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How the Kargil war changed India

india Updated: Jul 25, 2009 19:21 IST
Arnab Mitra

It was a commercial slogan that had captivated a nation.

When Captain Vikram Batra repeated "Yeh dil maange more" (My heart wants more) on live television from the heights of Dras, shortly after recapturing a Pakistan-occupied position on July 5, he not only emerged as one of the first heroes of India's first televised war, but also summed up, in a nutshell, the new-found can-do-will-do mood of the nation.

The Kargil conflict took place at a very crucial point in India's history.

* Eight years of economic reforms had given us a tantalizing glimpse of what might lie ahead and made Indians more confident about the future..

* India's massive population (then at just under one billion), long seen as the root cause of the country's backwardness, was, for the first time, being spoken of as being the source of a "demographic dividend", which could catapult India into the league of big nations.

* And young India - 700 million people under the age of 40, or twice the population of the US - was straining at the leash to shed the "gentleman loser" tag that previous generations of Indians had been saddled with.

"The Kargil victory and the simultaneous economic boom convinced many disbelievers (within and outside the country) that India was, indeed, inching closer to superpower status," said Professor. Jacob John Kattakayam, dean, faculty of social sciences & director, UGC-Academic Staff College, University of Kerala.

"Images of valour and courage were beamed live into millions of drawing rooms," added Professor Pushpesh Pant of the Jawaharlal Nehru University's Centre for International Politics. This, too, played a major role in changing the nation's mindset.

Coincidentally, perhaps, it was around that time that the Indian cricket team began winning away matches more regularly, Indian companies mustered up the courage to take on, and even acquire, multinational companies on their home turfs, and Indian professionals began moving into the corner offices at top MNCs in the US and Europe.

But Rajeev Gowda, professor of economics & social sciences, IIM-Bangalore, who deals with and helps shape young India's aspirations, added a caveat.

"The increased assertiveness in diverse fields has only partly to do with the Kargil victories. But the war did help us overcome our differences and gave us the courage and determination to protect and project our interests."

The war also turned the spotlight on small-town India as never before - and turned men like Capt. Batra, who was martyred two days after appearing on television at the age of 24, Col. (then Major) Sonam Wangchuk, 45, part of Ladakh Scouts, a little known army unit, and Major (then Lieutenant) Balwan Singh Panghal, 35, of the 18 Grenadiers into embodiments of a toughness that many thought Indians lacked.

"Vikram (Batra, born and raised in Palampur in J&K) was the model of a nice guy," recalled Girdhari Lal Batra, 64, his father, a retired school principal who had dreamt of his son one day rising to the rank of general.

"But he was also driven and highly disciplined."

Major Balwan (he is better known by his first name), one of the heroes of Tiger Hill, the battle for which proved to be the turning point of the war, like Batra, was also born outside Metropolitan India, in Sasroli village in Haryana's Jhajjar district. His father served as a havaldar in the army.

"Tiger Hill was a difficult battle. There were 25-30 enemy soldiers holding fortified positions, and we lost many of our soldiers but never lost hope," he told HT.

It was (and is) that sense of optimism that has come to exemplify the new Indian spirit. It had been in evidence sporadically in the past, but the Kargil war was the theatre in which it first burst forth on India's collective consciousness.

Again coincidentally, several small town boys have emerged as national heroes - in business, cricket and public life - in the years following Kargil.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni (Ranchi), Zaheer Khan (Baroda), Virender Sehwag (Najafgarh) and many other national cricket heroes also emerged out of the blue from small-town India in the years that followed. Bhaichung Bhutia, hailing from Tinkentam in Sikkim became India's first star footballer.

And many more small town boys and girls are qualifying for the civil services, management and engineering institutes and other vocations that had, by and large, been the preserve of Metropolitan India.

No homage to the heroes of Kargil can be complete (this one doesn't claim to be) without the examples of two martyrs from the northeast - Captain Keishing Clifford Nongrum of the 12 J&K Light Infantry and Captain

Neikezhakuo Kenguruse of the 2 Rajputana Rifles.

Nongrum died on on July 1, 1999, while leading the charge on Point 4812.

Tales of his valour are now the stuff of legend in his native Meghalaya; Point 4812 has become a pilgrimage spot for many Khasis.

"And many more of his tribesmen are now signing up to wear stars and service stripes (local lingo for military service), as he used to exhort the youth in his native state to do when on leave," said Peter Keishing, 62, his father.

Kenguruse's story was even more inspiring. Belonging to a generation of Nagas that grew up hating or fighting the Indian army, few expected the wiry Neibu (his nickname) to don military colours.

"Neibu was aware of the churning back home when he was training hard to earn his stripes," said Neiselie, 64, his father in Nagamese, a Hindi-Assamese hybrid that is very popular in Nagaland.

His native village Nerhema, 22 km north of Kohima, was burnt down twice during five decades of counter-insurgency operations.

But when he returned - in a coffin - a very different Nagaland welcomed him. The day his body arrived at Dimapur, thousands lined the road to Nerhema.

"Neibu did more than make us proud; he changed our perception of the Indian army," said his father. And, arguably, triggered the mainstreaming - of sorts - of Naga society, inspiring, like Nongrum, an assembly line of youths to enlist for the army.

The Kargil conflict was, in many ways, a game changer, but, as Gowda felt, " we paid a very heavy price" to shed our diffidence.

Today, as we prepare to mark the 10th anniversary of that war, HT salutes all those who paid that price and helped us emerge out of our own shadows.

(Additional reporting by Rahul Karmakar, Amir Tantray, Ramesh Babu and B.R. Srikanth)