The war India can’t forget
1. The naga warrior who walked on ice
Capt. Neikezhakuo Kenguruse, 25*
2 Rajputana Rifles, MAHA VIR CHAKRA
His moment: June 28, 1999, Lone Hill, Drass Sector. When his feet were slipping off a rock face at 16,000 foot and -10 degrees C, he kicked his boots off, got a foothold for his commandos, killed four enemy soldiers, before being shot off the cliff.Nimbu sahab’ to the Rajputs he commanded, Neibu to his family, he was destined to carry the No. 2 tag — the second of Neiselie and Dino Kenguruse’s 12 children. Until the night of June 28, 1999 on Lone Hill in the Drass sector made him Nagaland’s martyr number one.
Belonging to a generation of Nagas that grew up hating or fighting the Indian army, few expected the wiry Neibu to don military colours. None certainly in his native village Nerhema (22 km north of Kohima) which was burnt down twice during five decades of counter-insurgency operations. The family Kenguruse had many reasons to wish Neibu hadn’t gone to the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun. His grandfather Pfulhousa had fought the British-Indian army at Nerhema and was later forced to work as a coolie for the Indian army. Besides, they were Angamis, the epitome of the fiercely independent Naga spirit, to which legendary rebel leader A.Z. Phizo belonged.
“Neibu was aware of the churning back home while he was training hard to earn his stripes,” says 64-year-old Neiselie in Nagamese, a Hindi-Assamese hybrid of a lingua franca in Nagaland. Seventeen months before he was commissioned on December 12, 1998, the militant National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) declared a ceasefire. “He hoped to return to a new Nagaland, but God had other wishes,” says the deeply religious Neiselie, a retired employee (fourth grade peon) of the state health department. “When he did return — as Captain Neikezhakuo Kenguruse in a coffin — a new Nagaland did welcome him. Neibu did more than making us proud; he changed our perception of the Indian army.” That arguably triggered the mainstreaming of Naga society to an extent, inspiring a line of young people to enlist; and for others to begin the long journey for opportunities in the country beyond.
The day his body arrived at Dimapur, thousands lined the road to Nerhema, where it was interred with military honours. Nagaland hadn’t seen anything like this — never for an Indian army soldier — since Phizo died in 1989.
Neiselie recalls Neibu’s soldier of 2 Rajputana Rifles spoke in awe of their ‘Nimbu Sahab’. When trying to climb a slippery rockface and secure a rope for his men in the bitter cold, his boots were slipping. So, he reverted to the ways of his head-hunting great-grandfather — the dreaded Perheile — kicked off his boots and clambered up barefoot to launch his final battle, killing the enemy before a volley of bullets threw him off the cliff to 200 feet below.
Neibu’s parents and siblings have no complaints. The government kept its promise: the family got a petrol station, albeit belatedly, and Neibu’s younger sister Asinuo, is a clerk with the Nagaland Police. The main gate to the 3rd Corps headquarters at Rangapahar (Dimapur) — once the focus of Naga hatred — has been named after Neibu.
— Rahul Karmakar in Kohima/Dimapur
2. Boxer in the ring, leader on the warfront
Capt. Keishing Clifford Nongrum, 25*
12 Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry, MAHA VIR CHAKRA
His moment: July 1, 1999, just short of post 4812. A strong leader, Nongrum charged and destroyed a bunker alone, fought hand-to-hand with Pakistani soldiers, and attacked another bunker before he was killed.Hello, Kargil," the attendants reply when the phone rings at the petrol station. But the station is far from Kargil — if fact, it’s in the Bees Mile area, the 20th milestone from Guwahati on the Shillong road that has come to be known locally as Kargil Point. It’s in deference to Captain Nongrum in a corner of India where the very concept of India is still shaky.
Retired banker Keishing Peter, 62, has no complaints about waiting five years to get a promised service station after his son’s death. Ten years after an army officer stepped into his home to convey the deepest regrets of the President, Keishing says: “Officers told us how he clambered uphill through the night of July 1, charged through enemy fire and lobbed a grenade killing six Pakistani soldiers in the nearest bunker and punched away some more — he was a boxer too — before snatching a machine gun in another.”
In the 22 months he served the J&K Light Infantry, he came home three times. “He was always busy motivating students to join the army,” says his mother Saily. In the matrilineal Khasi society, children take the mother’s name. Clifford — like elder brother Jeffrey and younger brother Paul — chose to add that of his father, a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur, to his name. With the blood of two warrior communities flowing through him, it seemed easy enough for Clifford to head to the Officers Training Academy in September 1996. But it wasn’t an easy decision in a land under 25 Himas (tribal kingdoms) still not reconciled to being ‘tricked into’ signing the Instrument of Accession with the Indian Union 60 years ago.
