The dhoti-clad farmer from Patna. The homemakers in orange ghaghra-cholis from Rajasthan. The retired school teacher from Thiruvanantha-puram with thick-rimmed spectacles. The music-lover government official from Shillong. The businessman in kurta-pyjama from Delhi.
Ten years after the Kargil war, parents from across India watched for the first time the rugged peaks across the Drass Valley on which their children lost their lives in 1999. The war had ended on July 26.
The gathering on the Umba La Ridge was a moment that showed how Kargil was a truly Indian story — a war that produced heroes from all corners and all social segments of the emerging India.
Mothers broke down and wiped tears in their dupattas. Fathers stoically pointed to the hills where their children fell to Pakistani gunfire.
The 10-year-old son of a slain rifleman watched in stunned silence.
“There is so much going on in my heart right now. But then, he joined the army for this day only, didn’t he?” asked Mohan Singh, a farmer from Jammu, father of soldier Gurdeep Singh. “How many get this honour?”
The UPA has looked away from chest-thumping over the Kargil war since it came to power in 2004. On Saturday as well, top political leaders stayed away from the two-day event where top generals from across India have assembled alongside slain armymen’s families.
“I am glad the army is honouring the sacrifice of our family members — look, that is Tololing peak, where he died,” said Manrupa Ram, 48, younger brother of Subedar Bhanwar Lal, pointing to the snow-tipped peak far on the horizon.
More than 520 armymen lost their lives in the Kargil war, fought from May through July 26 to recapture a series of mountain peaks across a 170-kilometre stretch in Indian territory seized by Pakistani raiders including army regulars.
One of them was Rajesh Adhikari, who used to sing songs with me at the Kumaun University in Nainital, right under the concrete canopy opposite the history department. He died as Major Adhikari in the battle of Tololing that was a turning point in the war.
And on the other side too were men like them. Like the Pakistani officer who died fighting on a peak called Point 4590 in one of the bitterest battles of the war, leaving behind family pictures, lapels, dried rations, an army mess bill of Pakistani Rs 612, and a greeting card from his wife, that said: “Keep smiling, because it’s the second best thing you can do with your lips.”
And inside: “I miss your kisses.”
Beyond the romance of war, however, Kargil was shock therapy for the Indian army, which had deployed the majority of its men in the insurgency-wracked Kashmir Valley and had left vast border areas in Ladakh undefended.
“Can you imagine, these chaps came right up to here,” a senior officer said pointing to a hill facing the old brigade headquarters of Drass, then a scene of major fighting.
For most of the nine months when the region was under deep snow, there was almost no army presence along the borders.
That is when the intruders came in, establishing bunkers, setting up gun positions, trying to choking off National Highway 1, the region’s main artery and the route to Siachen Glacier, with intense bombardment.
Now there are permanent Indian posts in the areas once seized by Pakistanis. For eight months from November to June, soldiers live in bunkers 35 metres by 35 metres — at heights of up to 18,000 feet, in temperatures as low as 40 degrees
with chilling winds.
But they now have some small comforts: a TV, satellite phone, supplies of fresh vegetables, Cadbury Temptation chocolates, Tropicana juices, saline drips and nursing assistants.
That is a long haul from the early days of the war when the army was coping with the surprise attack — when soldiers struggled with the shortage of men, equipment and winter clothing, glitches in the just-introduced INSAS guns, and the lack of intelligence.
That’s when the tall major I knew from Lucknow’s Niralanagar neighbourhood had held his young son in his arms as he left for the warzone, to be stunned by a question from the child: “Papa, will you return?”