Anil Raina presently a crime correspondent with Mumbai Mirror, sent me this awe inspiring first hand account of a week he spent with our jawans in Jammu and Kashmir. For all of us entrenched in the mundanities of our individual universe, documentation such as this ought to jolt us into sitting up taking cognisance of the lives we so carelessly forget to remember.
Anil Raina documents the life of the Indian soldier in Lolab, one of the most militancy-infested areas in Jammu & Kashmir. A thorough read through is definitely recommended.
All Armymen pray before they leave their camp for an operation. Seen here is Major Sachin Sharma of the Putshahi unit in Lolab, known as a daredevil office
In 1989, when the Kashmir valley started burning, every attack by militants and a counter-offensive by Indian forces made front-page news across the country. Nineteen years on, the death of one or two militants or a handful of soldiers in an encounter is no longer highlighted a great deal, unless of course the number of victims is spectacularly high.
In July 2007, I visited a militants’ camp in north Kashmir to see for myself how militants were still active and organised there. Their planning and resolve were evident. What of those who were fighting the militants 24×7, I then asked myself. What were the conditions they were living under? What were the facilities and equipment they were provided with to take on the militants? What were their preparations like, and what about their planning and sense of organisation in the task of protecting the Indian nation-state?
The rooms in which jawans in Lolab stay in inhospitable weather
Experiencing and documenting the life of soldiers in this conflict zone was important, I felt, and asked my editor if I could go ahead with the story. Once I had obtained assent, I wrote to the Ministry of Defence for permission for this feature. The Ministry did a thorough check on my credentials and asked me for a letter from my editor saying I was indeed working on the story. Once the letter was in, they granted permission but on two conditions: I couldn’t go anywhere near the Line of Control (LoC) and could not film anything. I could take still pictures, however.
When I was asked which place I’d like to go to, I instantly chose Lolab, a valley within a valley. Lolab is beautiful, 92 kms from Srinagar, and 15 kms from the LoC. Most importantly, it is known as a launch pad for foreign mercenaries. They enter Kupwara sector, in which Lolab is located, from the LoC and from Lolab disperse to other areas of J&K. Counter-insurgency forces are therefore at their most alert here, and there is “action” almost every day.
Day 1 and 2
The Quick Reaction Team. It is expected to be ready for action in minutes and has to be on the alert always
I took a taxi from Srinagar early on Nov 29 and reached the headquarters of Sector 8 of Rashtriya Rifles (RR) in Charkot, Lolab, late afternoon. RR is the counter-insurgency force that fights “the internal war” in J&K; it has nothing to do with LoC, according to Defence PRO Lt Col A K Mathur. RR was carved out of various divisions in the Army and has 24,000 members in all. Here, I met Brigadier Devendra Kapoor and told him I wanted to go to Chandigaam, 10 kms to the north and a hub for foreign mercenaries. Brigadier Kapoor said that was fine and asked his colleague, Lt Col Balbir Singh, to take me there. Before I left he gave me a stern warning: “Don’t move out of Chandigaam army camp without wearing a bullet-proof jacket and a helmet and without informing officials. The place is too sensitive.”
In the evening, I was taken to unit 28 RR at Chandigaam and introduced to Lt Col Surinder Kumar Sharma, in-charge of the camp that has 120 soldiers. I stayed the night with Col Sharma and Major C S Pawan Kumar, his second-in-command, in their room.
At 5 am, I was woken up by Col Sharma and taken to the soldiers’ mess, where they were having breakfast. After breakfast, most of them moved to a makeshift temple inside the camp. The temple has images of Gods of all religions, and jawans pray there every morning before starting work. One of the jawans I met there was Scout Bhupinder Singh, 27, originally from Himachal Pradesh. A Scout is one who leads the team during any patrol/search/encounter. He is supposed to fire first if the team is attacked and is fired upon first as well. He thus carries maximum risk and has to be alert and well-equipped always. Singh told me he always has to carry on his person an AK-47, 5 magazines, 50 spare rounds, an Under Barrel Grenade Launcher with six grenades, a bullet-proof jacket and a bullet-proof helmet, and even dry fruits and rations, because an operation may go on for days on end.
Lt Col S K Sharma, in-charge of Chandigaam camp of 120 soldiers, offers a toffee to a local boy during his Gasht (patrolling) of the area that sees frequent encounters between the Army and militants.
When I asked him if he feared his high-risk position, he said, “In fact, I am proud of being a Scout as the best talent is chosen for this job.” The only thing he rued, he said, was the fact that they did not have better dress to cope with the bitter cold — it was -2 degree Celsius as we spoke — or the kind of weapons US forces were given.