A mound 50 metres from the Nongrum residence apparently helped Clifford make up his mind. He’d often spend hours on the mound peering down at Happy Valley a kilometre beyond, absorbed in the daily drills of the men in the Assam Rifles base.
He made friends with the sons of the officers to play football. The passion saw him form the Maitshaphrang — literally, march forward — Club with boys in the locality. “Soccer honed Clifford’s leadership qualities, but we didn’t realise he was using the sport to be fighting fit to join the Short Service Commission after graduating in political science,” recalls Peter.
For many Khasis besides Clifford’s parents, Pt 4812 has become a pilgrimage. So has a second-floor room in the Nongrum residence filled with his memorabilia including a parachute brought from the Siachen Glacier during his last visit. But more importantly, Captain Nongrum’s sacrifice — and the Maha Vir Chakra award given to him posthumously — has egged many Khasis on to “wear stars and service stripes”, as he had urged.
Rahul Karmakar in Lumdenthring, Meghalaya
3. 15 bullets, a broken arm couldn’t stop him
Havaldar Yogendra Singh Yadav, 25
18 Grenadiers, PARAM VIR CHAKRA
His moment: July 4, 1999, Tiger Hill. The only survivor of an attack that killed 6 of his comrades and riddled him with 15 bullets. Yadav’s solo counter-attack killed 7 enemy soldiers. Strapping up his broken arm, he rolled down the hill to warn others.On a normal day, if a thorn pricks, it hurts, says Yadav. It was anything but normal on that cold, snowy mountaintop, when he saw six friends from his platoon die in close combat, felt the 15 bullets slam into his right leg and left arm and the searing pain of shrapnel gouge his face. "I could recognise no pain then," says Yadav softly, as he talks to the Hindustan Times, at his base in Samba, where they call his unit the PVC (Param Vir Chakra) paltan, or platoon. That’s because India’s highest gallantry awards, PVCs, are hard to come by. Only 21 have been awarded since Independence. The flash of heroism Yadav displayed on Tiger Hill — the most important vantage point overlooking India’s critical supply line, the Srinagar-Leh highway — earned him one of four PVCs awarded for Kargil: only one other Kargil PVC survived.
Ten years ago, Yadav was a shy, newly married teenager from a backward village in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr district, who began climbing Tiger Hill with 24 other soldiers. For two nights and a day they climbed under fire. As they neared Pakistani positions, the firing intensified. Only seven soldiers made it to the top. Of them, only Yadav survived after the solo battle that made him famous. Yadav is also known in his village as the dead man who returned. In those pre-cellphone days his family got a message saying he was dead, thanks to an army mix-up. The only phone, at the village post office, had been dead for two years. It was a visiting reporter who brought news that Yadav was badly injured but alive and being celebrated by the world outside as a hero.
Today, Yadav is acutely aware of the battles won — and the friends he lost. “If those men were with us to celebrate 10 years of our victory, it would be something,” says Yadav. “But it is nature’s law that you have to give something to get something.”
— Amir Tantray in Samba, Jammu and Kashmir
4. With apsaras in the sky, with army on earth
Capt. Vijyant Thapar, 22*
2 Rajputana Rifles, VIR CHAKRA
His moment: June 29. Vijyant brought the first victory to his unit by capturing Barbad Bunker on Tololing Top. Later, while attacking a bunker during an assault on Knoll, the fourth-generation officer laid down his life.The display on the G-Shock in Robin’s cabinet is blank. It has been like that for a decade. Captain Vijyant Thapar, fondly called Robin, was wearing the rugged watch while leading an assault on Knoll, an enemy encampment, during one of the fiercest battles of the Kargil campaign. The watch has gathered some dust, but the memories haven’t. Holding Robin’s epaulette, his father Colonel V.N. Thapar, 66, says, "We keep telling ourselves that our boy is still around. He is posted somewhere but can’t get leave."
The 22-year-old’s commanding officer had asked him to fall back. Robin did not. There was no way he would let the enemy reoccupy vantage ground. Many lives were lost in securing it. He was shot in the head as he charged daringly at an enemy bunker on June 29, 1999. Knoll was won a few hours later. Robin was awarded the Vir Chakra for superhuman valour, posthumously.
Sometime before the final assault, he wrote his last letter to his parents. Colonel Thapar reads it out: “By the time you get this letter I will be observing you all from the sky enjoying the hospitality of apsaras. If I become a human again I will join the army.”
