Excerpt from Kargil
29 November 2019
Chapter 1 Unbroken
A young officer is tortured to death in enemy custody. His father vows to get the guilty punished. 14 May 1999 2.30 p.m. Somewhere near Bajrang Post, Kaksar, Kargil It has been more than four hours of walking in the chilling wind. The cold is seeping into twenty-two-year-old Capt. Saurabh Kalia’s bones. Most of the climb from 99 Top, where he received orders to take a surveillance patrol to Bajrang Post, has been along a frozen nullah. He knows the nullah is deceptive. There is ice on top but biting-cold water flows underneath.
One wrong step and a man could fall in and freeze to death. The chill in the air is making his eyes water. He uses the back of his hand to wipe them dry. The air seems to be freezing on his eyelashes; he runs his tongue over dry chapped lips.
A Himachali, he is used to the cold but the temperature is unbearable even for him. For a moment, he stops and his thoughts wander to Palampur’s brilliant blue skies and jade-green tea gardens. And home. He thinks about his parents and Vaibhav, his happy-go-lucky younger brother who is still in college, and it suffuses his heart with warmth. He wonders how his five soldiers are faring. Turning his head slightly to look back, he finds them plodding on tenaciously. Pulling his balaclava lower over his ears, Saurabh shakes his fingers to get the blood flowing again and starts walking. His carbine hangs behind his back. Up ahead, he can see Bajrang Post. Located at 17,450 feet on the southwestern flank of Kaksar, it overlooks the vast, open glaciated area but has been vacated by the Indian Army for the winter months, when it lies buried under heavy snow. As per a long-standing agreement between India and Pakistan, both sides vacate these posts during winter and reoccupy them in summer. Saurabh has been sent to check if the snow has melted enough for the post to be manned again. He has no intention of returning before he completes his task.
Gritting his teeth, he moves on, unaware that the enemy is watching him. Taking advantage of India’s trust, Pakistan has slowly been moving its troops into Bajrang Post during the past few months. Even as the unsuspecting soldiers of 4 JAT climb to what they think is their own vacant post, they are being watched by the enemy who is waiting for them to come within firing distance. At 2.30 p.m., Saurabh loses radio contact with his men from Charlie Company at 99 Top. 21 December 2018 Gaggal airport Kangra, Himachal Pradesh On a cold December morning, when the temperature has dipped to 5 degrees, a tiny ATR-72 aircraft taxies down the runway and comes to a smooth stop. Wrapping mufflers tighter around their necks and slipping into warm jackets, the passengers pull their cabin baggage down from overhead storage compartments and queue up to alight. Mesmerized by the stunning view that accosts them, most stop to take selfies with the twin-engine plane and the magnificent magnificent snow-covered Dhauladhar range as a backdrop. Walking across the tarmac to one of the smallest airports I have seen, I don’t share my co-passengers’ euphoria though the view and the fragrant roses blooming outside do take my breath away. I am taking a taxi to Palampur to meet Dr Narinder K. Kalia, the seventy-year-old father of late Capt. Saurabh Kalia who, along with his five comrades, was captured by Pakistan in 1999.
The men were tortured for more than three weeks and their bodies returned to India after they were shot through the head. I have read the post-mortem reports and they have kept me awake many nights. What was done to Saurabh and his men is beyond human imagination. I too have a son and I shudder to imagine the lifetime of pain that has befallen Saurabh’s parents. Dr Kalia has written to every important government department, every prime minister, every embassy and consulate he could find the addresses of to take up this case of human rights violations and flouting of the Geneva Conventions by Pakistan, but nothing has come of it so far. Meeting Dr Kalia is my personal effort to walk a small distance with him in his long and relentless fight for justice. It is also an effort to absolve myself of some of the guilt that comes from being the citizen of a country that could not stand by its soldiers.
But right now I am preoccupied with other thoughts. Like, how do you start a conversation with a father whose young son faced the most horrific end? Is there anything one can say to take away some of his pain? How did a simple middle-class man from a small hill town, who retired as a senior scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, who stutters when he talks and struggles to form the words he wants to say, find the courage to take on the government of his country? How has he managed to fight with the same passion for nineteen long years, with hardly any small victories on the way?
I find no answers to my own questions and, switching off my mind, look out of the window instead. Around me are breathtaking mountains that chill the air and send it fresh and crisp straight into my lungs. Beside me, the winding blue-green Neugal Khud meanders lazily through Palampur. This is where Saurabh Kalia—Naughty, as his parents called him—grew up and went to school, first to DAV Public School and then to Kendriya Vidyalaya in the cantonment, where he watched, with long-lashed luminous eyes, the splendours of life in uniform. This is where the little boy was seduced by the discipline, smart uniforms, the romance of putting your life at stake for your country and decided he wanted to be an Army officer too. In the small hill town of Palampur, you don’t need addresses to reach the houses of martyrs (the late Capt. Vikram Batra, Param Vir Chakra (PVC), was from here too and I had the same experience when I came looking for his house five years ago while researching my book The Brave).
This time I am wiser—I haven’t insisted that Dr Kalia send me his complete address as I had done with Mr Girdhari Lal Batra, Vikram’s father, when he had said, ‘Beta, Palampur mein kisi se bhi puch lena, humare ghar ka rasta bata denge. [Ask anyone in Palampur, they will direct you to our house.]’ All I do now is put my head out of the window and ask, ‘Kya aapko Capt. Saurabh Kalia ka ghar maloom hai?’ [Do you know Capt. Saurabh Kalia’s house?]’ People smile and nod. Women with shawls draped over their heads, a bespectacled tailor oiling his sewing machine, an old man smoking a surreptitious bidi, and effervescent salwar kameez-clad schoolgirls with pink cheeks and ribbons in their braids guide me with gestures of the hand and tilts of the head.