“Whom do I now give the tulips to? Will tulips ever adorn the humble houses of Kalaroos,” asks an emotional Azad Naqashbandi. A social activist of Kupwara town, Naqashbandi had been asked by the flower-loving Col Santosh Mahadik on November 15 to help him procure tulip plants from Srinagar so that a nursery could be developed at Kalaroos in the “’dreaded” Lolab valley. The Commanding Officer of the 41 Rashtriya Rifles (Maratha Light Infantry) had dreamt of tulips blooming and distributing them among households as a goodwill gesture, lending a touch of beauty to their dark, suffocated lives. But Col Mahadik died in an ambush on November 17 around 2 pm, shot through the head and stomach, while hunting militants in the LoC forests.
Col Mahadik, whose parent battalion was the 21 Para (SF), was more than just a daring soldier who led from the front. He won a Sena Medal in Assam under ‘Op Rhino’. He was, to put it pithily, the iron fist in the velvet glove and vice-versa. “’The late Colonel worked hard to revive tourism in Kupwara, whose fabled beauty has been eclipsed by violence. He felt this way the youth could be given employment and diverted from radicalisation. He sent the youth on tours to Jaipur’s Choki Dhani and Rishikesh to learn about village tourism and white-river rafting. He would personally counsel ex-militants and show them the path to a new life. He felt remorse over the Kunan Poshpora mass rapes and wanted to engage with that village community in a constructive way. He was a humble man, whom people could approach easily. In some ways he was more of an intellectual than a soldier, and would invite thinkers, writers and learned persons to Kupwara and take them on tours,” Naqashbandi told HT.
The 41 RR is deployed in the Kalaroos area and is also the garrison guard for Kupwara town. Under the operational command of the Trehgam-headquartered 68 Mountain Brigade, the battalion provides teeth to the ‘reception area’, where militants who have sneaked past the LoC fence get a ‘hot blast’ from the Army as they try and run down to the Valley’s plains. The 41 RR has a strong regional link as two of its officers, Maj Sukhwinder Singh (from Ambala) and Maj Pritpal Singh (from Hoshiarpur), are in the forefront of its battles.
Col Mahadik (38) or Santosh Ghorpade on his Facebook personal account, was the son of a tailor and the younger brother of a milkman from Satara in Maharashtra. A champion boxer, manic runner and football goalkeeper in his school days, he later trained cricket captain MS Dhoni in paragliding. “His last Whatsapp status was on his wedding anniversary (July 4) to his wife, Sashwati. It was prophetic: ‘12 years of blesful (blissful) togetherness. Thank you dear for being with me’. In March 2015, his son, daughter and wife came to Kupwara and celebrated his birthday, his last one,” recalls Naqashbandi.
Unlike the typical reaction, Col Mahadik’s death garnered sympathy from sections of the locals and on social media from Kashmiris. “’Kupwara town is silent today unlike cases where even celebrations break out when an Army officer dies. He had sent teachers for advance courses to Pune so that they develop a vision to nurture future Kashmiri generations. He organised cricket/football matches to involve the youth because they are the crucial elements in Kashmir. He would ask youths to contribute pictures of Kupwara’s natural beauty for his Facebook page, Kupwara Tourism, and had resurrected old monuments as tourist destinations. Kupwara district is the first district of India as it is the northern-most but is backward. Col Mahadik’s vision was to transform it into India’s first district in terms of development,” Maj Praveen, Adjutant, 41 RR, told HT.