India: Kargil Echoes In The Kangra

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By Nirupama Dutt, Womens Feature Service

A full decade after a war that claimed their young sons and husbands, the memory of loss remains very much a part of the lives of mothers and wives in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh (HP), a region where the army as a career option dates back to pre-Mughal times. The Kargil war, chiefly the result of infiltration of Pakistani soldiers and Kashmiri militants into the Indian side of the Line of Control, took place from May to July 1999, in the Kargil district of Kashmir.

The tea garden town of Palampur lost two promising officers – Lt. Saurabh Kalia and Capt. Vikram Batra. For Vijay Kalia, 55, life has never been the same since the badly mutilated body of her son, Saurabh, 22, was delivered at her doorstep in June 1999. “We did not have the opportunity to see him in his uniform and he was martyred even before his first pay arrived,” recalls the grief stricken mother, who was a Sanskrit teacher.

It was Saurabh’s dream to join the Indian army even while he was studying at Kendriya Vidyalya, Palampur. This, despite the fact that his father, N.K. Kalia, is a senior scientist. Commissioned from the India Military Academy Dehradun, he got a posting in the Kargil Sector in 4 Jat Regiment (Infantry). Lt. Kalia was one of the first officers martyred in the war. He was captured along with five soldiers at Bajrang Post and was brutally tortured for three weeks before being shot dead.

The hall on the first floor of the Kalia residence has been converted into a museum to Saurabh’s memory. Here, the young officer’s uniforms, unused toiletries, knick-knacks and photographs have been preserved with care. And that’s where Vijay and her husband usually are when they are at home. “Whatever monetary compensation we got we have donated to charity. If the government wants to help us they should take up the issue of dignified treatment of soldiers on both sides. Sometimes I wish his mother had not seen his mutilated body,” says Saurabh’s father. But Vijay bravely adds, “Everyone has to die one day. It gives me satisfaction that our Saurabh laid his life down for the country.”

Similar sentiments are voiced by the parents of Param Veer Chakra Capt. Vikram Batra of the 13 Jammu & Kashmir Rifles. Both were educationists who worked at Kendriya Vidyalya, Palampur. The young captain, fond of driving and country music, shared a birth month with the famed patriot-revolutionary Bhagat Singh and like his ideal he too wanted to make his mark on history. And so he has.

Sorrow is permanent in the eyes of Kamal Kant Batra as she recalls how Vikram rejected a post in the merchant navy for a career in the army. “He told me that the merchant navy would mean good money but that he wanted to do something more than just make money. For us it is an irretrievable loss but he did us and the whole nation proud,” she says. Now, the Batras wholeheartedly help those who have suffered similar losses.

In fact, both the Kalias and the Batras lend support through army welfare societies as well as social and educational institutions. They enjoy a lot of respect in Kangra and have become opinion leaders and even counsellors for others.

Observes Kishwar Ahmed Shirali, a psychologist and women’s activist based in Sidhbarhi, some 30 kilometers from Palampur, “Glorifying patriotism and celebrating the bravery of the young soldiers who become cannon fodder is a way of coping with loss. It is very difficult to lose a child. The kin of those who are killed in battle get respect of the society and every other village has a gate dedicated to one young martyr or another. But these deaths actually are a strong appeal against war and conflict.”

If there are inconsolable parents, there are grief-stricken wives as well. There are cases where soldiers have died leaving behind teenage brides with whom they had lived not even for a month. For these young women, losing their husband was not the only blow. The also had to deal with relatives trying to lay their hands on the monetary compensation. Take the case of Sudarshana Devi of Jiya village in Kangra. She was just 20 when husband, Rifleman Rakesh Chand of JAK Rifles went to Kargil and died on June 14, 1999. During his last rites, she pushed aside the village elders and offered a shoulder to his coffin, while it was being taken for cremation. Shattered, she even tried to jump into the pyre but was held back by people.

After this, began her travails as a widow. Her husband’s family called her a witch, who had killed their son. A bitter battle ensued for the compensation when she decided to remarry, encouraged to do so by Vijay Kalia. Rakesh’s pension was divided between her mother-in-law and her and with the money she built herself a house and also married Jagdish Raj, a cab driver. Today, Sudarshana is a mother of two and the couple runs a petrol pump at Tahliwal in Una district. She has rebuilt her life, but it has not been easy. “But for a few, I was judged poorly for remarrying and it remains a subject of gossip even now. I still cherish the memory of Rakesh and can never forget him but life has to go on.”

There have been instances where widows have been married off to their younger brothers-in-law, as is customary here, so that the compensation remains within the family. But some opted to remain with the family of their deceased husband. Like Smridhi Kanta of Jahu village in Bilaspur district, HP. Smridhi married childhood sweetheart, Rifleman Deep Chand, in February 1999, but was widowed in June and delivered a baby girl in December. Her husband’s parents offered to marry her to their other son, Vijay, also a rifleman in JAK regiment, who returned home after seven years of service. Smridhi relented. “The wife of Deep’s commanding officer advised me to do so. Life moves on but I always draw strength from the love I got from Deep. Our daughter is cherished by the whole family because she is Deep’s living memory,” she says.

The Kargil war guns have fallen silent. But the region is not conflict free. Bodies of dead warriors continue to be brought home. Monica Devi of Tang village in Yole Cantt, Kangra, was six months pregnant when her husband, Ravi Kumar, was brought home dead from the Poonch sector in Kashmir in 2006. Her daughter, Prakriti, is two and a half years old now and she lives in her late husband’s home. Pointing to pictures in her wedding album, she says, “Life has given me a cruel shock. I now live only for this child.” Her mother’s sister Mishro Devi, who organises Mahila Mandals in Kangra, says, “Only four years after the death can the family take the decision if she can be married to her younger brother-in-law. The wounds are still raw.” But she adds that she counsels her sister and brother-in-law to be kind to this unfortunate girl who is not yet 25. “We here have small land holdings and rocky land. So joining the army is a way of making a career and providing for the family but it also includes the danger of a date with death all too soon and misery to those left behind.”