(The following has been excerpted with permission from ‘Vijayant at Kargil: The Life of a Kargil War Hero’, co-authored by (Retd) Col V N Thapar and Neha Dwivedi, and published by Penguin Random House. The sub-headings are not part of the book and have been added by The Quint.)
They would wait in ambush, lying there for hours, and come back without a thing. This time, Robin was already on a patrol with his platoon, and they were diverted from the west to an area where the group was to be intercepted. Major Vivek with his troops closed in from the north, while another group with Mohit and Rautela moved in from the east to encircle the terrorists. They knew the area like the back of their hand.
The operation went on for hours, as the group and the force engaged in a cat-and-mouse game.
They came close to the group as it crossed a stream some distance away. Electrified, Robin with his platoon was asked by Major Vivek, who had reported a contact, to close in fast and reach a hut that was on a higher ground, like an island in the sea of flat paddy fields. In the meantime, the terrorist group sensed a threat approaching from its left, and quickly started moving eastwards.
Suppressed Cheer Over Successful Anti-Terror Operations
There was deathly silence, except for dogs barking in the distance. In the wee hours, the silence was shattered by the sound of a long burst of fire and a few more shots some distance away. Everyone was on high alert. It sounded as though there had been a kill. A few moments later, the radio crackled to life. There was a suppressed cheer as they learnt that they had shot at the terrorists and the operation had succeeded. One body was recovered and the blood trail leading towards the village revealed that two more had been wounded.
Robin saw the terrorist lying in an awkward position. He was dazed. He had seen a man shot dead for the first time.
“Is this what separates life from death — a moment, a bullet?”
he wondered. He stood there staring blankly, thinking these were men who had wanted to kill him. The AK-47s were lying uselessly next to his hand. The tall man had received three hits, one of which had shattered his face. His long hair and clothes were drenched in blood. Robin had seen it all that day.
The body was removed to the police station and the documentation completed. Meanwhile, Robin went after the wounded ones. But they had vanished. Robin then reported another contact, and operations were launched with A and D companies. But after much combing, the operations were called off. Life went on in the same way after that, filled with more patrolling, more ambushes, more cordons and more frustration. Sometimes there were engagements, which resulted in ambushes and fidayeen killed. The terrorists were very well-equipped, sometimes with night-vision and GPS devices, concentrated food items and walkie-talkies. Often, there would be a period of inactivity.
A Mission to Test Skills & Nerves
On 24 April 1999, a call was received, and once again, an operation was launched. This time it was the Alpha Company with Major Padmapani Acharya (Archie) leading, with one JCO and forty other ranks, and Robin, his second-in-command. There had been information of four terrorists hiding in a few huts in the remote village of Watankhai on the fringes of the Shalabat forest. Archie gulped down the last of his Old Monk, wiped his moustache and said, “So Robin, this time the bastards are going to get it. What do you say?” “We will get them, and, Sir, make sure I get my medal,” said Robin. “Sure, Robin,” said Archie reassuringly.
Once again, they set off on a mission that would test their skills and nerves.
After trudging through the forested area and paddy fields for more than three hours, they reached a thick clump of trees just touching the village. In small groups led by Havildar Rageshwar Badhuria and Havildar Ramkailash, they moved stealthily to the right and the left, while Rifleman Rishikesh and Satish accompanied Robin.
‘This Wait Was Killing Them’
There was absolute silence. All Robin could see was the white of their eyeballs. He felt his heartbeat quicken as he took position and aimed his AK-47 at the door of the house to the left. They had surrounded the village successfully. On the other side, Archie with his party was moving very carefully. Robin’s party was covering them and the possible escape routes. Robin was worried about Archie’s safety.
It was past midnight by now and the dogs in the surrounding areas were still howling. They were all alert, like a pack of wolves, ready to pounce. They had their guns ready. Sweat poured down their foreheads, and they held their breath to be as quiet as possible. Cicadas were making a din. Archie’s group was closing in on the huts now. Tension was running high among the men. Every moving leaf startled them. The men checked and rechecked their safety catches. This wait was killing them.
A Father’s Comforting & Reassurance
Robin’s mind was on Archie and him being too close to danger. He vowed he would do everything in his power to prevent harm coming his way. In the midst of these thoughts, suddenly there was a loud bang as the window of the neighbouring hut flew open, letting out a shaft of light. With a loud hoot, a bird flew out, flapping its wings noisily. Right then, the tense men around Robin opened heavy fire. Robin shouted to control the charged-up troops and restore order.
While Archie and his men ran around the hut, Robin and his team charged from the front.
They kicked the door open and rushed in, but all they found was a frightened couple staring at them. They were yelping incoherently. In the melee, the insurgents had fled from a rear window. Robin felt shattered and defeated. Archie tried to cheer him up. “Come on, Robin, there will be another chance.” Once the seniors — the commanding office and the second-in-command — were informed, they were unhappy at the outcome and would not listen to the reasons. The men who had opened fire were taken to task. Robin was livid about the incident and also about the fact that the commanding officer had heard the version of those who had no idea of what had happened but would not listen to them. A few days later, his father in Bathinda got a call from a deeply hurt Robin. His father heard him out and then patiently and duly pacified him.
He assured him that he was right and whatever had happened was an accident and not his fault.
Fathers & Sons
He explained that it was the duty of the commanding officer and the second-in-command to set things right so that future endeavours could be successful. Somewhat pacified, Robin also discussed his plans for his casual leave to attend his cousin’s marriage at the end of June. Virender was proud of his son’s achievements, but often worried about his safety. Robin’s letters would be emotionally charged and describe how he was ready for action.
As an army officer, his chest would swell with pride, but the father in him worried about his son’s well-being.
He always made sure to write back, appreciating his enthusiasm, never forgetting to add a word of caution and finishing with words of wisdom. Meanwhile, the list of people whom Robin wrote to had become slightly longer. It now included his course mates from the academy, like Kalia and the others, as well as his beloved, who was waiting for him in Jammu. While letters from his course mates would reach him promptly, those from Naina would be withheld by Tomar, who would demand sweets in exchange. Robin would be only too happy to comply.
(The views expressed above are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)