20 years after Kargil: The Gorkha Rifles’ Pune-to-Kargil about turn, a move for the nation
The title ‘Bravest of the Brave’ doesn’t come easy.
Within a month of returning to Pune from the Siachen glacier where they had served for over one-and-a-half years, men of the 1/11 Gorkha Rifles infantry battalion were asked to move back to Jammu & Kashmir.
It was in March-end, 1999, that the advance party of the unit of around 70 personnel had come to Pune.
However, within a month, the advance party led by the Officer Commanding (OC), Col Ajai Tomar, now retired, was asked to move back to Jammu and Kashmir. By May 15, said Tomar, “We got orders to wrap up and move to Kargil.”
1/11 GR was one of the first units to be moved into the Batalik sector for the Kargil war. The heroics of their men, like Captain Manoj Pandey, still invoke a feeling of patriotism in every Indian and the brut courage of the kirantis (troops of the 11 Gorkha rifles) got the unit the title ‘Bravest of the Brave’. This was in addition to various citation, battle and theatre honours.
The men were allotted two coaches of the Jhelum Express for their journey to J&K, but the two coaches were not enough as they were carrying arms, ammunition and other essentials.
“We were in our uniforms and passengers saw us standing. That’s when almost all of the people got up and handed us their reserved seats.
“It was a great moment to remember,” said Tomar, adding that the passengers did not know the exact situation, since the Kargil conflict had just begun.
Col Tomar was involved in the capture of the Khalubar during the Kargil war.
The Commanding Officer of the unit, Col Lalit Rai (retd), recalled: “We had handed over all our weapons and equipment to another battalion as we were moving to Pune. The advance party was already there and we instructed them to return immediately.” The unit was assigned responsibility of the Jubar, Kukarthaam and Khalubar areas and their battalion headquarters was in Yeldor.
“We had handed over all our special clothing used for Siachen and our major equipment, since we were planning to move to Pune.
“However, we got reports that there was some intrusion and were moved into Kargil war, all of a sudden.
“When we were fighting there, we witnessed the intensity of the firing and that’s when we all realised that this was much bigger than just an intrusion. We knew the Pakistan army was involved and our rifles (SLRs) were not helping us in the situation,” lamented Col Tomar.
Col Rai, who commanded the unit during the capture of Khalubar and was also awarded the Vir Chakra said he began getting reports that the SLR rifles (7.62mm) were getting jammed at high altitudes and therefore, new Insas rifles (5.56mm) were sent to the soldiers. However, to change weapons in the middle of the war was a tough decision to make as the men were not yet trained on the Insas rifles, he said.
Once the decision was taken, the soldiers were called in small batches of four-five and were shown how to use the weapons “behind the boulders, hillocks while the firing was going on.”
This decision, according to Col Rai, turned the tables.
“The Kargil war will always be remembered as the war fought and won by battalion commanders and young men. I had to take major decisions which turned the course of the war. We had brave men fighting in impossible conditions and that’s what Kargil should be remembered for,” he said.
General Mahinder Puri, who was the GOC 8 Mountain Division remained calm and confident despite the negative news from all sides, he remained confident and calm, said Khot.
The last words of Capt Pandey, “Inle chhodnu na” (Do not leave them, in Nepali), echo through this saga of high altitude warfare, where troops climbed 80-degree vertical ridges and scaled their way on razor-sharp cliffs.