The words were carefully picked. “We tried our best to fight death,” Lt Gen SK Dhuan, chief of the army hospital, said around noon on Monday. The soldier who transfixed a nation by surviving for five days in a suffocating, snowy dungeon in the high western Himalayas was dead.
In the span of a little over a week, Lance Naik Hanamanthappa Koppad’s family had gone from shock to hope and back to despair again.
When the Last Post was sounded in the evening at Brar Square in Delhi’s cantonment, as army chief Gen Dalbir Singh laid his wreath, the soldier’s bereaved wife, Mahadevi, wiped a tear. But for most of the public ceremony, the family held on bravely.
A violent avalanche had swept Koppad and nine other soldiers, all dead, under 35 feet of snow in Siachen, a hostile mountain desert and one of the country’s farthest military outposts in the north.
At Brar Square, the three service chiefs paid their last respects, apart from a host of political leaders, including defence minister Manohar Parrikar, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia, among others.
“The soldier in you remains immortal,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet.
Yet, the real story is one of how Koppad became a people’s hero in his valiant death. Never since the 1999 Kargil war has the public commiserated so dramatically with military sacrifice.
People began filing in to the cantonment area, but were turned away since the event wasn’t open to public. “They have sacrificed their lives for our pride,” said Ramesh Singh, one of those who came.
During the three days a nearly comatose Koppad spent at the top military medical facility, a patriotic frenzy gripped the country. Nidhi Pandey, a housewife from UP’s Lakhimpur Kheri, offered to donate one of her kidneys to save Koppad.
The manner in which a beefy soldier had battled on in a hellhole and had been dramatically rescued by a 200-member team caught the public imagination like never before.
Few armies in the world have to experience Siachen-like excruciating conditions. The post Koppad was guarding was at an altitude of 19,600 feet, with temperatures well below minus 40 degrees C and wind gusts of up to 100 km per hour.
Amul, a leading dairy brand known for its witty cartoon ads, promptly changed its flagship ad to pay a tribute to Koppad. “Himalaya Se Oocha (Higher than the Himalayas),” the new Amul tagline says.
A bunch of Bollywood stars tweeted their condolences. “Saluting Late Lance Naik Hanumanthappa and all the#SiachenBravehearts...Your bravery is immortal,” wrote actor Anil Kapoor, as did countless others. The Siachen bravehearts, trending on Twitter by Thursday evening, had become people’s heroes.