Singh told me he missed his three-month-old son, who was his parents and wife in Himachal. “The last time I saw him was when he was born. I don’t know how he looks like now,” he said.
At around 11 am, Col Sharma told me I could accompany his team on their daily ‘Gasht,’ that is, patrolling of Chandigaam village. The Gasht happens every day and sometimes, more than once a day, as militants often take shelter in houses either forcibly or with connivance of locals.
As we stepped out of the camp, I asked Col Sharma what he thought of his duty in J&K. “My duty is my religion,” he said. All the jawans prayed together before they left the camp; they do this every time they go out or return to the camp.
Walking through the woods, he and his team began making casual enquiries with all the villagers they came across. Many locals were sitting on the verandah of their houses, and Col Sharma went up to them to ask how they were doing and to find out if they had seen any suspicious activity. One of the villagers he met, over 60 years old, was very angry. He told the Colonel his son, Mushtaq, 27, had been shot by militants four days ago. Mushtaq’s sister too stepped forward and asked the Colonel: “Where was the Army when the militants shot my brother?” Col Sharma heard them out patiently and with empathy, assured them of all help and asked the elderly man to send Mushtaq’s children to the Army Sadbhavna School in Chandigaam; he would ensure they got admission and a proper education, he said.
We returned to the camp by 5 pm, after having our lunch in the middle of the village, but this was not the end of the day’s activities. In the night, I was told, we’d have to leave for an ambush.
I was asked to accompany the team in the night but was not told the exact place we were going to. All I knew was that it was going to be somewhere in the middle of a dense jungle. Before we left the camp, Col Sharma made it clear to me that I would have to walk alongside a soldier who’d be my buddy. I was not to leave him at any time. Every soldier has a ‘buddy’ in an ambush, who acts as his security blanket; if a soldier is fired upon, it’s the buddy’s responsibility to protect him.
It was pitch-dark as Subedar Hans Raj led a team of 30 jawans for the ambush out of the camp. How did the team find its way? Those at the front carried night-vision devices which could not be seen, I was told. I noticed that as we walked into the heart of the jungle, the soldiers walked almost without making any sound. After two hours of non-stop walking, I was asked to squat at one spot: here, the team would wait as they had information that militants entered Chandigaam from here. “If you hear any gunshot, just lie down on the ground and don’t move,” I was told. It was biting cold and scary, and I squatted there for fours hours flat, along with the other soldiers. Luckily for me, there was no firing that night; at dawn, we began our long walk back to the camp. I was dead tired, but the soldiers, trained to undergo such hardships for hours, still looked alert.
On our way back, I asked Subedar Hans Raj how the soldiers endured so much. “We are not afraid of hardships. I myself have been part of 8 encounters in the last one year. The soldier just hopes his efforts are recognised by his countrymen,” he said.
The next morning, I was taken to Shumirayal in the Army’s special vehicle, Casper. Made in South Africa, Casper is the only vehicle used by the Army in this ultra-sensitive region. It is bomb-proof and bullet-proof and is described as the Army’s “lifeline.”
In Shumirayal, I was to spend a day with Major T E Daniel’s unit, called the Road Opening Party. The unit is placed in a camp at the entrance to Lolab and is responsible for clearing the roads in the region so that Army vehicles can pass through. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) can be planted anywhere along the path, so no Army vehicle moves till ROP has given its go-ahead. After a mammoth search every morning, the ROP’s 100 members stay put at various intersections all day to ensure no new IEDs are strewn on the path.
Most of the ROP’s members are Kashmiri locals who have joined the Territorial Army; many of them have earned the wrath of their community. One of them, Rifle Man Shaukat, told me, “I am scared to go back home to my family as my fellow villagers may think I have betrayed them. Last year, Rifle Man Abdul Latif, 24, was killed in his own house by militants just three days after his marriage. Now, whenever go home for holidays, we inform the nearest Army camp so they can increase patrolling in and around the village.”
Shaukat said the salary they got was low and “not enough to feed our children;” their weapons too were not as sophisticated as those given to other Army units.
I asked them what changes they had seen in militant activity since ’89, since they had seen it more closely than most others. “Earlier, militants moved freely in the Valley; now, the Army’s presence is strong, so they have to be discreet,” they said. I went along with the team early morning to see how they cleared the nearly 10-km-long stretch. They checked every nook and corner and even searched through the dense foliage along the edges of the roads, leaving no chances. After having cleared the roads, they guarded the stretch throughout the day and returned to camp late evening.
