Chindu Sreedharan


War, besides being ugly, is bloody unfair.

It turns boys into men, creates heroes out of them... and then, before they even savour that feeling, before they even enjoy the adulation it brings in, it leads them to slaughter.

Unfair and ugly, as I said. Even more so when you consider that it leaves many heroes -- many, many of them -- unsung and frozen.

Like it did, does, in the Drass-Kargil-Batalik sector.

Think of the dozens of infantrymen dead and dying there. Think of Major Saravanan, Major Adhikari, and the many like them, killed on the snow, their bodies within sight of their colleagues but irretrievable because of heavy enemy firing.

Think, then, of Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja. In death he became what he could not in life: a hero. A brave man, no doubt. But Major Saravanan, Major Adhikari and the many jawans who died with them were no less brave.

Yet, do we hear their names being mentioned in the same breath as that of Ahuja's?

No, we don't.

"It takes cold courage to advance through enemy fire, to see your men falling, see them lying wounded, and still be able to carry on," I remember a senior army officer, his eyes clouding with pain at the thought of it, telling me. "To that extent, a pilot works in isolation. It is he and his machine. It's his skill against the enemy while for an infantry man there are other considerations."

Yet, men like Major Saravanan and, more recently, Captain Kalia are names in passing. Their exploits, like their deaths, are lost in an avalanche of war news.

The least we can do, we in the media, is give them their due.

War, though inhuman, has a humane side too.

Returning to Srinagar from Kargil after an eventful 60 hours, our vehicle was passing the shell-torn Drass area when we heard a clamour on our right. The left side of the road is lined through and through with Indian artillery while the right, in the immediate shadow of a moderately high ridge, had army tents.

We could see three jawans running towards us. One was waving something.

"Saab, aap log kaham tak hai (Sir, where are you going)," the man in the lead asked.

"Srinagar," we replied, whereupon the jawan held out three letters. "Will you please post it for us?"

The envelopes were neatly addressed to their dear ones, all in Himachal Pradesh. "Saab, you won't forget, will you? " the soldier implored as my co-traveller put the bunch away carefully in his jacket.

The look the three sunburned, hardened soldiers gave us when we promised to take good care of their letters was more touching than a hundred human-interest stories. There was gratitude, yes, but there was more to it... a touch of gladness, a tinge of envy, plenty of sadness and enough despair to break your heart.

Somewhere between Kargil and Matayan we stopped at an artillery station. The officers there were most accommodating, offering us hot coffee and hotter war-info. Though shivering a bit in the cold morning air, their morale was remarkably high.

"There is nothing to be scared of," they assured me, "We have been under heavy shelling through the night but no one has been hurt... Yes, we too have been firing. We don't wait for them to start... When we need to fire, we fire. If we have promised our chaps fire at a particular hour, we need to give them fire -- enemy shelling or no shelling."

A good 20 minutes later I was just bidding them adieu when the officers made a request that showed the fickle side of war.

"Do you have any reading material... some newspapers or magazines?" they asked, "No, no, doesn't matter if they are old... We just need something to read at times..."

There was some newspapers clippings on Kargil deep in my bag. I left those with them.

I have come to the conclusion that war is not the only unfair business around. Equally unfair is journalism.

Out in Kargil and Srinagar, I was ordered -- dead against my wishes, let me put on record -- by my editor to do a couple of audio interviews. Having always been on the right side of questioning, I was completely flustered at the sharp queries shot at me over the telephone. I hemmed and hawed more than I spoke, finally emerging a nervous wreck, sweating and rattled.

Luckily, my editor gave up on me after the second attempt. I was left to filing reports again. To make up for my performance with the mike, I put my heart and soul into the keyboard and punched out a couple of what I thought were 'real good ones.'

Now what do I hear when I return home? My 'real good ones', the editor tells me, have sunk like stones.

And the audio? Well, that pathetic thing which still gives me sleepless nights have been "well hit!"

Chindu Sreedharan will return to Kargil soon.

This report could be filed from the war front, courtesy Iridium Telecom. Iridium owns and operates a constellation of 66 satellites, which enable subscribers to receive and make calls from anywhere in the world using a hand-held telephone.