It is rare for India to award a Param Vir Chakra (PVC), the highest military award for bravery. Only 21 PVCs have been awarded in nearly 62 years of independence. Of these PVCs, 14 were posthumous, given after the soldier had fallen in battle, the last post sounded, the glory a bitter-sweet legacy for his family.
It is rare (make that impossibly rare), then, to meet a soldier with a PVC. So, I was fortunate that in the monsoon of 1999, I met Grenadier Yogendra Singh Yadav, at the time just 19 years old. Yes, 19, a shy Uttar Pradesh teenager and one of two PVCs who emerged alive from the bloody war in Kargil. Rifleman Sanjay Kumar — once a taxi driver, rejected three times by the army — was the other — also a survivor, and an unlikely hero.
I met Yogendra before making a journey to his drab, forgotten home village — where the only phone in the post office had been dead for two years — of Aurangabad Ahir in UP. He was at an army hospital, his arm in a sling, the sole survivor of an attack during a ferocious battle that was the turning point of the war: Tiger Hill. A bone in his arm was shattered by bullets, and he had seen his friends shot dead. The army said Yogendra killed enemy soldiers, strapped up his arm with a belt and rolled painfully down a hill to warn other units.
As they say, heroism is an ordinary man’s extraordinary moment; heroism is endurance for one moment more.
His moment done, Yogendra reverted to the shy, awkward young man he was. His wife of three months, who he barely knew, sat awkwardly by his bedside. He smiled uncertainly as visitors from his village, superior officers and a BBC radio reporter tried talking to him. Someone asked Yogendra: “You told a newspaper you wanted to take the exams for an officer’s commission?” He mumbled: “Well, I have to pass my high-school exam first.”
Kargil created the new India.
We were a fractious, disunited nation struggling with the aftermath of religious riots, bombings and riven by a bitter political divide that is now hard to imagine. Kargil was injected into political lexicon and advertising (Yeh dil mange more, an immortal quote televised across India from another PVC winner, the late Captain Vikram Batra, became a generation’s anthem). It gave small-town India its self-belief and we-can-win spirit, now evident in the Dhonis and the Pathans.
It was India’s first television war, bringing to us the power of 24x7 news television; it allowed us to show national emotion, which has since morphed into a touchy over-confidence; a we-are-better-than-anyone-else middle class. It brought together a hitherto unseen variety of India’s peoples on those cold peaks: Jats, Sikhs, Rajputs, Ladakhis, Nagas, Khasis, Kashmiris — and in doing so was a little known starting point for a great internal migration for jobs and opportunities in the new India that emerged. We know now that, however difficult the clash of cultures, we are of use to each other.
Kargil also changed Indian politics, making it less prone to hysteria and more accommodating than it was. It sowed the seeds for the basic agreements on Indianness and the we-are-in-this-together feeling that you see in Parliament today.
For instance, no one — not the BJP, not even parties on its lunatic fringe — today questions Sonia Gandhi’s right to be a Member of Parliament. But in 1999, a far more insecure and insular India witnessed bizarre cloak-and-dagger moments before Sonia made her electoral debut from Amethi. We saw Sonia and her entourage fly down to Hyderabad to consider contesting from additional ‘safe’ seats, either Cuddapah, Andhra Pradesh, or Bellary, Karnataka. Sushma Swaraj, dressed in a saffron saree and green blouse, making a beeline for Bellary, loudly proclaimed she would save India’s dignity by being the desi nemesis of videshi (foreign) Sonia. On the last day for nominations, we saw a rattled Congress and Sonia mislead the media by filing decoy flight plans and sending off helicopters to Cuddapah and Bellary before finally retreating to Amethi. Said Swaraj: “It would be like fighting the Kargil war. I’ll either be a glorious martyr or a triumphant victor.”
Above all, Kargil hurried timeless India. When I reached Yogendra Yadav’s village of Aurangabad Ahir in 1999 after visiting him in hospital, they thought he was dead. The army, in a horrendous mix-up, listed him as killed in action. The entire village — it had applied for 25 phone connections a year before but got none — turned out to meet me, and, in gratitude for having brought news about his son, Yadav senior — a poor farmer like most in the village — insisted on giving me a gift: a sackful of corn. That mix-up will never happen again; mobile phones are now common. I do hope they are still as generous with their corn though.