Scars Of War: Kargil’s Blowback In Kangra By Nirupama Dutt
Kangra (Himachal Pradesh): Over a decade after the war that claimed their young sons and husbands had ended, a sense of loss was still very much a part of the lives of mothers and wives in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh (HP). This is a region from where many young men have traditionally served in the army – a tradition that dates back to pre-Mughal times. The two-month war, which broke out after Pakistani soldiers and militants infiltrated the Indian side of the Line of Control, started in late May 1999 in the Kargil district of Jammu & Kashmir.
The impact of the war can be felt to this day in the tea garden town of Palampur in HP. Two promising officers, Lieutenant Saurabh Kalia and Captain Vikram Batra came from this town and their close relatives continue to grieve for them.
For Vijay Kalia, a former Sanskrit teacher in her mid-fifties, things have never been the same since the badly mutilated body of her 22-year-old son, Saurabh, was delivered at her doorstep in June 1999. When we met her in 2009, the grief-stricken woman said that she had not even caught a glimpse of her son in his uniform, “He was martyred even before his first pay cheque arrived.”
It was Saurabh’s dream to join the Indian army even while he was studying at the Kendriya Vidyalya (Central School) at Palampur. This, despite the fact that his father, N.K. Kalia was a senior scientist. Commissioned from the Indian Military Academy Dehradun, he got a posting in the 4 Jat Regiment (Infantry) to serve in the Kargil sector. Lt. Kalia was one of the first officers to be killed in that war. He was captured along with five other 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, and photographs have been preserved with care. Vijay and her husband spend a lot of time in this room when they are at home. Said Saurabh’s father, “Whatever monetary compensation we got we donated to charity. If the government wanted to help us, they should have taken up the issue of ensuring that every captured soldier is accorded dignified treatment on both sides of the border. Sometimes I wish his mother had not seen his mutilated body.” Of course, Vijay was quick to add, “Everyone has to die one day. It gives me satisfaction that our Saurabh laid his life down for the country.”
Similar sentiments were voiced by the parents of Param Veer Chakra Capt. Vikram Batra of the 13 Jammu & Kashmir Rifles. The young captain, fond of driving and country music, shared his birth month with the famed patriot-revolutionary Bhagat Singh, and like his icon, he , too, wanted to make his mark on the country’s history.
Sorrow seemed to have found a permanent dwelling place in the eyes of Kamal Kant Batra, as she remembered how her son Vikram had rejected a job in the merchant navy for a career in the army. “He told me that a career in the merchant navy would mean good money but he wanted to do something more than just make money. For us, his death is, of course, an irretrievable loss but he did us and the whole nation proud,” she said. Meanwhile, the Batras, who worked at the Kendriya Vidyalya in Palampur, are providing support to others who have suffered experiences similar to theirs.
In fact, both the Kalias and the Batras are active in army welfare societies as well as social and educational institutions. They enjoy a lot of respect in Kangra and have become opinion shapers, sometimes even being called upon to counsel others.
According to Kishwar Ahmed Shirali, a psychologist and women’s activist based in Sidhbarhi, some 30 kilometres from Palampur, “Glorifying patriotism and celebrating the bravery of young soldiers who become cannon fodder is a way of coping with loss. It is very difficult to lose a child and society tries to compensate for this loss by according honour to the close relatives of those who are killed in battle. Every other village in this region has a gate dedicated to one young martyr or another. But actually each of these deaths is in itself 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 teenaged brides with whom they had lived for barely a month. For these young women, losing their husband was not the only blow. They have also had to deal with relatives trying to lay their hands on the monetary compensation due to them. Take the case of Sudarshana Devi of Jiya village in Kangra. She was just 20 when her husband, Rifleman Rakesh Chand of the J&K Rifles, serving in Kargil, died on June 14, 1999. During his last rites, she had pushed aside the village elders and offered a shoulder to his coffin, while it was being taken for cremation.
But after the tragedy, came the travails. Her husband’s family called her a witch who had killed their son. A bitter battle ensued for the compensation that was made in Rakesh’s name when Sudarshana decided to remarry after being encouraged to do so by people like Vijay Kalia. Eventually, Rakesh’s pension was divided between his mother and his wife. With the money she received, Sudarshana built a house and also married Jagdish Raj, a cab driver. Today, she is a mother of two children, and the couple runs a petrol pump at Tahliwal in Una district.
While Sudarshana has managed to rebuild her life, it has certainly not been an easy process. “Apart from the few people who know me, I am judged poorly for having remarried. My marriage has remained a subject of gossip even after all these years. I still cherish the memory of Rakesh and can never forget him, but life has to go on,” she said.
There are also instances where widows have been married off to their younger brothers-in-law – a very old practice in this region – so that the compensation they received would remain within the family. Sometimes such arrangements were made after forcing the widow to fall in line, but other women have actively opted to remain within the families of their deceased husbands. Take Smridhi Kanta of Jahu village in Bilaspur district. Smridhi married her 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 with the J&K Rifles, who returned home after seven years of service. Smridhi thought over it and then relented. “The wife of Deep’s commanding officer advised me to go ahead. 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 said.
The Kargil war guns have fallen silent. But the Indo-Pak border is not conflict free. Bodies of dead soldiers continue to be brought home every now and then. Monica Devi of Tang village in Yole Cantt, Kangra district, was six months pregnant when her husband, Ravi Kumar, was brought home dead from the Poonch sector in Kashmir in 2006. With her young daughter, Prakriti, she lives in her late husband’s home. Pointing to pictures in her wedding album, she said, “Life has given me a cruel shock. I now live only for this child.”
Said her aunt, Mishro Devi, who organises Mahila Mandals (women’s groups) in Kangra, “It’s only after four or more years of such a death that a family can take the decision to marry the widow to her younger brother-in-law, otherwise the wounds are still raw.” She added that she had counselled her sister and brother-in-law to be kind to their unfortunate daughter-in-law who was not yet 25 at that point.
Explained Mishro Devi, “Families here have small land holdings but it is rocky land. So joining the army is a way of making a career and providing for the future. Unfortunately, such a career also includes the danger of a premature date with death and misery for those left behind.”