Robin made two last wishes in that letter. He wanted his father to visit Knoll to “see where the Indian Army fought for your tomorrow.” He also asked his parents to extend monetary assistance to a Kashmiri girl, Ruksana, whose father was shot dead by terrorists when she was seven. Robin had been supporting her when he was posted in the Lolab valley.
The Thapars don’t regret letting their older son join the army. What disappoints them the society’s amnesia. Colonel Thapar asks, “Why is Kargil Diwas not observed? Have we forgotten our heroes?”
Not that Robin cares. He is with the apsaras.
— Rahul Singh in Noida
5. ‘Lionheart’ who gave a generation its motto
CAPT. Vikram Batra, 24*
13, Jammu & Kashmir Rifles, PARAM VIR CHAKRA
His moment: June 20, Point 5140. Under heavy fire, Batra reached the top and hurled two grenades at an enemy machine gun post and killed three soldiers in close combat. He carried on despite being seriously wounded, inspiring his men to recapture the peak.The most enduring image of India’s first televised war was a young army captain laughing besides an anti-aircraft gun he’d just snatched from Pakistani soldiers. After the capture of Point 5140, when Barkha Dutt, now NDTV’s managing editor, applauded Vikram Batra, 24, for a mission well accomplished, he said: ‘Ye dil maange more!’ A nation got its war cry, a generation its motto. A decade after Batra gave young India its anthem, all his parents seek is some dignity, a little more than symbolic acknowledgment of their son’s sacrifice. Retired principal Girdhari Lal Batra, 64 and his schoolteacher wife Kamala are tired with the lip service provided by politicians and half-hearted, crude attempts to remember Vicky, the lion-heart.
Batra’s friend Amit remembers what he said about the war over a cup of coffee at the riverside Neugal Café. “Ya toh tiranga lehrake aaunga, ya fir tirange mein lipta huwa aunga (I’ll either come back after raising the Indian flag in victory or return wrapped in it).
After he returned wrapped in that flag, Batra was awarded the Param Vir Chakra, the nation’s highest gallantry honour, but his family hasn’t yet received the ex-gratia grant of Rs 3 lakh three lakh promised by the Jammu and Kashmir government. Even before he helped turn the tide in Kargil, Vicky, code-named Sher Shah by the Pakistanis, risked his life for his fellow soldiers. “He helped evacuate a lieutenant who’d suffered grenade injuries,” says his mother. “At times I feel sad that Lieutenant Naveen, whom he had helped, hasn’t bothered to even call us once.”
After the capture of Peak 5140, he called his parents. “In the static and background noise all I could make out were the words ‘I’ve captured’,” says Girdhari Lal with a smile. “Panicked, I thought Vicky had been captured by enemies. Later I realised a man in custody can’t possibly call his parents.” How the local authorities have treated his memories is now cast in stone. “Vicky’s bust, installed by the government is poorly sculpted,” says Kamala. “It doesn’t have any resemblance to my son.”
- Gaurav Bisht in Palampur
6. Buddhist footballer led assault from flanks
Col. Sonam Wangchuk, 45
Ladakh Scouts, MAHA VIR CHAKRA
His moment: May 30, Batalik, Chorbat La sub-sector. At a time the Indian army was in the dark about the extent of Pakistani infiltration, Wangchuk captured an18,500-ft high cliff, without artillery support.Dressed in a trek suit, the genial Buddhist is watering his lawns beneath a rugged mountain. The gentle demeanor and warm smile can mislead you for a few minutes. But in Ladakh’s glacial hills, the name Sonam Wangchuk is synonymous with unadulterated courage and exemplary leadership. Before the war, or so goes the lore, the Dalai Lama was visiting Leh. One of the first to seek his blessings before heading to the front was Major Sonam Wangchuk, 35, of the Ladakh Scouts. On May 26, on an annual vacation, when he first heard he had to resume duty, Wangchuk told his son Riggyal he would return soon.
They would celebrate his birthday together on June 11 at home, he promised. Generally, the Ladakh Scouts don’t fight wars. As they know the mountains like the back of their hand, they carry out reconnaissance for regiments operating at high altitudes. They also set up observation posts at war zones and return to the base. When Wangchuk set up an observation post at Batalik, he wasn’t aware of the heavy Pakistani presence just above. The next morning, his men came under intense shelling. With the enemy at a vantage point, the soldiers couldn’t see the Pakistanis. Despite losing a fellow soldier, the Scouts managed to gather information about enemy positions, climbing 80-degree steep slopes. “We moved on ducking right and left.
