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Remember those whose sons paid the price of war

By Veena Sandhu
October 10, 2016 14:40 IST
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War, and proxy war, demand and always extract a price -- from both sides.
But how do you make a neighbour, who will simply not stop provoking, and the jingoists see this, asks Veenu Sandhu.

IMAGE: Havildar Ashok Kumar Singh's family mourns at his funeral in Bhojpur district, Bihar.
Havildar Singh was one of the 19 soldiers who died when terrorists attacked the Indian Army's Uri brigade command. Photograph: PTI

These last few days, my thoughts have been travelling back to the summer of 1999. India-Pakistan relations had hit a low, yet again. And, the peaks of Kargil were stained with blood.

On that particular July morning, I was at the cremation ground in Palampur. This time the soldier who had come home in a coffin was my brother's closest friend, Vikram Batra, a happy young man two months short of turning 25 and who we loved as family.

In the years that have followed, stories of his bravery and the whole new meaning he gave to the slogan, 'Yeh dil maange more!' have overshadowed the pain of his loss we felt that day, and have felt on many days since.

During these years, I have often thought of the young woman who had rushed from Chandigarh to Palampur on hearing the news. She arrived late by a few minutes. The pyre had already been lit. The cremation ground was on a slope down from the road where she stood, tearfully watching from a distance. Sometimes I feel she is still standing there, in that space.

A part of her has since ceased to move on with life. Every year, on Vikram's birthday or his death anniversary, I find pictures of him on her Facebook page -- sometimes bearded, which was the look he wore during the war from where he didn't return, but often clean-shaven and smiling.

In some ways, she reminds me of another woman I have been seeing since I was a child. This tall, thin woman, always somberly dressed, was a fixture who would appear in our lives every September, when my father's regiment commemorates the battle it fought in 1965, recapturing from Pakistan a peak called Gitian. She was here on this Gitian Day as well. It is a ritual she hasn't missed even once in the last 50 years.

Her story, no matter how often I hear it, always leaves me feeling immensely sad. Her husband, Kanshi Ram, a havildar, was killed in that battle. They had been married for two months.

Fifty years is a long time, if you think of it. And, time is a great healer. But a tide of memories can wash time away. This annual ritual has been her way of keeping time on hold.

IMAGE: Dr N K Kalia, in the museum dedicated to his martyred son in his home in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh. Photograph courtesy: Vaibhav Kalia

Time has been at a standstill in another house in Palampur, which is today called 'Saurabh Niketan.'

Saurabh Kalia, a 22-year-old captain, and five other soldiers were among the first to be taken captive during the Kargil war. They were tortured in the most inhuman ways and then killed. Their mutilated bodies were later returned to India.

In the silent hall on the first floor of his house, everything as though calls out his name. His uniform, his drill boots, the shoe polish, the olive green military trunk with his name painted on it in white, his wallet with money in it, kept just the way it was returned to his parents, his tooth brush...

Years ago, when I met her, his mother said, 'Sometimes we wake up in the night and wonder what they must have done to him; how must they have killed him.'

Today, we are back in the same grim place. Uri. Then the strike back. And now, seemingly innocuous balloons and pigeons flying across the border carrying messages of hate.

And on this side, the jingoism, the chest-thumping and the political cashing in on the strikes.

Where will all this lead to?

In all these years, it's as though we haven't moved an inch forward.

War, and proxy war, demand and always extract a price -- from both sides.

But how do you make a neighbour, who will simply not stop provoking, and the jingoists see this?

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Veena Sandhu
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