Two troubled episodes from Kashmir -- the January 25, 1998, massacre of 23 Pandits at Wandhama and the Pathribal encounter of 7 Rashtriya Rifles (Punjab Regiment) -- have re-surfaced in the national consciousness of late. The episodes, and some of the main characters involved, have deep resonance in my memories. I was then posted in Srinagar as a reporter with a national daily and my beat was the army. I preferred accompanying troops in live operations in the fashion of war correspondents rather than merely rewriting situation reports.
On February 15, 1998, the 70 Infantry Brigade was launched on the Safapora heights to nail Pakistani Harkat-ul-Ansar terrorists responsible for Wandhama. Having pinpointed their hideout at 15,000 feet, 70 Brigade's commander RK Shivrain executed a brilliant operation. A daring parachute regiment officer, Brig Shivrain got troops of 3 Kumaon and 9 Dogra to climb 5,000 feet at night led by their commanding officers, Colonels Sudhir Uppal and Bharat Khurana. When troops closed in, the guard outside their cave alerted the sleeping terrorists.
Troops fought militants in waist-deep snow, exchanging Punjabi profanities, bullets/grenades, and sliding down slopes in hot pursuit like frolicking tourists at Gulmarg. The snows were etched in trails of blood. One of the six dead terrorists was Capt Ali Shair of the ISI. I spent the night with troops of 9 Dogra at 15,000 feet and the next day went up different 'nars' to hunt two militants who had got away. Etched in my memory is an eerie sight. Of the dead terrorists being dragged down the slopes in the moonlight by troops like hunting trophies, their feet tied with ropes and bodies slowly turning grimy and naked as clothes ripped with abrasive action.
The architect of the Pathirbal encounter, where five Muslims were allegedly killed in "cold blood" on March 25, 2000, was Colonel Ajay Saxena of 7 RR, who later rose to Major General. I spent three days with Colonel Saxena in July 1998 when he was the pivotal officer for a brigade-strength operation of 1 Sector RR planned by Brigadier Raj Mehta. Colonel Saxena had fashioned 7 RR into a formidable battalion after poor leadership from his predecessors had left it a demoralised unit.
The operation was launched at 11pm with 7 RR, 3 RR (JAK Rifles) and 13 Mechanised Infantry (18 Rajput) zeroing onto a village in the Shangus Valley. I accompanied 7 RR on the five-hour march under the command of Major PS Rathore. Wary of IEDs and ambushes as we stole through the darkness, officers were most disconcerted when dogs barked as it gave militant sympathisers a warning of troop movement.
We encountered three militants at the target village as they raced up the opposite slope. LMG fire from far did not bring them down. A search in the houses commenced after that and the swashbuckling Col Saxena arrived in his Jonga to take command. He did not shirk from deploying heavy-handed methods to extract information about militant whereabouts from sympathisers. I realised he was a killer by instinct, ready to go the length.