By Sumit Walia
Public memory is shortlived.
What else can explain the fact that as we debated, discussed and disseminated news about the elections on May 15, not one newspaper, not one television channel, not one website, remembered that it was on this day 10 years ago, that Lt Saurabh Kalia and his five member team were captured by Pakistani intruders in Kargil.
These young men were subjected to brutal and inhuman torture for almost 22 days, before they were shot dead on June 6-7, and their mutilated remains returned to India.
Even as we ponder over the next government, let us take a few moments to remember their supreme sacrifice.
The Kargil war may have officially started on May 26, 1999, when the Indian Army & Air Force decided to launch joint a offensive to throw out the Pakistani intruders. But the intrusion was detected long before that, on May 3, when two local shepherds named Tashi Namgyal & Tresing Morup reported seeing strangers on a ridgeline in the Batalik sector. On May, 4, the 3 rd Punjab Regiment sent out a patrol to verify the report, while Lt. Saurabh Kalia of the 4 th Jat Regiment led a patrol in the Kaksar area. But Lt. Kalia had to return due to heavy snow.
On May 14, the 4 th Jat Regiment decided to send another patrol to check the strategically important Bajrang post. A junior officer was to lead the patrol, but like a true Indian Army officer, Lt Kalia volunteered to lead the 5 man patrol, comprising sepoys Arjun Ram, Bhanwar Lal Bagaria, Bhikha Ram Moola Ram and Naresh Singh.
But once again, heavy snow prevented them from reaching Bajrang post on that day, and they resumed their patrol the day after. But as they neared their objective around 3.30 pm May 15, they were suddenly fired upon by the intruders who had occupied the Bajrang Post. They reported the incident back to battalion headquarters, seeking urgent reinforcements.
Lt. Kalia and his team fought back, but soon ran out of ammunition. Hours later, long before the reinforcements could arrive, they were surrounded and captured.
Capt. Amit Bhardwaj was leading the reinforcement column of 30 men when they were ambushed en route by Pakistani soldiers armed with light & medium weaponry. With the help of Havildar Rajbir Singh, he decided to divert the attention of the enemy & ordered his Second-in-Command to get the men out of the battle area. The two gallant men were killed, the others survived, though all were wounded. The bodies of Captain Bhardwaj and Havildar Singh were recovered after 57 days.
Saurabh Kalia was the son of Dr N K Kalia, a senior scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and Vijay Kalia in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh. Born June 29, 1976, he graduated in May, 1997. Academically brilliant, he initially he wanted to be a doctor, but destiny had other, grander plans for him.
The young man appeared for the Combined Defence Services exam when all his friends skipped the exam to watch a movie. After clearing the exam, he went through SSB & was rejected by Army's medical panel twice, once for heart murmur & then for tonsils. But he persisted, and joined the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun in August 1997. Commissioned on December 12, 1998, he he joined 4 th Jat Regiment in January 1999.
"Today I am proud that I have joined 4 th Jat regiment & one day, 4 th Jat would be proud that Saurabh Kalia joined this regiment" he declared on that day. They were fateful words.
In Palampur, Dr. Kalia was unaware about his son's capture till 31 st May, when The Tribune said "The intrusion in the area was detected by Lt. V.K. Kalia & his patrol party. His party is missing since then but Skardu Radio in Pakistan has announced that they have captured the men alive".
But the initials were wrong, so Dr. Kalia assumed that the unfortunate officer was someone else with the same title. This was buttressed by the fact that the date of incident quoted in this news was May 6, while Dr. Kalia had received a letter from his son dated May 10.
There was no news for next 8 days. On June 7, The Indian Express reported that "On the morning on May 6 th , 1999 Lt. Saurabh Kalia led a patrol of 5 men in Kaksar area & is missing since then. Army sources say he is missing but officers & Jawans of his unit say they saw him being hit by enemy fire".
This time all the details were right, but the letter dated May 10 kept Dr Kalia's hopes alive. But being a father, Dr. Kalia could not resist calling Army Headquarters the next day to cross-check, and found his world crumbling around him.
Army Headquarters confirmed that Lt. Saurabh & his party was missing since 15 th May. On June 9, they heard news that Pakistan had returned the badly mutilated bodies of six Indian soldiers. Dr. Kalia still did not know if one of them was that of his son. At 2 pm, Doordarshan news confirmed the arrival of bodies of Lt. Saurabh Kalia & other 5 soldiers. Soon after, he received a phone call from Army Headquarters confirming this.
Lt. Saurabh's younger brother Vaibhav Kalia went to identify the body.
In his own words: "Saurabh' face was the size of my finger, eyebrows was the only visible feature, there were no eyes, no jaw, nothing. There were cigarette burns all over his face. My parents could not have seen him".
Postmortems of the bodies were conducted by a panel of doctors from Safdarjung Hospital, New Delhi but a copy of this was not provided to the family as per Army' regulations.
But the Death Certificate (click on image above) of Lt. Saurabh Kalia clearly shows how brutally Pakistani soldiers tortured these six men. Their eye-balls were removed; ear drums were punctured; nose, upper & lower lips were smashed; their index finger was cut (as this finger is used to fire a rifle); forearm & right shoulder was broken; cigarette burns were visible all over the body; their private parts were chopped; back of the head was smashed by a rifle-butt so badly that the skull was visible.
These six brave soldiers went through this hell for 22 long days before being finally shot dead by their Pakistani captors. After violating all international human right laws, Pakistan blatantly denied the torture of the six soldiers and rejected India's demand to punish the guilty.
Lt. Kalia's body wrapped in the tricolor arrived back his home before his first salary was credited in his bank account. More than 6,000 people gathered to receive the brave warrior's remains.
The Kalia family's grief was unimaginable, but the support of 1 billion Indians gave them strength. Dr. Kalia received over 80,000 letters & emails along with uncountable phone calls. All these letters & all the articles that ever had the honour to be associated with Lt. Saurabh Kalia has been preserved with great care, affection & love by Kalia Family in a one room museum in their house in Palampur.
That room is like a temple for a soldier. On can find Lt. Kalia's dress, cap, badges, his black tin trunk, shoes, alarm clock, bottle of Chelpark ink, poster of Aishwarya Rai that he had in his room in IMA, his own photographs, among other things.
Lt Kalia made not just the 4 th Jat Regiment, but the nation proud. Which is why even as we ponder over the fate and composition of the new government, we urge you to take a few minutes out to remember these six young men who disappeared on this day, 10 years ago.
It's the least we can do as a nation.
The author is an IT Specialist. He is also a military history buff who continues to explore & research various facets of the Indian Military history in his spare time.