As desired and expected in 1996, after completing my Army training I was posted to Kashmir as a young Indian Army Officer. In the academy we use to hear about causalities in terrorism related operations and the tensed situation there. In fact I and my roommate, Vivek Sajwan, a dear buddy, both got posted to Kashmir. As cadets under training, we used to joke around with each other on who will get martyred first out of the two of us.
In first two years of my service, I had opportunities of minor skirmishes on the LOC and certain other pockets but first full-fledged test as a Leader was yet to take place. It came no sooner than February 1998 where in I inducted myself in a cordon and search operation with a team of about 15 heads under me at 02:00 hrs in the morning.
This was a large bowl surrounded by hills, having two three villages, all scattered with thick forests on the slopes. As per the inputs, there was a group of 2-3 militants which had arrived in the area to kill one local politician and his family members. We surrounded the target area by 04:00 am and at first light, started the search. Searching these houses is a very skilful and tedious activity as after initial alertness and agility it becomes quite a boring drill and monotonous act, thus mentally tiring the troops and at times, the Leaders as well.
We continued the search. It was proving to be a thoroughly frustrating and irritating act with nothing coming out of it.
About 15:00 hrs I decided to call off the search as there were no tell-tale signs of anything anywhere. I was thoroughly disappointed as if I lost an Olympic medal. I could see similar expressions on the faces of my fellow mates. As we were preparing for a move back, suddenly something came in a soldier’s mind. Next to me was my LMG (Light Machine Gun) gunner, a sturdy Khalsa. As he was in the process of folding the LMG stand, I ordered him to fire few shots in a general area direction. As he fired the third salvo, I saw three people running between few houses, down towards the valley hardly 100 metres from us. We fired on them. But due to uneven fold of the ground, fire from our point was not effective. With such a mighty blow to my expectations, I felt devastated.
Nothing came to my mind except that I too started sprinting in the same direction without noticing who all were following me. As I was running, I was firing as well at these people visible only in gaps. It was only after some time that I sensed my team members too were following me and they too were firing as and when possible.
Finally, after a chase of almost 30 minutes we lost them. However, I, along with my team, continued moving in the general direction where I thought they were heading to. I instructed my team to stop and enquire anyone crossing from the opposite direction.
After we came down the slope completely and were about to cross a rivulet, I noted one particular family of 2-3 males similar number of females and 4-5 kids crossing our way. I could sense something amiss. As a basic drill I enquired about them. They named a different village and said they had come to visit their relatives and are heading back to their place. It was not convincing at all. Just a little bit of interrogation got us the truth. They said that three militants with fire arms had forcibly entered their house and threatened to kill them; that’s why they were running away.
I immediately asked them to take us to the house, still breathing some hope to nab the Anti-Indians. Reluctantly one of them came along. From just 300 metres of distance, he indicated a house located behind a small raised ground with fields on the other side. A glance at the house told me that it was a house with minimum 5-6 rooms, relatively larger and solidly made of local rocks with well cemented surface. Without losing a fraction of second, I signalled the boys and we surrounded it. The fire started from our end into the house at about 16:30 hours in the evening. I was in haste to wind up before night fell as we were a small group and had alienated ourselves from main axis. It was only after about 5 minutes of our intermittent firing, that a volley of fire bursts welcomed us in retaliation. I had a sigh of relief, finally Olympics medal was probably being reclaimed.
Gradually the intensity of firing grew. Whatever be the number of terrorists, they were firing from two different directions and quiet effectively. Whizzing bullets and the accompanying sound filled the air. We all were into the job and it looked quite a fun. After about 40 minutes of constant firing, the intensity decreased. I used some special weapons to dismantle the main entry door.
As night was creeping in, I wanted to gain entry into the house at the earliest. Since the approach from the hill side was more exposed, I along with 4 team-mates took a detour. Taking the cover of the folds of the fields, we reached close to house near the courtyard. From the field itself I fired two three small fire bursts with no response. I jumped onto the courtyard with my men following me. From a distance I could see a body lying near the main entry which was damaged. With my indicative orders, the body was lifted and brought to the open ground. As I entered inside, another body was lying to the left corner, closer to a window. We checked it for any blasts tied or any kind of booby trap. He too was brought out. We continued with the search since we had seen three of them. The same number was confirmed by the house owner. So at least one more should have been there. But we could not locate anyone for the next few minutes or so.
