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Why This Military Hero Entered Politics

By ARCHANA MASIH
Last updated on: September 26, 2022 12:51 IST
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Colonel Ajay Kothiyal, Kirti Chakra, Shaurya Chakra, is one of the most decorated soldiers to join politics.
He still has two bullets lodged inside his body sustained in a gun battle with terrorists in J&K.

IMAGE: Colonel Ajay Kothiyal in his office in Dehradun. All Photographs: Seema Pant for Rediff.com

The Sherpa hat that retired Colonel Ajay Kothiyal, Kirti Chakra, Shaurya Chakra, Vishisht Sewa Medal wears has three insignias that the retired army officer is immensely proud of.

1. The unending knot symbol synonymous with the sherpas who are accomplished mountaineers.

The officer-mountaineer has scaled Everest and climbed 23 other peaks.

2. The Maltese Cross, insignia of the Garhwal Rifles, the regiment he served with distinction and was awarded the Kirti Chakra and Shaurya Chakra.

3. The ice axe, the symbol of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering where he served as principal and played a leading role in the reconstruction of the Kedarnath shrine after the flash floods in 2013.

Among the first responders to the disaster, his five teams including army personnel and volunteers rescued over 6,500 people.

"I wear this cap with pride every day. You may call it my hallmark," says Colonel Kothiyal who took premature retirement in 2018 after serving the Indian Army for 26 years.

He then went on to work on a vital road project between Mizoram and Myanmar undertaken by the Government of India where he was kidnapped by armed rebels in the jungles of Myanmar and released two days later.

In between, he also started the Youth Foundation to train boys and girls to join the armed forces.

"11,000 youth trained in our camps have joined uniformed services," he says as three young men from the training camps come to meet him in his home in Dehradun.

A prominent Mumbai industrialist had contacted him for four security personnel. "I am interviewing boys from the foundation to see who will be best suited," he says, sitting in a living room where two large framed pictures stand out.

Placed side by side, one picture is of his father, Border Security Force Inspector General Satyasaran Kothiyal, being awarded a medal by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and the other of himself receiving the gallantry award from then President A P J Abdul Kalam in Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Colonel Kothiyal received the Kirti Chakra for leading an operation with a team of six soldiers that neutralised seven terrorists in a meticulously planned operation in Jammu and Kashmir in 2004.

He was injured and still has two bullets lodged inside his leg.

He was earlier awarded a Shaurya Chakra in 2001 for leading an Indian Army expedition to Mount Everest.

In 2012, he was awarded the Vishisht Sewa Medal for climbing Manslu peak, at 8,163 metres, one of the eight most difficult peaks for moutaineers in the world.

Colonel Kothiyal joined the Aam Aadmi Party before the Uttarakhand assembly election. In April 2021, AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal declared the colonel as the party's chief ministerial candidate. He lost the February 2022 election and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party four months ago.

In a conversation with Rediff.com's Archana Masih in his home in Dehradun, he spoke about the interesting journey that brought him from the well-set protocols of the military to the hall of mirrors that is politics.

IMAGE: Left: Colonel Kothiyal's father Border Security Force Inspector General Satyasaran Kothiyal being awarded a medal by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Right: Colonel Kothiyal receiving the gallantry award from then President A P J Abdul Kalam in Rashtrapati Bhavan.

You spent decades in the Indian Army where everything is done according to established rules and discipline. Now that you have entered the murky world of politics, how are you adapting to it?

Anybody who serves the army comes from society. The defence services inculcate many norms, ethics and a way of thinking which is totally different and in a way limited to the military environment. For example, discussing politics and women is not allowed and makes you liable for a punishment.

The world of politics was completely different. It so happened that in 2013, I was sent on deputation as principal of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi.

The role of NIM is to encourage youth to become good citizens through exercises like group expeditions, sensitisation of the environment and introduce them to the mountains. At NIM, the army works in the civil environment and interacts with the civilians.

