The Indian Army on Wednesday paid glowing tributes to Colonel Munindra Nath Rai, who died fighting militants in Jammu and Kashmir's Pulwama district just a day after he received a gallantry award, saying its officers always fight from the front with their men at all times.
Thirty nine-year old Rai, commanding officer of 42 Rashtriya Rifles, and head constable Sanjeev Kumar Singh of Jammu and Kashmir Police's Special Operations Group (SOG) were killed during an encounter in Tral in Pulawama district on Tuesday, in which two militants of the Hizbul Mujahideen were also gunned down.
General Officer Commanding of the Srinagar-based Chinar Corps Lt Gen Subrata Saha led the wreath laying ceremony at the Badami Bagh cantonment headquarters in Srinagar.
"Col Rai always led from the front in multiple operations that he carried out in 2014 and also in 2015. He combined bravery with compassion and people in Tral knew him very well for his several initiatives," Lt Gen Saha told reporters.
Col Rai was awarded Yudh Seva medal on Republic Day for for outstanding contribution in planning and conduct of operations including a gun battle with militants in south Kashmir last year. The Yudh Seva Medal is awarded for the highest degree of distinguished service in a war or conflict.
"The supreme sacrifice of the brave men only strengthens our resolve to fight all elements inimical to security of Kashmir," he said as friends and colleagues recalled the contribution of Rai.
Martyr Colonel MN Rai laid to rest with military honours in Srinagar
On Tuesday morning, after receiving information about militants hiding in a house at a village in Tral he had rushed there with a quick reaction team.
Saha said once the house where the militants were hiding was cordoned off, the father and brother of one of the terrorists approached Rai claiming that the ultra wanted to surrender. But even as Rai gave them an opportunity to do so, the militants came out of the house firing indiscriminately leading to the gunbattle.
Praising Rai, Saha said, "he was always in the frontline, leading his men to deliver exceedingly well. Even in the operation yesterday, soon after the cordon was established, the commanding officer was in-charge right in the front when he was approached by the father of one of the slain terrorist that his son would like to surrender."
"He asked him to go ahead and get him to surrender. At the same time, the terrorist's brother also approached and under these circumstances, both the terrorists rushed out of the house that they were hiding in and fired rampantly," he said.
The army commander said it was to the credit of the very quick response and very quick thinking of Col Rai that he retaliated immediately and in a very brief and intense gunbattle, the two militants were killed. The officer's swift actions prevented many civilian casualties during the operation, Saha said.
"If it were not for his quick response, quite clearly, there could have been causalities on the civilians who were there in the vicinity along with his brother and others.
"So, it is the very swift response of Col Rai and the men under his command, that the terrorists – one of them a district commander and the other one quite a young recruit – both were eliminated," he said.
To another question about casualties among high-ranked officers of the army during the anti-militancy encounters, Lt Gen Saha said it was because Indian Army officers always led from the front. Col Rai is the highest-ranking military officer to be killed in the south Kashmir region in nearly a year.
"Clearly because traditionally and as per our ethos, Indian Army officers always led from the front and it is a matter of pride for us that we have officers of such calibre and such commitment who, even at the rank of the commanding officer, a very senior rank, chose to fight from the front with their men at all times," he said.
Saha also said the army would always give an opportunity to the militants to surrender wherever such a situation comes up.
"We have been giving this opportunity wherever the parents or relations do come up to try and say that they would like to ask their son or relation to surrender. So in all fairness, we try to give them this opportunity and I would not try to add any further motives to that," he said.
He said pro-active actions are being taken by the army to ensure that the security conditions remain stable and to ensure that the mandate which has been given by the people comes in a situation of high security stability.
"I have always maintained the way to keep the local youth away from militancy is to have them proactively engaged, to have them positively engaged.
Saha said the security in Kashmir valley was being ensured with a "colossal effort" by the army and added it was a collective responsibility of all the concerned agencies to keep the local youth away from militancy.
"Clearly under his leadership, we could say that the narrative in Tral was changing. He earned the admiration of all the administration for his meticulous planning and we have seen how Tral turned out to vote," Lt Gen Saha said.
"You are perhaps aware of the number of initiatives taken, especially sports activities, to keep them positively and proactively engaged but really it is a collective responsibility and every agency has to come together to be sure that the youth do not stray into the ranks of militancy," he said.
Saha said the families of both Col Rai and head constable Singh "were uppermost our prayers today. We stand by them in this hour of grief and all times to come."
Col Rai's body is being flown to Delhi on Wednesday and it will be kept at the Delhi Cantonment crematorium. His last rites will take place on Thursday.
Top officers of the army and other security agencies were also present to pay tributes to the slain officer.
Col Rai, a native of Ghazipur area of Uttar Pradesh, is survived by wife, a son and two daughters?.
His last status on the mobile messaging service WhatsApp, posted two months ago, read: "Play your role in life with such passion, that even after the curtains come down, the applause doesn't stop.