Darkness was setting in. Outside few of my team members had gathered in a jovial mood hoping it to be a successful operation. As I was on the look-out for an elusive third one with anxiety growing higher and higher, I heard a ‘crack’ sound suddenly. The top of a big wooden box, generally used as grain storages in rural areas, about 7-10 meters from me flung open with volley of bullets flowing out. I leaped outside, probably the longest jump of my life, and fell with a thud near the main entry gate. All of this happened so quickly, I failed to notice how many of us were actually able to escape from the house. Bullets cracks broke the silence all of a sudden. Even those waiting outside in the courtyard had moved away to take cover wherever they could. By the time I gained my senses, realizing that I was safe with only minor bruises, I found myself all alone in the courtyard. It was completely dark and it was cold. I had completely lost control of the Operation, not even sure whether all my men were safe or not. Such a demoralizing moment!
A few minutes elapsed. My mind started ticking fast. I walked about 50 meters away from the Target area, near a old hut type small structure and conveyed my location through radio transmission and verbally too. Gradually in about 15 minutes, the entire team gathered around me. Seeing each one of them alive was one of the most precious and reliving moments of my life. To re-confirm that each one was safe, I took the head count twice.
As it was pitch dark in the night, I decided that trying to gain an entry was an act of huge risk and foolhardiness, especially after what we had just experienced and got lucky to have no casualty. I knew that the third militant had got into the big wooden box. He had fired indiscriminately and aimlessly as he was wounded. He could not fire properly, else I would have been riddled with bullets there itself.
It was now that one of the nearest Army establishment got in touch with me on the wireless. I reported “all safe” to the higher HQ. I also informed them my plan of action of quietly surrounding the house all through the night and resuming the operation next morning. I could hear some sounds from inside the house, as the team was divided in 6 different groups and they were establishing stop positions surrounding the house at a distance of about 25-30 meters from the house.
It was chilling cold in the open fields in a bowl. I had not catered for a night stay out, which was growing adventures and a bit more than challenging. At about midnight I was transmitted a message that the person inside was their commander. Though quiet injured, he was very much alive. He was trying to seek help through his transmissions.
For a moment I thought of blasting the house as just sitting idle in extreme cold was nerve breaking and also that the man inside was conspiring against us. However my good sense told me to hold on. Despite the pervasive risk, at about 2am in the morning we lit some fire around us as we surely needed some relief from the nail biting cold. Being without food is fine, but why die out of cold? This though was against the theory of tactics!
So we sat through all night. At times the silence was broken by dogs barking at a distance or just the winds roaring. We had to sit in absolute silence. Some Fauji gossip could have been a great relief but that couldn’t be risked.
At about 06:15 hrs in the morning, things started getting visible, though a bit hazy. I was not to lose any more time. I ordered other teams to fire into the house from three directions as three of us crawled into the courtyard seeking entry once again. At a pre-decided timeframe all firing was stopped. Three of us moved in adopting fire and cover tactics. We volleyed the box with bullets and also for safety, fired on each such covered objects inside. It took us about two minutes to recover his body from inside the box. Immediately another part of the team scanned the entire house for any more shocks that could be waiting for us.
Finally after about 30 hours of setting out, everything was over. I complimented everyone for splendid team work and great performance. The entire team won good accolades. For the soldier in me, the most satisfying factor was that in fledgling stage of my career, the first big operation was conducted successfully with no casualty of my own men. Luck too favoured me quite a bit, I must say. For sure some, if not all those bullets coming out of the box could have easily landed me in the grave.
It was later some time I learned that my room-mate buddy, Lt Vivek Sajwan about whom I wrote initially, with whom I used to joke about getting martyred, had got martyred in January 1998 in another part of valley, just at 24 years of age. I could not gather the courage to meet his parents when I went for my leave.
Soldiers never die. They just fade away. Vivek will be with me forever.