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 I reached Sri Nagar transit camp anxious as anxious could be, in March 1997. I had been posted to Assam Rifles deployed in the valley, in Dr Abdullah’s constituency. I had no clue what was in store for me. I reached the battalion HQs in the afternoon, went to the COs office for the initial introduction and before I could say Major Noel Ellis I heard two deafening blasts which rattled all windows. CO said “welcome to the valley”. I heard footsteps, thuds, orders being passed, rifles being cocked and all sorts of shouting and this old man sitting coolly talking to me. My hands full of sweat, my heart beating like a train on the tracks; my worst fear was that I did not even have a weapon. He finished his short talk and told me to meet the adjutant. I saluted and zig-zagged my way out of his sand bag filled office cum living bunker.

A jawan handed me an AK-47 as I exited and told me sir first left is the Adjutant. Adjutant Saab being the company commander has gone with the QRT, till then familiarise with the weapon, he said. I looked at my AK; it was Rambo style with a double magazine. I quickly acquainted myself with it and felt confident and safe. I wanted to count the bullets as a ritual but what the heck I said. Adjutant, on return said hello sir welcome to the “Naga Hills” Battalion. In another hour you shall be leaving for your company and in the same breath told one guy to get some garam chai. You will be attached to F Company. I said under my breath WT ‘F’. He called up the CO on radio, “Alpha 3 for tiger, two RPG round attack by militants in apple orchard, QRT dispatched, retaliatory fire carried out, all safe and OK, suspected militants ran away, DELTA and BRAVO Company gone for Shikar, over”. CO replied “Roger out”. I was speechless in fact quite dumbfounded as to what was happening.

Adjutant said, chalo sir, chai thandi ho gayi hai (the tea has gone cold). I didn’t have a heart to tell him my hands and feet have gone cold too. At 4.30pm in the month of March I was sweating like a pig. He says sir, fiqr not (don’t worry) this is routine, come lets go to the telephone exchange if you want to speak to Mam on STD. There were no other means except letters to communicate at that time. In case you can’t speak now plan a patrol to battalion HQ one of these days, he said.

This was my reception in Kashmir. I reached my Company. My senior JCO, a Ghurkha of the purest kind told me “Hajoor” (sir) you shall be my understudy for operations till you get the hang of it. He was getting ready for an area domination patrol, I joined them straight away. I wandered the country side like a ghost who walks. We walked quietly into the night, we halted to do our listening drills, cursed the barking dogs, observed for anything unusual. We also did speculative firing at fleeting shadows.  First night of my bedding in the valley was fun; I fired a few bursts and now was fully battle hardened “convert” from Mechanised Infantry to pure Infantry.

Within days we were moved out of Srinagar. My post was in a village 8 km off the road to Leh. I came across this man named “Lassa” (name changed). The post used to be midway between his village and the main road. He invariably used take a break while returning home in the evening with his heavy sack of vegetables. He used to sit at the IN gate, stretch his legs, take a swig of water from the stream and then move on. We used to keep an eye on him. One day Lassa broke his silence and spoke to me and there after we developed a bond and he never passed by without a friendly chat. His son in law used to accompany him sometimes. The son in law and daughter were running a tailor’s shop in his village. His wife looked after the vegetable shop, “Guchhi” (mushroom) collection, poultry and a dairy. He ran a tea and vegetable shop at the hydel project. They all were a very hard working and enterprising family.

One fine day his son in law was picked up as a suspected militant and my company was sent for a search mission to his house. Lassa’s daughter was in labour about to deliver a child. Here I was breaking his walls searching for weapons. The shrill shrieks of the ladies clearly conveyed that we had been sent up a wrong gum tree. Some ladies expressed a desire to meet me. I granted permission. I knew no Kashmiri; they didn’t know anything but Kashmiri, we spoke in sign language. They pleaded if I could wait till the delivery. The girl was in trauma since her husband had been picked up. I ordered my boys to pause and just as a kind of blessing I said to the ladies, don’t worry everything will be fine, this girl will be blessed with a baby boy.

We all heard the first shrill cry of a baby which broke the silence of the night. Two ladies came running carrying a bowl of jaggery. Saab your tongue speaks the truth; you will live a thousand years and blessed me. Lo and behold a boy was born. I looked up to the sky and thanked the Lord. I spoke to Battalion HQ that we had picked up a wrong man. HQ radioed back that they were releasing the son in law. I announced that and the men folk came and surrounded me. They lifted me on their shoulders and danced. My AK cocked; with me bouncing on their shoulders was unheard of. My jawans bewildered as I gestured to them to let me go with the flow. The headman spoke, sir he has been made a victim of Gujaar-Kashmiri political rivalry. It was something strange and shocking to me. Next day Lassa brought his son in law to my post and hugged me and said sir you are my saviour. I hope someday I get to see his grand child and give Lassa a “jadoo ki japhie”.

Life in the valley is tough for the security forces and Kashmiri’s alike. Politicians are responsible for this mess is absolutely clear? Army definitely has a role, CAPFs & police too have a role but Kashimiri’s have a major role if they want peace. Will the politicians at the center and J&K in particular ever play their role? I did my bit, will they ever do theirs, I wonder!!!!!!!!!

JAI HIND

© Noel Ellis