Their outstanding gallantry and leadership, disregard of personal safety and steely resolve were the ingredients of victory in the Kargil war. For their efforts these officers were adorned with medals and honoured as heroes.
But today these heroes feel betrayed. Three senior officers who were battalion commanders during the war have been denied the rank of brigadier by a promotion board. These decorated soldiers are up in arms against the Army. Army sources told HT on Saturday that two of the officers have forwarded written complaints to the Army chief and the third is likely to submit his complaint before the promotion board assembles again in December.
Colonel Lalit Rai, the hero of Khalubar who commanded 1/11 Gorkha Rifles, and Colonel Umesh Singh Bawa, the commanding officer of 17 Jat, were awarded Vir Chakras (VrC) for "inspirational leadership and conspicuous bravery". Colonel OP Yadav, who led 1 Bihar to capture Jubar top and Tharu feature, was awarded the Yudh Seva Medal.
Under Bawa's command, the Jats captured Pt 4875, Pimple Complex and Whaleback in Mushkoh valley. The unit's award tally of 42 included a Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) and four VrCs. Rai also brought glory to his battalion: 29 awards including a Param Vir Chakra and five VrCs. It was also conferred the title of 'the bravest of the brave'.
All three battalions were awarded the Army chief's unit citation for 'performing admirably'.
"The Army is a pyramidal organisation," said an Army spokesman in response. "Selection Boards are comprise very senior officers experienced in every facet of soldiering."
Moreover, added the spokesman, there are a number of officers who have won gallantry awards. "Some of these officers unfortunately do not get empanelled. Decoration alone does not guarantee promotion, though it does give an edge."
But the officers' brilliance in Kargil was not just a flash in the pan. Their track record is equally enviable. Both Bawa and Yadav are graduates of the prestigious Defence Services Staff College and have attended the high-profile Senior Command and Higher Command courses. Rai has completed the higher defence management course and been an instructor at the NDA and OTA.
Both Yadav and Rai currently hold high profile appointments: As senior instructor at the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School in Mizoram and deputy commander of the Korea Brigade in Tawang respectively. "This proves that their capability is not in doubt," said an Army source.
Gallantry awards can sometimes hinder military careers, say other war heroes. "Rarely have gallantry award winners risen to the highest echelons of the armed forces. Late army chief General AS Vaidya and Lieutenant General Hanut Singh are among the exceptions," said Brigadier KS Chandpuri (retd), who was awarded MVC for his heroics at Longewala in the 1971 Indo-Pak war.
Brigadier VK Berry (retd), a paratrooper who was awarded the MVC in the same war added: "Decorated soldiers can make others feel insecure, even jealous."
Yet, it is critical for the Army to chalk out a career plan for gallantry award winners to motivate young officers, said Capt Reet MP Singh (retd), a VrC awardee. The legendary Sonam Wangchuk, MVC and Deepak Rampal, VrC are Kargil heroes who suffered similar professional jolts. Both did not make it to colonel in the first attempt and were approved by a second promotion board.
Clearly the acid test of gallantry and leadership in a tough war is no guarantee for a smooth career.
Email Rahul Singh: firstname.lastname@example.org