Thursday, September 10, 2009

They chose to die like men

During the epic battle of Mahabharata, when Abhimanyu broke into the 'Chakravyuha', Arjuna and Bheema were unable to save the gallant warrior.

His audacious bravery, considered equal to his father, saw him hold at bay great heroes like Guru Dronacharya, Karna, Duryodhana and Dushasana before the Kauravas finally - ignoring all codes of war - attacked him simultaneously.

He held his own until his sword broke and his chariot wheel which he used as a shield shattered into pieces. Dushasana's son then crushed his skull with a mace. Abhimanyu was just 16.

Centuries later, Abhimanyu, Bheema and Arjuna came together to script a glorious victory for the Indian Army.

June 1999. The Kargil War. The battle for Tololing. The battle cry: "Raja Ramchandra ki Jai".

Abhimanyu, Bheema and Arjuna were the three teams each comprising 30 soldiers from the 2nd Rajputana Rifles - the seniormost rifle regiment in the country - who launched a final assault on Tololing top.

For close to a month, infiltrators and Pakistan Army regulars had laid a siege atop Tololing, which was closest to National Highway NH 1A. From this vantage point, they brought in heavy artillery fire that brought the movement on the highway to a standstill.

Three battalions from the Nagas, Garhwal and Grenadier Regiments tried to make their way from two sides but to no avail. It was a distressing sight to see men carrying bodies of their comrades.

Some of them who had been stuck on the ridges for days in an attempt to retrieve the bodies were taunted and made to feel impotent.

The death of senior officers finally jarred the senior echelons of the Indian army. The task was assigned to Rajputana Rifles and more firepower was moved in.

On the designated day - close to midnight, Abhimanyu, Bheema and Arjuna attacked Tololing from three sides. They crawled their way up in the face of withering machine gun fire from the bunkers. Finally the troops closed in and hand to hand combat ensued.

At 4:10 AM, the wireless crackled: Tololing was won.

It turned out to be the turning point of the war.

Then Defence Minister George Fernande's initial estimate of 48 hours to throw out the intruders had already become a cruel joke.

From the time, Lt Saurabh Kalia and his comrades - who went missing on their patrols in early May 1999 till the last posts were cleared, the war had been on for close to six weeks.

Numerous soldiers laid down their lives in the operation. Many were captured and tortured before being killed.

But within this what was apalling to see was the element of surprise that faced the government and agencies responsible for overseeing national security. The proxy war in 1989, Mumbai blasts and the Kargil infiltration meant that India had repeatedly been caught off guard.

The soldiers and officers of the Indian defence forces, especially the Army helped avoid the tag of a soft-state being applied to India, which would have meant a loss of respect among friends as well as adversaries.

In a theatrical production, Abhimanyu's character was used to sum up man's existence. While he's alive, it's a dog's life - loathed and pelted from all sides.

The army treads a thin line between hate and love and their life too is of one pelted from all sides - both political and civilian. But just as Abhimanyu chose to die like a man, the numerous soldiers have time and again chosen to live and die like men.