I joined NIM in April 2013 and the Kedarnath disaster took place in June. It was part of NIM's duty to carry out rescue operations and subsequently the reconstruction.

In that process, I worked closely with civil society, bureaucrats and politicians. I gradually moved from a military way of thinking to a civil way of thinking. This transition took 3-4 years.

People then started approaching me to help their children get into the uniformed forces, which was obviously not easy. So we created a training setup and around local 32 boys joined.

After three months of training, 28/32 boys got selected in the army. The training also provides avenue to get into other uniformed forces like forest guards, security services and belted uniformed services.

We then started a trust called the Youth Foundation. I used the additional emoluments that I receive as recipient of gallantry awards from the Centre and the state for the trust initially.

I started with a camp of 100 boys providing free food and training. Slowly it caught on. Initially, we conducted these camps in various places, today there are around 10 camps with a permanent capacity of 200 students both boys and girls in Uttarakhand -- seven permanent, three floating camps.

The Foundation was registered in 2014. 11,000 of our youth have joined the uniformed forces.

IMAGE: Young men seeking the colonel's advice and assistance at his office.

When did you decide to leave the Indian Army?

I took premature retirement from the army in 2018. My time spent working with the youth and reconstruction of the Kedarnath shrine provided the opportunity to work closely with bureaucrats, politicians, corporate word and civil society. I realised this was a good avenue to serve society.

My father had joined the Indian Army as a rifleman in the Garhwal Rifles. On the dint of his capabilities and strength, he got commissioned into the army as an officer in the Sikh Regiment.

When the Border Security Force was raised, he joined the BSF as the initial team. He retired as Inspector General.

We are two brothers who had a good, varied education wherever my father was posted. Different places and environments provided a unique learning experience which one carries throughout life.

I had the experience of serving in the army for nearly 26 years and thought I could use my learning to serve the people of Uttarakhand.

When I left the Army in 2018, the Indo-Myanmar Kaladan road project was being constructed as part of India's Act East Policy.

The 109 kilometre road -- 70 kilometre over a water body -- extends from Mizoram through Myanmar and joins the Bay of Bengal.

It was a strategic project in view of China's growing influence in Myanmar.

Indian companies involved in the project were unable to begin the work because of threat posed by the Arakkan army, the rebel forces fighting the Myanmar army.

This was the area where some famous battles were fought between the British Indian Army and Japan during World War II.

It was a challenge and I was asked to look into the feasibility assessment of this road construction. I had left the army in August 2018 and went to Myanmar on November 2 to carry out a recce when we were kidnapped by the Arakkan Army.

They handcuffed our group of five and took us to their camp in the deep, thick, bamboo jungle. We were kept there for one-and-a-half days. An engineer with us suffered a heart attack and died due to the fearful experience in captivity.

We were released two days later.

I stayed on the ground in Mizoram and Myanmar for around one-and-a-half-years from 2020 onwards. The road project finally started as we built relations with the Arrakan army, the Myanmar army with support from the Indian Army, the national security advisor's office and RA&W (the Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency).

The project brought us close to Myanmar society. We provided medical support, built schools, football grounds and organised tournaments. Slowly, we built a rapport with the Arakan army that had kidnapped us and they too realised that the project would benefit them.

On my return, I was approached by the Aam Aadmi Party. I had five, six interactions with them over a period of two months.

I then met Arvind Kejriwalji. I wanted to give back to Uttarakhand society and thought AAP was a better option.

What attracted you to the Aam Aadmi Party? What impressed you about Mr Arvind Kejriwal?

He was from IIT and the Indian Revenue Service. His models of education and health were highly spoken of. I would go to different places and carry out the campaigns for a year.

But after six, seven months, I got the feeling that what was actually shown was not what was being done by AAP in Uttarakhand. The publicity and campaign was confined to what they achieved in Delhi. Although, there are some commonalities, there are many aspects that differ from place to place, especially in the hills.

What works in Delhi may not work in Uttarakhand.

I contested the election, but I was not satisfied. I then left the party and joined the BJP.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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