My quiet friend suddenly grew animated, and spoke with unusual passion about the pressure his men were under. Without the use of night vision equipment, he said they had to rely on their own sight to spot the intruders from Pakistan. Night after night, they peered through their binoculars, unable to make out hare from human in the darkness, relying on sheer instinct to nail militants intent on mayhem crossing the LoC.
After their nocturnal duty ended, it was not as if the jawans could take it easy in the day. There were other duties to attend to, personal chores to be completed, before the soldiers could finally put head to pillow.
Imagine doing this all year around, night after night, day after day. Unable to let one's guard down even for a moment, lest the enemy slip through the dragnet.
Every night before I go to bed, I think of my friend. I hear that one of the heroes who died last week was from his unit. My friend has a wife and two young daughters who are very worried for him. I hope like all the soldiers in the Kargil theatre, he returns home soon. Safe, tired, and victorious.
My thoughts also go out to another young soldier whom I met not so long ago. He joined the army when he was 21. He came from a military family. His father retired as a colonel; his elder brother is also in the army and served as part of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Rwanda. Ashish (that is not his real name) left the army when he was 24.
No, not because he was disillusioned.
No, not because he had violated the army's rules.
He left the army because he was unfortunate to be trapped in an avalanche in Siachen during his second tour of duty; his first, incidentally, was in terrorism-infested Kashmir.
Most of Ashish's jawans died of frost bite in the avalanche. The young lieutenant lost all but three of his fingers, and spent many months in hospital recovering from the nightmare.
The loss of his fingers meant his career in the infantry was over. He would never be able to pull a trigger again. Unfortunately, the army has no place for officers like Ashish who have been injured in the line of duty. There is, I understand, no place in the military hierarchy to retrain such officers and employ them in other functions where they could use brain instead of brawn.
When Ashish left the army, he was given Rs 180,000 to begin a new life.
At 24, his life was almost over just as it was on the verge of taking off.
Fortunately, for Ashish, a corporate benefactor took note of his plight and enabled him to take a management course. Today, he works in the office of this much maligned in recent times manager (who, alas, must remain unnamed). I don't know if he is happy cutting deals for his boss; I know though from the wistful look in his eyes -- whenever we spoke of his days in the army -- that he would probably have been much happier fighting for his country.
Speaking of Siachen, I haven't heard a better description of the conflict on the glacier than Professor Stephen Cohen in The New York Times recently. 'Two bald men fighting over a comb,' the man widely held to be America's leading expert on South Asia said.
Professor Cohen has written books on both the Indian and Pakistan military. Now tenured at the Brookings Institution in Washington, he is in the midst of writing another book, and told us this week that he was too busy to answer a Rediff.com questionnaire on the conflict in Kargil.
The professor knew General Zia-ul Haq well, and would have been the best person to discuss if Operation Topac -- that the late Pakistan president is said to have conceived to dismember Kashmir and Punjab from India -- really existed.
At his former office in the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana 11 years ago, Dr Cohen recounted an interesting story Zia had once told him. 'I told Mrs Gandhi that the best way for India and Pakistan to be friends is for both of us to produce a fighter aircraft together,' the general told the professor, probably with the sinister smile that never reached his hooded eyes. 'But she was not interested.'
Heptanesia Mumbaikar plans to report from the Kargil sector shortly.
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