When I took over the command of a Rashtriya Rifles unit, my opening lines during my first Sainik Sammelan were, “Thambi (My young brothers), I do not want any one of my soldiers to lay down their lives for the nation”. I paused! The Subedar Major looked at me with disbelief, believing I had committed sacrilege, as every commander expected that a trained and motivated soldier must be ready to sacrifice his all for the nation. But before the troops could think otherwise, I added, “I want you to make our adversaries lay down their lives for their cause and their nation”. The message was clear: we have to be better, proactive and lethal. The focus was on intelligence based operations to strike first and eliminate the threat. We had to train hard and master the art of fighting terrorists with better skills.
On 13 May 2004 we lost Sepoy Ajith in an encounter in close vicinity to Dori Mahal forest. It was a painful blow to me. In the encounter that night, even the technology failed us as the hand-held thermal imager (HHTI) stopped functioning at a crucial moment and the movement of terrorists went unnoticed. Major Vijay Singh (now Lt Col) till date has not reconciled to the fact that we lost Ajith. Even after 13 years he still keeps a fast on 13 May as a mark of respect to Ajith’s departed soul.
We took a resolve that Sepoy Ajith’s death would not be in vain and we would eliminate the group leader who was responsible. He was later identified as ‘H5’ and he was a so called LeT ‘Divisional Commander’. Information of H5 and his group was hard to come by from the locals due to the fear of retribution. So we concentrated our efforts on his close confidants who were providing logistic support to him. It took us five months of painstaking effort to determine the network of his supporters and hides. To avoid detection, H5 would not stay in any hideout for more than two to three days except when he came for rest, recoup and medical treatment.
In December 2004, we launched an operation in a village called Gai to eliminate H5 but the operation resulted in no success. I decided to climb up to the village and interact with the locals and since the doctor was there with me, we decided to treat the civilian population and disburse some medicines as well. As we reached the village school, an old lady saw me from a distance and walked up to me. She sat down a little distance away and started crying. I asked my buddy (a local Kashmiri soldier whom we called Bobby), to enquire into the matter. He went over and spoke to the lady who said that she wanted to speak to the CO.
When I met her, she was weeping profusely and was inconsolable. Slowly, her story emerged. It transpired that when her son was away on work, a HUJI commander named Abdul Hassan had raped his wife. On coming to know of this, her son confronted Abdul Hassan. In the altercation that took place, Abdul Hassan struck her son with an axe and killed him on the spot, in front of her eyes. Abdul Hasan then warned the villagers that he would kill anybody who came forward to conduct her son’s last rites, and for two days the body of her son remained in her house. It was only when a village Haji came forward and said that it is un-Islamic not to perform the last rites of a departed soul., that the burial of her son took place.
“I can’t die in peace if justice is not given to me” the grieving mother said in a tear choked voice.
“Amma”, I told the old lady, “I am not a god, but if your blessings are there, I will ensure that Abdul Hasan pays for his sins”.
I walked back to my base, with the burden of two souls on my shoulders. I had to avenge Ajith and I had to avenge the old lady’s son. The sky was overcast and thundering, and still engrossed in my thoughts, I looked up at the skyline. At that instant, I saw a lightning flash on top of the Ziarat of Pir Kaleva. In war, soldiers are most superstitious, and I was no different. I felt that even Pir Kaleva, the Sufi Saint had endorsed the task assigned to me by Amma. Was this a divine signal, I wondered?
It took a lot of effort to break an overground worker. The information he provided was that Abdul Hassan, along with four other terrorists had just moved into a hide to discuss some acts of collective terror against our unit. It had snowed heavily the previous night and the terrorists, safely ensconced in their hide, were secure in the knowledge that the Army would not venture out in such bad weather.
But we had other plans. Next morning, we observed footprints of one person heading to the hide and returning. This confirmed the fact that the terrorists were indeed there and someone had probably gone to deliver food to them. My Delta Company Commander, Lt Col Satish, then spoke to me on radio. His message was short and crisp.
“The guests are comfortable in the guest house and all arrangements are being made to look after their welfare”.
Up to this point, the information had not been shared with the other company commanders. I then asked Sidharth,the Bravo Company Commander, to move to a place called Kotli and remain on standby. I then moved with my QRT (quick reaction team) to the site, while Satish briefed his troops for the impending task.
On reaching the location, I called up Sid. “Where Are you”, I asked.
