVCs and many VrCs for 13 JAk Rifles are feats of gutsy bravery unknown to a single battalion. Skill and audacity in battle are difficult to fathom and quantify.

In addition to individual awards, there were immediate unit citations and peaks and sectors dedicated to units and individuals like renaming Point 4875 as OP Hill and Turtuk as Hanif Sub sector.

Gallantry awards, unit citations and other outstanding achievements are the heart and soul of army units. These become benchmarks in regimental history and the lifeline of their tradition. A PVC or VC (before independence) becomes a rare breed, zealously protected and preserved by the army and hopefully honored by state and society.

Six years ago, Capt Umrao Singh VC, went for the VC reunion to London. After attending the public meeting at Hyde Park, he was trying to cross the road when he discovered he had caused a traffic jam. British defence secretary Michael Heseltine, recognising the VC bronze medal pinned on his chest, jumped out of his car, saluted Umrao and said: 'VC first, sir.'

Queen Victoria, it is said, had knit half a dozen scarves, rated higher than the VC, which were meant for gallantry in war. But the acts of gallantry were to be determined not by the government but by the officers and men of the unit in action. Will Sonia Gandhi or Usha Narayanan knit such scarves, asks a military historian?

The solemnity of the awards has been marred by some needlessly insensitive journalism: 'Army Kills Another Hero, Resurrects a Captain' and so on. The army admitted making a mistake about giving Sepoy Yogender Singh Yadav of 18 Grenadiers, a posthumous PVC when he was recovering at the Base Hospital Delhi. A senior General even put in his papers for the faux pas.

There was some haste but greater urgency in processing the gallantry list. The vetting of the list starts with the battalion and is filtered at least six levels before being finalised by the Chief of Army Staff. It then goes to the prime minister via the defence minister for the seal and signature of the President.

In 5 Platoon of the Bravo company of 18 Grenadiers there are two Yogender Singh Yadavs. Only one of them, along with Lt Balwan Singh of the same company (who won the MVC), climbed up the fixed rope from the northeast face of Tiger Hill and stayed on top to single handedly prove his valour despite being wounded. The other Yadav had been killed earlier. The PVC went to the right and deserving Yadav. The mix-up occurred when a smart alec, burning the midnight oil at command headquarters, mysteriously added the word 'Posthumous' at the minute.

But there was absolutely no need for journalists to go scouring for the dead Yadav's family at Hastinapur, pouring salt over fatal wounds. This is the first time that gallantry awards have been announced immediately after the war, when the established procedure to declassify the list is once a year on Republic Day.

The highest living gallantry award winner, always an endangered species, has two young inductees to swell its dwindling ranks to four. At the very least, they will both serve another 28 years, be pampered and as per army regulations, be left out of battle in future. That is the fate of jawans turned into icons.

In 1961, the three-VC winner 2/5 GR (called the VC paltan), was selected for UN Peacekeeping in Congo. The two living legends were debarred from the assignment till the unit secured a special government dispensation for them. It was marked: Handle with Care.

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