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The day my father went to war

I distinctly remember that morning of late May 1999. The whole family was up earlier than usual for two reasons. One, I was going to Lucknow from Bareilly for appearing in some competitive entrance examination. And other was that my father was going to war.

It was less than a year since we’d shifted to Bareilly from Guwahati. My mother, my younger brother and I were quite relieved when the posting details came in. Finally, a ‘peace’ posting in a decent sized city! Guwahati was a wonderful place with some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. But it so happened that the law and order situation started deteriorating from the mid-90s onward (when we had shifted to Guwahati) and remained a bit tense till the end of the decade. There was a spike in activities by United Liberator Front of Assam (ULFA) and movement of army personnel and their families into civilian areas was restricted. I remember watching DDLJ (If you’re not old enough to know what this is, look it up) on children’s day in 1995 in a cinema theatre in the city along with my school friends. That was the only movie I saw in a ‘civilian theatre’ in our 3+ years of stay in Guwahati.

Bareilly was a welcome change. Nice, big cantonment with many facilities. And the best part was that one of my school buddies from Guwahati, who till this day remains my best friend, was also in Bareilly. They’d shifted a few months earlier and his presence meant I didn’t have to start from scratch to build new friends. A new life. Something which is part-and-parcel of the life of a Fauji kid. He would also be of invaluable help to navigate my way around cantonment and the city.

While my father was posted in a Military Hospital in Guwahati, he was part of a Field Ambulance Unit of a Mountain Division in Bareilly. For reference, a division generally consists of 15,000-20,000 troops. These troops are a mix of fighting elements like infantry, artillery, armour and support elements like communication, engineers, medical, ordnance, transport and logistics. The medical part is contained in Field Ambulance Units which provide the first line of medical help for a soldier injured in a war. Field Ambulance Units go where their mother division goes.

Except for one aspect, the transfer from a Military Hospital to a Field Ambulance did not have much relevance in our (brother and self) scheme of things. And that bit was about the number of children in ‘our’ unit (Field Ambulance). The Military Hospital in Guwahati was a pretty big establishment. Which meant a large number of officers and the possibility of a large number of children to play with. And on the rare occasion when children were invited to official parties, you had someone of your age to socialize with. The Field Ambulance was a pretty small formation with a lot of young officers. So, this ruled out the probability of making friends of your age within your ‘own’ unit.

In coming years, my father’s posting to the Field Ambulance in Bareilly was to have a big impact on our collective lives. And ‘peace’ posting turned out to be anything but peaceful.

But on friendship front, all was not lost. Apart from my school buddy, there was a sports complex to rescue. Sports complexes hold an important place in lives of children in a cantonment. Everyone congregates here in the evening. Some play the available sports while others chit-chat. And you can meet and socialize with children of your own age. Friendships formed here can last a lifetime. For example, someone who I met for the first time in Bareilly sports complex and who later became a close friend, recently picked-up his Colonel rank and his now commanding an infantry battalion!

Not to mention that as a common meeting place for teenagers/college going crowd of opposite sex, these sports complexes also witness many a romances bloom. And heart-breaks. During our stay in Bareilly, we also had Priyanka Chopra (yes, yes, same one) occasionally visit the sports complex.

The first year of transfer was spent in doing the usual as in any transfer – stay for a few weeks in an Officer’s Mess, then shift to temporary accommodation and finally, permanent accommodation.

I think it had been hardly a few months since we’d settled in our permanent accommodation when the stories about Kargil started to emerge. That was the first time in my life as a Fauji kid when I heard the word mobilization spoken about in our house. As most wards of army personnel do, I had seen my father go on periodic military exercises. But war and mobilization was something I’d read in books or heard from a maternal uncle who’d fought in 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars.