Prompt came the reply, “tiger waiting for your signal”. Sid and his QRT moved out promptly, not even waiting to have breakfast, and were with me in the designated rendezvous in no time. Sid then quietly told the doctor, Capt Keshing that his boys have not had their breakfast. Keshing, a Tangkhul Naga, reacted with alacrity. He promptly told my QRT to hand over their lunch to Sid’s QRT and sent a message to base for sending a party with operational lunch (lemon rice and masala puri with dry spicy potato curry).
With all troops in position, we opened fire with machine guns and rocket launchers on the rock face of the hide. This however had no impact on the rock face, neither was their any response from inside the hide. The terrorists were either maintaining fire control, in the hope that we would stop pursuit, or they had somehow got wind of our arrival and fled. I decided to blast the opening of the rock face with IEDs, to affect an opening in the hide. Satish, with his buddies, went to place IEDs and Sid with his small team took over to cover Satish. With the blast of the IEDs, the mouth of the hideout was opened. At that moment, two terrorists rushed out, firing with their weapons, but were killed on the spot by the men who were waiting at the mouth of the hide itself. As per our earlier information, there were a total of five terrorists in the hide, so apparently, three were still inside. Intense firing into the hide elicited no response, so we presumed that the remaining terrorists had been eliminated.
At this point, Sid, Keshing and I were discussing the next course of action, barely fifty meters from the cave and Satish was keeping a close eye on the hideout. Suddenly a volley of fire came from inside the rock face. The doctor, thinking our troops had opened fire, shouted, “Thambi, firing bandh karo”. My buddy Shakti and Baji Shan from my QRT, realising that the bullets were fired at us, pulled the three of us down to the ground. Satish and his men then pulverised the hideout and ultimately it collapsed, burying the remaining terrorists inside. By this time, Vikram, the Alpha company commander and Sunil, the Charlie company commander had also fetched up with their QRTs, not wishing to be left out of the action. We tried to remove the rubble from the rock face, but the weather deteriorated further with heavy snowfall making our task difficult. But time was not of consequence and we finally removed the rubble and dug out the bodies of the three slain terrorists on the third day. One of them was identified as Abdul Hassan. The old woman’s quest for justice was over. To our good fortune, and perhaps the blessings of the old woman, we found H5s dead body there too. We too, had finally avenged the death of Ajith.
The operation had been conducted in extremely bad weather, with the elimination of five dreaded terrorists and the unit rightly received accolades for this performance from all commanders up the chain. The backbone of the terrorists was broken because three commanders were killed from LeT, HUJI and Al Badar. The terrorists vowed to eliminate me, Satish and Sid but those who made the attempt, were killed in ensuing operations.
By evening, we received an intercept that the leadership of the three ‘tanzeems’ operating South of Pir Panjal was wiped out. The loss of H5 and Abdul Hasan was a big blow for the terrorists and the entire area was freed from their reign of terror. We took photographs of the slain terrorists and I sent Abdul Hassan’s photograph to Satish to hand over to ‘Amma’. When the old lady saw the photograph, her first words uttered in Gujri language were “Mere Kaleje Nu Thand Pe Gayee”. She then told Satish, “Please tell CO that today my son got justice”.
Satish, otherwise a very tough soldier by nature had his eyes moist. Amma went inside her house and brought six eggs and told Satish, “Please give it to the CO as a small gift from my side”.
“Amma”, Satish told her,“he is a vegetarian, he doesn’t eat eggs”. She did not listen to him because she probably didn’t understand the concept of vegetarian and non-vegetarian. But, if I have to weigh the greatest award in my life, I would place the gift from Amma much higher than all awards I got in my life from the nation and the Army. It had blessings, gratitude and above all, it came from a grieving mother who, in the twilight of her life had none to turn to for justice. But frankly, the credit for delivery of divine justice goes to the men and officers of 38 RR; I just happened to be the CO.
With the entire area freed from the reign of terror, locals including women conveyed their thanks to us. “We can now sleep in peace” was the common refrain. We assured over ground workers (OGW) who were considered sympathiser that they need not worry and fear, we understand their predicament. It changed the perception of the people and I could see the respect for my men increasing manifold in the eyes of locals.
—Brig Narender Kumar, SM, VSM, an Infantry Officer, commanded a Rashtriya Rifles Battalion in J&K and Assam Rifle Sector in Manipur. He is currently Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.