The firing continued for 25 minutes. We could have retreated and joined the base party or moved forward to join the patrol. I decided to go ahead, and left behind one of the jawans to take the body of the slain soldier,” Wangchuk told Hindustan Times. Classmates from Delhi’s Modern School, Barakhamba Road, remember Sonam as a nimble striker adept at dodging defenders and scoring from the flank. Wangchuk displayed the same athleticism during the ascent. He held the column together and raided the enemy position from a flank. The mountains rang with the Ladakh Scouts’ war cry, Ki Ki So So Lhargyalo (The gods will triumph).
On May 30, the winger realised his goal: Evacuating the Pakistanis from the Chorbat la top.
— Rashid Ahmad in Leh
7. Jat who hoisted the tricolour on tiger hill
Major Balwan Singh Panghal, 35
18 Grenadiers, MAHA VIR CHAKRA
The 25-year-old hardy Jat realised the importance of recapturing Tiger Hill only after the war was over. The rousing welcome that Lieutenant Balwan Singh Panghal got at his native Sasroli village in Haryana’s Jhajjar district, 60 km south of Delhi, brought goose-pimples to the lanky soldier.
“I realised we had done something special. Till then I was just excited about realising my childhood dream of fighting for the motherland,” Panghal, now 35, told Hindustan Times at the 18 Grenadiers unit in Samba, Jammu and Kashmir.
“Tiger Hill was a difficult battle. There were 30 enemy soldiers holding fortified positions, and we lost many of our men but never lost hope,” he said.
After the arduous 27-day-long operation to capture Tololing Top on June 13, Panghal returned to the 18 Grenadiers base camp. Then came the real McCoy — recapturing Tiger Hill top, crucial to Operation Vijay.
Launching a multi-pronged operation on July 2, Panghal scaled the sheer cliff under intense artillery shelling. Despite sustaining bullet injuries on his left arm and left leg, he led a fierce attack and unfurled the tricolour on Tiger Hill. That announced to the world that India had wiped out the infiltrators and won the war in Kargil.
Capturing Tiger Hill was crucial as 16,500-feet high vantage point helped Pakistan keep an eye on the base camp at Drass as well as monitor troop movement on the Srinagar-Leh national highway. “At the top, it was a hand-to-hand fight between them and us. All 30 of them were finally killed. That was one of the happiest days of my life.”
Young Balwan grew up listening to stories of valour from his father Sobha Chand, a havaldar in the army. From childhood, he knew he was destined to be a soldier. After going to Sainik School, Karnal and graduating in Humanities from Maharishi Dayanand College, Rohtak, Panghal cleared the combined defence services exam and joined the army. And when, just four
months into service, Kargil gave him an opportunity to display the stuff he was made of, he grabbed it with both hands.
Two years after the historic triumph, Panghal married the daughter of an advocate in Jhajjar. Homemaker Yamuna, his wife of eight years, says she is proud to have a gallantry award-winning soldier for a partner. “It’s great to be an MVC winner’s wife. The army and soldiers fascinated me in my teens. Luckily, I married a man associated with Operation Vijay.”
— Amir Tantray, in Samba, Jammu and Kashmir
8.Fighter pilot who came back from the dead
WG. Commander Kambampati Nachiketa, 36
9 Squadron “Wolfpack,” Vayu Sena Medal (Gallantry)
The Kathopanishad has it that a young man named Nachiketa approached Yama, god of death, and asked him what lay beyond death. He got a philosophical reply.
Pose his modern-day namesake, Wing Commander Nachiketa, the same query and he says: “For the eight days, I had no hope of coming back. When you see death from such close quarters, you realise what lies beyond.”
A decade earlier, in the summer of ‘99, any thought of death was far from the young flight lieutenant’s mind. Sitting in a fighter jet cockpit, Nachiketa was high on life and raring for action. He had heard India’s forces were mobilising. The 9 Squadron, ‘Wolfpack’, with its MiG 27s, was moved from Adampur in Jalandhar to a forward base.
On May 27, Nachiketa was directed to launch air strikes in and around Kargil. While trying to smoke out the infiltrators, the engine of Nachiketa’s MiG developed a snag, and the plane began diving. He parachuted out and landed on snow, 17,000 feet above sea level — in enemy territory.
Within seconds, Nachiketa was under fire. He returned fire with his Russian-made Makarov pistol. But he was outnumbered, captured and put in jail. Till he was driven into the gates of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad eight days later, Nachiketa, now a Wing Commander, wasn’t sure he would come back.
Nachiketa doesn’t share too many details of his captivity citing army rules, but says he was made to undergo physical hardships. “It took quite some time to heal. But in two or three years, you reconcile and get on with life.”
Today, after making peace with a spine injury, the erstwhile fighter pilot is a familiar face at the Agra Air Force base, preparing to pilot a lumbering IL-78 tanker and refuel the fighters he once flew.
- Bhavna Wal in Agra