Well, it so happened that the parent formation of my father’s unit, 6 Mountain Division, was (is) Army HQ Reserve. And is used by AHQ for offensive or defensive tasks as per the requirement. While Kargil was fought mainly by 8 Mountain Division with some sectors under Leh based 3 Mountain Division, 6 Mountain Division was moved in Kashmir as a strategic reserve. In case the balloon had gone up and India decided to cross the LOC, 6 Mountain Division would’ve launched an attack into Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir.

But all of this I came to know much later when I read books on the Kargil War, including one by General V.P. Malik.

At that point in time, it was speculated that 6 Mountain Division (6 MD) will most likely be going to receive orders to move out to Kargil. There was a strong feeling that the actual fighting of throwing out the Pakistan Army and reclaiming those heights would be done by 6 MD.

The first thing that happened at home was sorting out father’s uniform and kit. Especially, the combat uniform or as it was known at that time, ‘Cheetah wardi’. Over the course of next week, my father spent most of his time in the unit, working with others to ready it for mobilization when the orders came. There was a buzz in the whole station as every personnel and every unit associated with 6 MD prepared for the marching orders.

Finally, the orders were received and departure day was finalized.

My father was going to war.

For the first time in our lives as the family of an army officer, war became a reality. As was the fact that my father could be injured. Or killed. Yes, my father being from the Army Medical Corps (AMC) had lesser probability of sustaining an injury or being killed as compared to those from Infantry. Those who scaled a near vertical cliffs to evict the enemy. But then war does not follow any rules. An artillery shell does not distinguish between an Advanced Dressing Section (ADS) of a medical unit and a command bunker or a signal post.

And that is exactly what happened. As I learnt many years later, my father had established a medical detachment with surgical team north of Zoji La to cater for a large number of casualties in a particular sector. This detachment started receiving many casualties but within 72 hours of its establishment, it came under intense Pakistani artillery fire. The detachment, along with staff and casualties, was relocated post-haste to a different location in depth.

A day prior to his departure, my father sat down with my brother and me. While we knew what was happening, he explained the scenario and prepared us for the fact that he might be gone for a long time. That in his absence, we were to ensure we don’t trouble our mother and help her out in the household chores. Take care of each other and our studies. As the elder son, I got some additional advice to handle all the outdoor activities. I was also shown all his important personal documents related to army service, banks, insurance, etc. Just in case.

Of course, he never told us where he was going. They never do.

It so happened that on the day he was supposed to leave, I also had to go to Lucknow for some competitive entrance examination. But there was a problem – with almost the entire station moving out, there was no means or person to even drop me at the railway station. Finally, it was my school buddy to the rescue. He came to my house early in the morning on his bicycle. And dropped me at railway station using my dad’s scooter.

Both of us, my father and myself, exited the house together. I touched his feet before he got into his vehicle. He wished me luck. And we hugged. His vehicle left the compound and took a left turn while I took a right turn towards the station.

For about 4+ months, we’d no information about his whereabouts. We didn’t hear from him. We followed the news on TV and newspapers and I kept a tab of all the developments. Finally, first time we heard he was OK was when a fellow officer came back to Bareilly. Of course, he also never shared any details.

It would be eight long months before my father and rest of the formation returned from Jammu and Kashmir. While the war was declared over in July, 6 MD was re-tasked to handle Counter-Insurgency Operations in the Valley. In between, we received letters from him. And occasionally, he also managed to speak to us through army’s internal telephone network.

The cantonment was again full of life and there was a joyous atmosphere. Most families had their first brush with what a war is and how it can impact their lives. Everyone thought the worst was over. And there would finally be peace to enjoy in a ‘peace’ station.

It is said TV brought Kargil War into people’s bedroom. In case of those whose dear ones took part in it, it brought war into our lives.

Alas! Peace was to elude us during our ‘peace’ posting.

Attack on Indian Parliament happened in December 2001 and 6 MD, along with the whole of the Indian Army, was again mobilized.

And my father went to war. Again.

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Rohit Vats
An armchair general during his free time, the author blogs about defense and strategic issues at Perspective . His tweeter handle is  KesariDhwaj

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