As the nation remembers and salutes its 527 brave officers and soldiers who were martyred in the Kargil war, immortalized on war memorials with their names etched forever in pride on our hearts and soul, I am reminded of another soldier, another mother, and another country!
When the Kargil war broke out on the steep, icy and rugged slopes of the Himalayas, I as a Brigadier found myself stationed as the Defence Advisor to the High Commission of India in London, UK. I had till then (and afterwards) taken part in nearly all operations of the Indian Army including a stint with the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) in Sri Lanka. I was of course eager to be back in India and participate more actively in prosecuting the war against the invaders. However, I was perhaps destined for other things and stayed in London for the duration of the Kargil war.
Those were heady days. I was busy coordinating the war effort in UK with much diplomatic and military logistics support work, which reached its crescendo in the hey days. But I will not go into details; I’ll just say that much had to be done in UK in support of the war effort. In the evenings I was often invited to various parts of UK where Indian diaspora was keen to know more details of the events unfolding in Tiger Hill, Drass, and other places. I would, within military constraints and laid down norms, give them true and reasonable information.
On one such busy day, at about noon, my assistant buzzed me on the intercom and said “Sir a Pakistani gentleman is on the phone line. He insists that he wants to speak to you.”
This was by all accounts, a rather odd request. Since the war was at its peak, my first thoughts were, it must be someone angry and hostile or more likely, a case of mistaken identity. I told my assistant to recheck. He confirmed that he had done all the requisite filtering and due diligence; the Pakistani gentleman indeed wanted to speak to the Military Advisor of India!
On being put through, an extremely polite gentleman spoke to me in halting English and a rather soft and sad voice. After apologizing, he narrated the following incident.
The man, settled in UK, had his mother staying with him. Presumably his sister’s son was in the Pakistan Army and reportedly on the Kargil front. He said that for last four or five days there had been no news whatsoever about him. The boy’s parents in Pakistan were distraught; his grandmother in UK had fallen sick worrying and was crying constantly. No food had been cooked by the family for past few days.
What he told me next angered me as a soldier, but also swelled my heart with pride. He said that he had approached the Pakistan High Commission repeatedly, but had been rebuffed stating that there was no Pakistan army involved in Kargil. The family had also received similar vague replies from the authorities in Pakistan too. He added that an Indian neighbour and friend had advised him to approach the Indian Military Advisor in London. The neighbour had told him, “Believe me, the Indian Army does not lie. If they can help you in any way, they surely will. They treat their opponents with due regard and dignity.”
Whilst he was speaking to me over phone, I could faintly hear the old lady wailing and demanding to speak to me in chaste Punjabi. On being put through to her, she blessed me and in the most endearing way, beseeched me in the name of Allah to help trace the whereabouts of her grandson, who was a Captain in the Pakistan Army. She just wanted to know if he was alive. She wept, as she spoke to me.
I was moved beyond measure as I had seen similar heart-breaks in the past. I put the phone down with a promise that I’ll revert with whatever news I could gather. I was deeply touched by the impact of wars on the near and dear ones of all soldiers.
I had been keeping in regular touch with the Army Headquarters in New Delhi in pursuance of my duties as the Military Advisor in London. Luckily one of the top men in the Military Operations Directorate overseeing the Kargil War was a great-senior officer, whom I knew. (Then Maj. Gen. J.J. Singh, who rose to become the Army Chief and later Governor of Arunchal Pradesh). I called him up and narrated the story. He being a compassionate man promised to revert soon. Despite his hectic schedule he called back after a day, informing that indeed such a Captain had taken part in the war of Kargil; unfortunately he had died a brave death. His body had been returned to Pakistan with due military honour befitting a gallant solider.
I had all along suspected this due to the reluctance of Pakistan Army to share information about him. The next day with a heavy heart, thinking of the sad grandmother, I called the number of the Pakistani gentleman. From the eerie silence in the house and his measured tone, it appeared that perhaps some news had trickled in by then.
He urged me to speak to the old lady who was inconsolable. She only asked me pleadingly if a mistake in identification could have been possible. She was begging for a slender thread of hope. I was reluctant to prolong her agony. After some words of solace, I told her that unfortunately her grandson had met the same fate as many soldiers do during war. She blessed me in a broken voice; the line went dead.
Next day one of the local radio of UK in its daily programme narrated this anecdote and praised me and the Indian Army for their truthful reporting and honour, with which they treat their martyrs. The same story was carried in the local press highlighting the irony that an Indian Army Brigadier had informed Pakistani parents regarding their son’s whereabouts in the Kargil war when the same information was not coming forth from any other source; including Pakistan.
I am reminded of a quote by a British General. He said, “A country which does not respect and honour its war dead is perhaps a country not worth fighting for”. War is so unforgiving and more often so futile! Least we can do is, to perform the sacrosanct duty of a nation and acknowledge, respect and honour all soldiers as they unflinchingly perform their solemn duty.