It was the first week of May the year 1999, the sweltering summer was roasting the Indian plains and the Deccan plateau with consistently high temperatures in the mid-to-upper 40 degree celsius.
As a college-going teenager in his second year of undergraduate degree, my attention bubble was limited to a handful of things. My second year final exams were underway, so it was time to fight procrastination and cram in all the studying needed. The Aamir Khan, Sonali Bendre starrer movie, Sarfarosh had released a few days back, and everyone was trying to grab a ticket to the movie whose songs had already become a rage. The cricket world cup was starting the following week in England and all of us day-dreamed the Indian cricket team under the captaincy of Azharuddin, lifting the cup. The nation had just witnessed lot of high-octane political drama the month of April, with prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government losing the vote of confidence in the parliament by a single vote. India was gearing up for a new round of Lok sabha elections in September and the radio-waves were hogged everyday by the news of somebody forming an alliance with someone else. The tech world was busy dealing with Y2K menace with controversy theorists predicting large scale chaos as 1999 came to an end.
While there were many topics vying attention, we were a teenage bunch that cherry pick-edly talked about the cricket world cup, Sonali Bendre, and lab practicals (in that particular order) and may be Y2K making a guest appearance once in a while in our discussions.
The beginning of the war
However, as the first week of May unfolded, all our regular topics of conversation became inconsequential, the tone quickly shifted serious and Indian cricket team selection stopped being the highlight conversation. For the first time in the lifetime of our entire generation, we witnessed our nation plunge into an armed conflict with Pakistan, the Kargil War.
On Monday of the week, first reports of Pakistani incursions in Jammu and Kashmir, started trickling in, and by mid-week, news of an Indian army patrol being eliminated made us all sit up and take notice. By the end of the week, infiltrations were reported across many sectors and by mid-May, the Indian army was mobilising troops in large numbers to Kargil sector for our response – ‘Operation Vijay’. We were jolted out of our teenage sensibilities with the visuals of the FH 77-B Bofors artillery howitzers pounding the enemy posts and stories of valour and indomitable courage of Indian soldiers started pouring in.
For the first time, there was no fight to change the TV channel to anything but news; the newspaper headlines brought in a wave of emotions starting with a sense of pride for our armed forces, followed by a feeling of patriotism; restlessness and rage for not being able to contribute in any meaningful manner; to one of sadness at learning about the lives and families of each soldier that fell. Prior to the Kargil conflict happening, we never anticipated tearing up for anything except when Sachin got out at 99, however that summer teared us up every morning we opened the newspaper.
The real men
We finally understood the emotion behind the Indian Tri-color, beyond merely coloring one in drawing books or putting it up as a sticker on our bikes. We realized the sacrifices it takes to protect our country. That summer got etched in our memories like no other – at once we realized we were just a bunch of teenage boys pretending to be men. The real men, however were the ones out there fighting for the country, raising a war cry and charging at death uphill, possessed by the overwhelming feeling of protecting their country. Men, whose courage would not be stopped by mere bullets, and men who would take the place of their fellow fallen soldiers without batting an eyelid and face certain death. Men, who would refuse to acknowledge severed limbs, ignore excruciating pain bought from grenade splinters, or face up a volley of machine gun fire like it was just mere rain hitting them, until the objectives of their mission were met.
Men like Captain Vikram Batra, who courageously exposed himself to enemy fire to drag an injured soldier to safety (Captain Vikram Batra and his company had previously successfully captured point 5140 that set in motion a string of successes); Captain Anuj Nayyar, who killed 9 Pakistani soldiers and destroyed three machine gun bunkers before succumbing to a rocket propelled grenade attack while clearing the last bunker on point 4875; Lieutenant Manoj Kumar Pandey who led his platoon in clearing four interfering enemy positions, after killing four enemy personnel and clearing out two enemy positions, he was grievously injured but would not give up until all four positions were cleared; Innumerable stories of fearlessness and bravery of the over 500 soldiers who died in Operation Vijay.
A Visit to the Kargil War Memorial
18 summers after Kargil happened, as a middle-aged man well into his thirties, I visited the Kargil war memorial in 2017. Standing in silence, facing hundreds of tombstones of the Kargil martyrs, reading their names etched on the sandstone wall, I could not help but tear up all over again for the fearless men that laid down their lives as the soldiers of the Kargil conflict.
Walking through the Manoj Pandey Gallery, the photographs of the war told stories that the very place I stood on had witnessed, the recovered arms and ammunition on display narrated tales of patriotism and bravery. As I stepped out of the Hut of Remembrance as the gallery is called, I could all but imagine how this place would have been in the summer of 1999 with the surrounding rugged terrain, the sounds of artillery reverberating the Dras Valley floor.
Identifying the peaks from their pictures kept in the memorial, I felt a deepened respect for the soldiers who, braving all odds and challenges, had scaled the very mountains that I was looking at, and daringly accomplished their missions.
The huge 15 kg Indian flag majestically waving in the backdrop of the mountain peaks, that these martyrs had recaptured for their country, reminded me that day of what it was to be Indian.
I highly recommend every citizen of this country to visit the Kargil war memorial in Dras and pay homage to the soldiers that made the ultimate sacrifice in protecting our homeland. It is a journey that must be experienced.
This 26th July, let us remember that watching on TV or tweeting on social media couple of adjectives isn’t what Kargil Vijay Diwas is all about. It’s about remembering the heroes of the conflict, their sacrifices, passing on their heroic lineage to the next generation and being thankful that our borders stand protected by such legendary men!