I was taken to the company headquarters of 28 RR (one Sector has several companies), where all Majors of the unit were present. Here I met Major Sachin Sharma, who is from Jabalpur. A graduate from the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, Major Sachin is known as a daredevil officer of the Putshahi unit in Lolab. His codename is Romeo and Aashiq because he loves to “chase” militants.
Leaving the camp in Lolab for an operation
“I will be the first to set foot on the battlefield and the last to leave it,” he said. He has been part of many encounters and has killed a large number of militants in the one-and-a-half years he has been in Lolab; he was earlier posted at Siachen, the world’s highest battlefield.
“Sometimes, I am on an ambush for days, wearing the same uniform and eating food packed days earlier, searching for militants and taking them on,” Sachin said.
There is also a light-hearted side to him. He is a “great fan” of Lara Dutta and has collected several pictures of her. Realising I’d go back to Mumbai to file my story, Mjr Sachin handed me his photograph and requested me to get Lara Dutta to autograph it for him.
This light-heartedness perhaps helps him with his other responsibility, which is to help the jawans of 28 RR with stress management. Stress is one of the biggest issues facing jawans, because they have to live in inhospitable conditions and hostile weather and are on the alert 24×7.
I saw Sachin interacting with a number of soldiers who were either heading home on leave or had just returned from leave. I asked him what were the major problems they faced. “Prolonged separation from family members and conflicts within the family are things that worry them the most,” he said. When I asked what he did to help them tackle these issues, he said, “Whenever we find out a soldier has such problems, we grant him leave immediately. We also talk to him like friends. That gives them confidence and reassurance.” The Army has also provided telephones in every unit to enable jawans to be constantly in touch with their families, he said.
Casper, the bomb-proof and bullet-proof vehicle which Army personnel use in Lolab
I am taken to a dense jungle, where the jawans do firing practice once in a week. They are sent in batches here, and each jawan takes aim at a target for a few minutes. One hour after arduous practice, the jawans sit down for lunch. I am sitting next to Rifle Man Vikas Gurang. Gurang was in Assam before he was posted here more than a year ago. I ask him how the militancy in the two states is different. He says, “Militants have more local support here than in Assam; there, they mostly carry out IED blasts and are into extortion. In Kashmir, militants fire at the Army with the latest weapons. We have to keep our service weapons close to us here even when we are sleeping, because one never knows when our camp will be attacked.”
Gurang complained that the counter-insurgency allowance they were given (Rs 1,700) was inadequate, and even when they went home on holidays, they weren’t allowed to take more than Rs 10,000 for their families.
What he said next was perhaps the most disturbing. “We never know when leave will be granted to us. Whenever it is, we immediately pack our bags and head homewards. We don’t get enough time for ‘reservation’ of railway tickets, so many of us take a ticket in the unreserved compartment and sit near the toilet or any corner. But we are often thrown out of the train by rowdy passengers, and sometimes, we are also robbed in the middle of the night. It is at such moments that we think: are these the same people we are fighting and sacrificing ourselves for?”
Before leaving for Srinagar, I meet Major Dagwal, commando of paratroopers, at Charkot. A commando is one who is dropped by Army helicopters into jungles to trace and wipe out militants. Dagwal has just returned from a 72-hour ambush in which he gunned down several militants. Isn’t he afraid of all the action? “No. In fact I volunteered to be a commando,” he points out. Dagwal regrets the fact that he will soon have to leave the Valley for Lebanon, where he has to be part of a peace-keeping force.
After speaking to him, I bid goodbye to all the jawans and reach Srinagar late evening. At the Army headquarters, Col Mathur sums up the jawan’s situation: “He has to fight anti-national elements who have taken shelter among the innocent local population. He also has to act against his own countrymen who may have been misguided by militants. But his salary is too meagre to help him meet his social obligations and maintain a respectable standard of living.”
The jawan is both physically and mentally ready to operate in inhospitable conditions but feels his pay, and the environment he is required to work in, are not good enough. – Defence PRO Lt Col A K Mathur
Major Pawan Kumar, walking by his side, obliquely pointed to our fascination for the word Shaheed. “Please recognise us while we are alive, not only after we die,” he said.
One cannot ascertain what exactly are the emotions which well up on reading this piece. Suffice to say that on one hand there is a sense of deep guilt that we humans tend to take for granted those who ought to matter most and also that the song ‘Aye mere watan ke logon zaraaankh mein bhar lo pani jo Shaheed huye hain unki zara yaad karo qurbani’ may move us dramatically when one hears its plaints on television and we may respond with a surge of pious tears but at the end of the day in the glare of daylight, busy in the humdrum of life, a chance encounter with the same jawan on a train evinces no respect, regard or acknowlegement and all we can allow him is a seat outside the toilet!!