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24th Kargil Vijay Diwas: War hero revisits battlefield memories of courageous comrades

Brig Khushal Thakur (right ) with Col. Ravindranath (VirChakra).

On the occasion of 24th Kargil Vijay Diwa being celebrated in the backdrop of ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, Brigadier (rtd) Khushal Thakur, the gallant Commanding Officer of 18 Grenadiers who led his soldiers to victory over Pakistani troops and recaptured Tololing and Tiger Hill, revisits his memories of the battlefield with Ashutosh Kumar as he spoke from Kargil over phone.

How do you feel on this day

When momentous days like the Kargil Vijay Diwas approach, I relive those vivid memories again and again left behind by the valiant martyrs. I’ve visited the inhospitable heights of Drass and  Kargil in ‘peace time’ and even then I couldn’t stop marvelling over how our courageous men battled it out.

You are at Kargil on this great day. How is the atmosphere?

The atmosphere is the same every year on this day. When I reach here, I feel connected with the soil and memories of those who laid down their lives for the nation. Today, Indian Army Chief Manoj Pande is here and General Ved Prakash Malik, who was Army Chief during the Kargil war, is also here. On Wednesday, Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh ji will be joining. I mean it’s a huge honour for us.

Kindly share some of those momentous moments

There are several. The most painful and challenging was our final assault on Tololing at a height of 16,000 feet under sub-zero conditions. I lost my Second in Command, Lt Col R Vishwanathan in my arms. It came like a bolt from the blue but when I looked around, the men were looking up to me for their next orders. I had to   rise above my grief and lead them with a brave face. I could not let the situation get the better of me. I lost 34 of my brave comrades, including 2 officers, 2 JCOS and 30 soldiers.

Can you name some of the bravehearts who made the supreme sacrifice or survived to celebrate the victory

Yes. It was a most suicidal mission that changed the course of the battle. Many of our losses were due to the nature of the terrain and conditions. The gallant soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice in the fierce battle and were awarded the Maha Vir Chakra included Major Rajesh Adhikari (posthumously), Major Vivek Gupta (posthumously), Major Padmapani Acharya (posthumously) Havildar Digendra Kumar was also awarded an MVC while Col Ravindranath and Captain Vijayant Thapar (posthumously) were awarded Vir Chakra.

What was your biggest motivation in the face of extreme adversity?

We were pitched against all odds, inhospitable terrain, a sly enemy and lack of logistic support. At that point, there was no turning back. The whole country was expecting us to do our job and do it well, so all these adversities seemed irrelevant. There was only one recurring thought. We cannot let India down. My call to the men was ‘Vijay ya Veergati’, meaning victory or martyrdom. They marched ahead.

Means the level of motivation was extremely high

I told my jawans that you are not just fighting the enemy but also the elements. Whatever you face, I would face it with them. Instead of giving out orders to them from a tent, I walked with them and faced the barrage of bullets alongside them. There was a situation when I lost a JCO, Subedar Randhir, who was crawling in front of me, and also my operator, Hav Ram Kumar, who was right behind me. When your men realise that they are not expendable and their Commanding officer is standing by beside them, they feel motivated and more determined.

Any memories of Capt Vikram Batra, the PVC awardee from Himachal Pradesh

Great moments indeed. He was a young man with valour. After the first victory, 18 Grenadiers moved on to capture Tiger Hill. The Indian forces had better intelligence inputs, strategic preparedness and exact idea about the enemy. Young highly motivated heroes like Capt Vikram Batra and Rifleman Sanjay Kumar (also a recipient of Param Vir Chakra) played crucial roles to free Tiger Hill from the Pakistanis at any cost. There was another war hero Grenadier Yogendra Singh Yadav, who was also awarded a PVC.

What do you feel about any future misadventure by Pakistan?

Pakistan has learnt a bitter lesson during the Kargil war. Now, the conditions in Pakistan are also not well. The country is already in crisis. The activities of militants on the borders and Kashmir have been effectively curbed after abolition of the Article 370 . Nevertheless, the Indian army is fully prepared to deal with any eventuality or misadventure on the borders. The only fear is about the Chinese and the situation in Ladakh for which the Army is already on high alert.

What is the best way to keep the memory of our martyrs alive ?

The brave men sacrificed their lives to safeguard the interests of the nation. They should be treated with utmost respect. One way to show our gratitude is by treating their families, who are left behind, with the same respect and honour. The stories of their bravery and heroism should be made topics of discussion at every level.