The Kargil war: ‘Izzat’ and honour for the soldier, after the headlines fade
Twenty years ago, as a young 20-something, I had the life-changing opportunity to report the Kargil War from the frontline. I had to beg, plead and fight my way through several hurdles before I received an all-clear. There was hesitation about allowing a female journalist into an all-male war zone. Practical objections included the absence of a demarcated bathroom or a place to sleep. I said, I’d go under a tree or behind a rock like my male colleagues. And that I understood that this was a conflict zone; not a tourist destination that had creature comforts.
What I experienced next was a masterclass; not just in journalism, but in life itself. I had never been exposed to the military in any meaningful way before this. I had textbook notions of valour. I also had abstract notions of nationalism. But as I met and spent time in the war zone with young soldiers, who were only a couple of years younger than I was, the vulnerability of these officers and jawans hit me like a force of nature. I watched them - uncomplaining, cheerful, generous, compassionate - pushing fear aside, as they valiantly climbed up jagged rocks, in inhospitable terrain and temperatures, to win an impossible war. So much of the reporting focused on the hardware and the mechanics of conflict - the hardy, life-saving Bofors gun, the arc of orange fire that the multi-barrel-rocket-launcher formed across the sky over Dras and Kargil; the peaks that were taken back one point at a time. But it was as important to tell the human stories that would prevent our soldiers from becoming statistics, and would remind Indians that these were individuals combating real attachments — parents, girlfriends, children — to place duty above loss.
Two decades later, not many know that what has been called India’s first televised war was reported in an anachronistic age of technology. In 1999, there were no broadcast vans at the front or any satellite links; we did not even have the use of mobile phones available to us. We would sometimes walk a few kilometres to find a pitstop where a chopper would be set up to ferry body bags and coffins home. We would request the helicopter pilot to carry our videotapes back with him. Sometimes a couple of days would elapse between what we witnessed and what we were able to relay. And yet, this was the war that changed the compact between the citizen and the soldier. How we, in the civilian world, saw the man (and woman) in uniform changed fundamentally.
I found myself personally shaken for years altogether. One of the first interviews I did was that of Vikram Batra. It would also be the first obituary I would write from the frontline. As he came down from a successful assault, I asked him in all innocence: “Aren’t you scared?” His answer would come to be the stuff of legend. “Yeh dil maange more,” he said, throwing back his head in full-throated laughter. Those words would become emblematic of the courage of the young officers who won us the war and their chief, General Ved Malik, who led his troops so ably, saying with matter-of-fact courage: “We will fight with what we have.”
The irony is this: As the country pays its tributes to the soldiers at Kargil, there are fundamental issues that have hurt and alienated the military community. The unseemly fracas over taxing disability pensions is at the top of that list. Though the defence minister promised resolution on this, it has not yet come. Instead, we mock post-traumatic stress disorder as some airy-fairy lifestyle disease without understanding its full horror. Similarly, the military is mighty peeved at the fact that Non-functional Financial Upgrade (NFU), which compensates for a lack in promotion opportunity has been applied to almost all government agencies, but them. And there continues to be simmering anger over the pay commission anomalies that place a greater monetary value on a hardship posting for a bureaucrat in Guwahati, than a soldier in Siachen. Military personnel also feel marginalised in the decision-making over procurements and policy-framing on key strategic affairs issues - something that General Malik has specifically addressed in his writings.
The 20th anniversary of Kargil is a good time to internalise one fact. The soldier cares for ‘izzat’ and honour - of his uniform, his paltan, and his country - above all. He doesn’t want hashtags, and lip service from TV studios one day in the year. It’s how we treat him between the headlines that matter most. Let this Kargil anniversary be a turning point in that, just as the war was two decades ago.