OF COURAGE AND COMMITMENT

“I have just dealt death to two human beings – militants they might have been, but humans nevertheless. One was shot dead by my company, and the other by my hands – along with a dog and two heads of cattle – it was my hand that threw the grenade. I don’t know what I am supposed to feel – I certainly do not feel guilt for having liquidated the militants (one local, one Pakistani). But for the dumb animals, I do feel a deep sense of sadness. By the grace of Almighty God, there were no casualties to my own boys.” wrote Vasanth in a letter home in January 1998. It was the first time that he had killed a terrorist.

He had spent the last nine years training for this very moment, and the better part of the years before that dreaming of being in action, but when he finally found himself dealing death, he was not sure how he felt. For Vasanth was – above his courage, commitment and passion – a man of peace. Throughout his 18-year career in the Indian Army, this was what he tried to balance. He believed in finding solutions through conflict resolution, but what of the conflicts raging in his own mind? And what of the conflicts his family felt – immense pride in his achievements and constant fear for his safety. These emotions cannot be described, they are best felt by the words of a young man fully aware what his job demands of him, and how much his family needs him.

“I know that this profession places a lot of demands on us – I know that it has left us with no family life worth the name, but the need for me to do my chosen duty with dedication and honesty comes from within me. I cannot explain what it is, but the fire burns in me. And if I leave this profession, it will die out and only a shell of a human will remain, with ashes for a soul. Do you want that? Do you feel justified? I am not telling you that I love the job. Most of the time, it is not a pleasant business. But I am not ready yet to throw it away. And when I am, you will be the first to know and there will be no stopping me. My mind will be made up and that will be that. Till that day, I can only ask you have faith in Almighty God and pray for better times.”

Born in Bangalore on March 25, 1967, Vasanth grew up listening to heroic tales of Indian soldiers who fought in the wars with China and Pakistan. He idolised men in uniform and always knew that his calling was in the Army. It was, therefore, no surprise then that he joined the NCC in college and led the Karnataka and Goa Directorate at the Republic Day Parade in 1986. This rare and prestigious opportunity came his way again in 1997, when he was chosen to lead the Maratha Regimental contingent. These were intense moments of pride for his family, as were his qualities of integrity, fairness and compassion that would crown all his achievements to come.

Achievements bring to mind honours and awards, but when you think of it, every day was a day of achievement for Vasanth in the eyes of his family. Especially when you receive a letter written from 9800 ft above sea level, describing how a certain new year was welcomed:

“I was on patrol with 15 men on one of the most hazardous and difficult routes I’ve seen! We marched over a hill feature through snow that was not ankle deep, not knee deep, not waist deep, but chest deep! We set off at midnight and reached our ambush position only at 0630 hours! I can tell you, I was worried at one or two places where our route crossed some dangerous nallahs! I can’t wait for April for my leave. I plan to INDULGE myself – with five ‘luxuries’ that I’d love to have at this point of time. Here goes:

(a) Time with family

(b) Drive my own car

(c) Go to a restaurant

(d) Walk without a weapon in my hands (and in civilian clothes)

(e) Not have to keep eyes wide open while moving, searching for likely ambush positions.”

Vasanth was a simple man, who lived every day of his life courageously. A life, that ended on 31 July 2007. A life, that was decorated with the country’s highest peacetime gallantry award, the Ashoka Chakra.

And yet, it was not the last operationthat truly defined his courage, but all the years leading up to this. Specifically, the events that occurred during the days before his last operation speak volumes about the greatness of this simple man.

Col Vasanth had been appointed Commanding Officer of 9 Maratha LI in2007. In the few months that he led his men, he was able to instil in them his core values of compassion and fairness, as is evident by these snippets from his notebook from that time. And his men did not disappoint him, as is evident by their conduct one summer’s night in the beginning of July 2007.

Tensions were running high. The militants were crossing the border with greater impunity and our soldiers were ever on alert. Patrolling was more vigilant than ever, since a recent gun battle with terrorists had left a soldier dead. In the light of this, it would have perhaps been understandable if the soldiers fired upon the first suspicious thing they came across, as when they found a man hiding in the thick foliage. To their credit, they did not immediately set the guns blazing, but instead ascertained his identity. On finding him unarmed and apparently harmless, they took him into custody. He turned out to be a former militant, thoroughly disillusioned with the violence, who was looking for a way to surrender so he could get back to his family. This humane conduct by the troops was all the more significant in light of the tense atmosphere. In a report commending his men Vasanth said, “Your humane attitude, coming barely 72 hours after gunning four hardcore terrorists in the same area is praiseworthy. You have not only proved yourselves to be warriors – you have proved yourselves to be Gentlemen Warriors.”

In such difficult times, Vasanth did everything to uphold his team’s morale. After another successful operation just a few days later, he wrote in praise of his men: “With my own eyes I saw your indomitable courage and aggressive spirit during combat and felt proud to be part of you. Under heavy fire you maintained calm and even retained your characteristic sense of humour, all the time approaching your task with professionalism and élan, with engagement ranges, at times, of less than five meters.”

Further he also wrote a poem in honour of the troops. “Together

we saw the foe fleeing our guns,

Together we felt our fingers tighten on the trigger.

Together we heard the vengeful crash of our weapons,

Together we smelt the intoxicating odour of cordite,

Together we tasted blood in battle, Together we raised our famous war cry over the battle field.

Shri Chatrapathi Shivaji Maharaj ki jay, Nasahk Nauvvi cha vijay aso”

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