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India’s Most Fearless: Of Surgical Strikes and Tales of Bravery

India’s Most Fearless provides a glimpse of the great heroism of our soldiers. Here, the authors explain why they felt compelled to write this book.

books Updated: Sep 09, 2017 11:55 IST
Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh
Shiv Aroor,Rahul Singh,bravery
Former President Pranab Mukherjee handing the Highest Gallantry Award, the Ashoka Chakra, posthumously to Havildar Hangpan Dada, to his wife Chasen Lowang Dada, on January 26, 2017.(Courtesy India’s Most Fearless)

For a country that remains sensitive about declassifying the official history documents of even its major wars, including 1971 and 1965, it was always going to be near impossible to get the system to open up about India’s top secret, off-the-book military operations. If they weren’t willing to present official records of even well-documented battles, it stood to reason that they would be infinitely more reluctant to do so about the Indian military’s most controversial recent mission.

But in September 2016, when the Indian government officially announced that the army’s special forces units had conducted “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control, we knew that this was a story that needed to be told, not just in broad strokes, but in as much detail as humanly possible. Not in recent memory – and certainly not in this new digital world of ours – had a military operation galvanised and captivated an entire country. When we requested the Army to allow us access to top secret files on the surgical strikes, we expected to be laughed out of their headquarters. We heard nothing. For seven months, not a scrap of paper was shared with us. We knew it was a long shot. And that’s why nothing prepared us for the meeting we would be invited to in April this year in a basement chamber at South Block.

The man we met was an Army officer, one among thousands of Majors in service. Lean, dressed in brown boots, tan trousers and a full-sleeved white shirt with a tie, he sported a full beard and a half smile on his face. This was the man who had led the surgical strikes in 2016. Speaking for the first time to journalists about the mission, his words would be the first on-record account of what happened, recounted by the very man who led the explosive mission. The interview, which leads India’s Most Fearless, isn’t just the first official account, but provides depth and detail unknown earlier beyond a very small group of soldiers and officers.

Wing Commander Gaurav Bikram Singh Chauhan (Courtesy India’s Most Fearless)

As we began to write about the surgical strikes, we remained immersed in the effortless heroism of the Major and the teams he led into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. It became our quest, therefore, to expand the scope of our book to tell as many stories as possible, shine a light on as many of modern India’s military heroes as we possibly could. Men who most of us know only very briefly when they receive gallantry awards on Republic Day – or when their stoic, grieving widows receive an Army salute at Delhi’s Parade Grounds. We therefore sought out a list of heroes from the Army, Navy and Air Force, of men whose breathtaking acts of dauntlessness we felt needed to be recorded and told before they were blurred by the passage of time. It wasn’t difficult to find these heroes.

Like the Lieutenant Colonel who led a terrifying cross-border attack into Myanmar in 2015 to avenge the massacre of Indian Army soldiers in Manipur that year. For this book, he too was permitted to speak for the first time. As Prime Minister Modi logged a historic visit to Myanmar this past week, this chapter acquires even greater significance as it captures in first-hand detail a mission that could have well ended in disaster on foreign soil. Both our countries will hear for the first time what happened during that legendary operation on Burmese territory.

The two surgical strikes chapters will raise many questions for observers and analysts, but they end all arguments on the government’s formal stand on them. Not only did they happen, but the world will now hear about them for the first time in full detail – not just beyond journalistic ‘sources’, but in the words of the very men who led the missions, speaking on the record. Speculation about the chapters has already led to a buzz and condemnation across the border in Pakistan, that has staunchly denied that the 2016 surgical strikes even happened. On the strength of these first hand accounts, it remains to be seen if the Modi government will decide to further proffer photographic or other proof of the operations. For now, these chapters propose the most direct wager to Islamabad.

And then there were acts of courage that defy rational explanation. Like the story of Lance Naik Mohan Nath Goswami, the mountain lad who killed 10 terrorists in the last 11 days of his life. Remembered daily nowhere but at his unit stationed in Kupwara and his home in Uttarakhand, his special forces team leader and widow Bhawna helped us weave what would prove to be a personally devastating account of bravery beyond description.

Co author Shiv Aroor
Co Author Rahul Singh

In this book, we’ve also had the opportunity to dig deeper into incidents of heroism that were lucky enough to make media headlines, but which take on an epic scale when investigated in detail. The Indian Navy’s humanitarian rescue missions in Yemen in 2015 remained a big story for weeks. But few outside the Navy know about the sleepless courage of the crew of the patrol vessel INS Sumitra and its captain, Commander Milind Mokashi, and how they risked everything to save the lives of hundreds of fellow Indians from Yemeni ports that, in the words of one of the men on that mission, were ‘the shores of hell’.

Major Mukund Varadharajan with his wife, Indhu Rebecca, and their daughter, Arshea (Courtesy India’s Most Fearless)

Many of the heroes in this book are young – in their twenties or early thirties. Like Captain Jaidev Dangi, a special forces man who had to message his fiancée on Whatsapp, asking her not to worry as he sped off for an anti-terror encounter in South Kashmir that resulted in a bullet going through his cheek and nearly ripping his head off. Or the heartbreaking tale of Major Mukund Varadarajan, whose story made headlines not just for the courage of his actions, but the stoic grief and love of his young wife, Indhu Rebecca. Or Squadron Leader Rijul Sharma, who made the death-defying decision to stay on and fly his doomed MiG-29 fighter jet to safety even after the canopy had blown away. Or the Navy’s Captain Varun Singh who had a grenade explode in his vest, sending a ‘Christmas Tree’ of shrapnel into his chest, some pieces of which cannot be removed even now lest such an attempt kills him.

When we decided to call this book India’s Most Fearless, there wasn’t a moment of doubt that we had chosen the correct title. What, after all, is a more human emotion than fear? And yet, are we to believe that these men truly felt no fear at all?

Read more: Surgical strikes: India can breach LoC whenever it wants, says top army officer

The truth is that India remains constantly at war. We have chosen to tell fourteen stories that stood out to us as extraordinary tales of fearlessness in recent memory. By no means is this to suggest that this is an exhaustive or definitive list. On the contrary, we hope for this to be a tribute to the large number of uncelebrated heroes in our military past, and the acts of invisible heroism that continue each day.

First Published: Sep 08, 2017 19:37 IST