For the first time since the Second World War, an SOS was being transmitted from deep inside the mountain ridges: Indian soldiers were asking for artillery fire on themselves.
It was a tactic used barely thrice in the history of war.
Far away from the more fashionable datelines of Kargil and Drass, Hawaldar Gyanendra Rai’s July 3, 1999 raid on a Pakistani operational hub in the impossible terrain of Batalik is a window into the difficulty with which India waged a mountain war and beat back hundreds of raiders, including army regulars, often climaxing in face-to-face-combat.
Rai survived and received the Vir Chakra battle honour. The war changed the way the world and India looked at the Indian Army.
“Immediate action was taken in the first two or three years. Particularly, the emphasis was on force multipliers, surveillance devices and night-fighting capabilities,” then-Army chief Gen. V.P Malik said. “All this has definitely improved our capability along the Line of Control.”
Beyond Batalik, at oxygen-sapped heights of 15,000 feet, there was still thick snow as the rest of India wilted under a scorching summer. In front of Indian soldiers were steep mountainsides with sharp jagged rocks that had to be climbed before actual gunbattles could begin.
The soft-spoken 30-year-old Rai from Nepal’s eastern Morang district always kept a camera and a radio transistor on him and keenly followed tennis. He was on his way down from the Siachen Glacier when his unit was ordered into the war.
The Pakistanis had months of rations, superior weapons, military telephone landlines, even masks for nuclear and biological warfare.
“It was an impossible battle — if I was sitting on top like them, I could have killed someone with just a stone,” said Rai, who also fought Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and ethnic militants in the northeast.
As peak after peak fell to the Indian advance, Batalik, the eastern end of the warzone about 200 kilometres west of Leh, was still to be won. Two months passed. Several attempts failed.
At 7 pm on July 3, the decisive assault began on a moonlit night.
“The Pakistanis were focusing on the spots that were easier, assuming we would come from there,” Rai said.“We chose the most difficult, the most unexpected” – a key strategy in most operations during the war. Within a few hours, the two sides were engaged in deadly gunfire. Indian soldiers remained silent in the dark as the Pakistanis screamed war cries.
But it was a stalemate. Hours passed.
The commanding officer asked for volunteers. Rai and three men put inside their clothing hundreds of ammunition and climbed down to the rear of the Pakistani position to distract them.
Shortly after, Rai got separated from the others. He hid and began killing the intruders, and cut off their phone line.
“It was morning by then. It started raining. They came down to fix the telephone line, I killed six or seven,” Rai said. “They began firing, threw smoke bombs. They did not know I was alone.”
Heavy firing followed. “I just fired and fired. I have no idea how many I killed,” Rai said. He then walked 150 metres towards the Pakistani bunkers, assuming from the silence that the men had died or fled. He saw a large group coming towards him.
“I thought they were our own people, so I took out my white headscarf and waved it. Someone fired and ripped the cloth,” Rai said.
Then two bullets brought him down. Both above the heart. Rai tumbled down 25 feet and was surrounded by some 15 Pakistani men. One raised his gun to kill the Gurkha.
“We need to take him alive!” a voice boomed. It was a Pakistani army major. “Blood was coming out of my chest like a burst pipe. They tied my hands so hard my left hand is still nearly lifeless,” Rai said, as he lifted his left arm with his right one. “I knew they would torture me. I kept shouting, ‘Kill me!’”
He was kept prisoner for 14 hours, when his captors began to flee. An unprecedented attack asked for by Indian soldiers hiding in the area was pummelling Pakistani bunkers. Rai slowly got out of the bunker and hobbled to safety.