‘India’s Most Fearless 2: More Military Stories of Unimaginable Courage and Sacrifice’ has been written by Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh, Penguin Ebury Press, 2019. Shiv Aroor is an editor and anchor with India Today television, with experience of over a decade covering the Indian military. Rahul Singh has covered defence and military affairs at the ‘Hindustan Times’ for over a decade, in a career spanning twenty years.
The book details tales of valour and courage of the Indian Army. In this sequel, Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh take their readers through the unheard stories of some talked about and others, lesser-known recent anti-terror operations by the Indian Army. Detailing the Balakot airstrikes as well, the new book has broken records and is bringing stories of courage and the indomitable will to the readers.
OpIndia spoke to Shiv Aroor, the co-author of the book about the process of writing this book, his motivations, and how, writing about martyrs and the heartbreaking stories of their families changed him.
Following are the excerpts of the interview.
Tell us about your new book. This is your second book which tells the stories of India’s Bravehearts. How has the experience been thus far?
India’s Most Fearless 2 is the second in the series of our books with untold stories of recent military heroes. The book begins with a detailed account of the planning and execution of the IAF airstrikes in Balakot and is followed by 14 stories of individual heroism from the three armed forces, including many from the Special Forces. When we wrote the first book in 2017, in which we brought to readers a first-hand account of the post-Uri surgical strikes by the Army officer who led the mission, we knew readers would immerse themselves in these stories — what we weren’t prepared for was the enormous popularity of these tales. It’s what drove us to write this new second volume, and we’ll be writing more.
Weirdly enough, as inspiring and motivational these stories, somehow are, such stories never quite get told in India. Why do you think that is?
Great question. That’s actually precisely why we created India’s Most Fearless series. We constantly get feedback, Nupur, about how inspirational and elevating these stories are. But to be totally honest, our intention as authors wasn’t to inspire or elevate. We realised, precisely like you suggest in your question, that these are stories that we as journalists hear about, but never manage to tell in the kind of detail that the feats deserve. Fleeting mentions on social media, the odd citation or YouTube video, and heroes usually have the most ephemeral acknowledgement from the public.
But as I said, this wasn’t just about giving these heroes the memory they deserve, but about giving the public some truly stunning stories. It would be a pity if these stories simply faded with time until they could barely be recalled beyond the families and units of heroes. We’ve found an amazing and enduring audience with India’s Most Fearless that agrees wholeheartedly with us — that these are amazing stories that people would plainly love to read.
I understand that a lot of these stories are quite heartbreaking for the families. Can you tell our readers about the ones that affected you the most personally?
To us, all of the stories were heartbreaking at one level or another. If they don’t actually involve loss — and many of the stories in India’s Most Fearless 2 do end in sacrifice — all of them involve men and women being forced into situations where they must decide literally between life and death. It’s a cliche we use often, but the writing of these books has sobered us up hugely about what ‘life and death’ really means. If the heroes themselves have shattered us as we wrote about them, their families have all but silenced us with their quiet pride, pragmatism and zero demand for attention.
It always occurred to us that the hair-raising nature of these stories would leave angry families looking for someone to blame. What we have always found is whatever anger there is about loss is subsumed by a curious mix of grief and pride that is difficult to describe. We’re still trying to fully capture that emotion. All of the stories affected me very personally — I would sometimes need a fortnight away from writing simply to feel normal again. I would feel ashamed that I had the luxury of such a break from the ‘trauma’ of writing about these missions. If I had to name two stories from this second volume, they would be the stories of Capt. Pawan Kumar and Lieutenant Navdeep Singh.
What was the most difficult part in writing these stories?
These stories are based on extended conversations with the military personnel in question or their closest comrades who were with them in their final moments. Also, their families. To those who’ve lived through these deep traumas, recounting them was to relive those wounds. It’s one of the reasons why they usually remain locked away for life. We were always deeply aware of this as we asked questions and went about recreating the stories. We needed to be constantly mindful that this wasn’t a straightforward journalistic exercise. We needed to be sensitive to how we crafted the stories, while also ensuring we were able to access all details that made these stories what they are. I will readily confess there was a sense of guilt when I pried into deeply personal moments. Amazingly, the families and comrades of heroes always noticed this and offered comfort — that the telling of these stories should offset any sense of guilt. They truly exist on a separate level.
From the stories that you have written, what did you learn about the values and virtues of the Indian Army?
For one thing, that the men that we’ve written about are so strikingly like us in so many ways — they navigate the same mundane everyday things that we do. From arranging bank loans or Aadhar cards to video-calling with their families or apologising to girlfriends for not being able to take calls. All this while being in situations that are truly difficult to imagine. The values and virtues that one discovered in the writing of these stories are not some lofty ideals. They’re actually painfully, elegantly simple. These are or were men who practised a code of unquestioning loyalty to their units and men, and when it came to it, placed the mission at hand above their own lives. The other enormous learning has been about the huge personal premium that officers and soldiers place, not on taking lives but saving lives. It’s a brutal, difficult line.
In your book, you ask whether personal stories of martyrs are even necessary to amplify their heroism, brave men who put their lives on the line as a matter of daily routine. I guess we are both aware of how you feel about it but I would like you to elaborate on that particular train of thought.
It’s the truth. There are countless stories of individual military heroism that are cast into relief by the context of family and past. It’s one of the reasons why a soldier’s back-story is as important as his present. You could argue that this applies to everything — it does — but I mean this in the way that there’s a special quality in soldiers. Whatever the reasons they decided to join the armed forces — and no, these are mostly not for sentimental reasons — the nature of their work gives them a quality that is difficult to describe. And when you’ve volunteered for a career that, by its definition, means danger at one point or another, the journey to that point is of enormous consequence. Every one of the backstories in our book has been elevating, educative.
You say in your book, “if you look hard enough, every soldier has a shattering back story”. Why do you think we don’t hear enough of them? We often learn more about the families of terrorists and cow smugglers than our Bravehearts. Why is that?
Everyone has a back story, but it was very clear that the backstories of soldiers simply weren’t told enough. And that’s because even the acknowledgement of soldiers in the press is fleeting. This isn’t a complaint — that’s the nature of the media and public attention. But with India’s Most Fearless, we have sought specifically to tell readers that soldiers have backstories that are riveting. We don’t think people look at soldiers as robotic figures on the border. But how many really want to know more?
What motivated you to begin writing these stories? Was there a particular incident that made you feel that yes, you had to do it?
It actually began in 2017 with a story about a young Indian Air Force pilot that I did for my site Livefist — he had just received a gallantry award and I decided to write up a piece about how he had safely landed his MiG-29 after the canopy blew off mid-flight. The story went viral and was a storm on discussion groups, Whatsapp groups etc. The popularity of the story pushed my friend and co-author Rahul Singh to suggest (yes, the books were his idea!) that we work together and find more such stories for a book series. We went to the armed forces with a very ambitious list of missions/heroes that we wanted details and access to. We topped our list with the 2016 surgical strikes, certain in our minds that the Army would turn us down. To the deep credit of the forces, they saw great value in the stories we were hoping to tell and opened their doors to us. And let me take this opportunity to also say that none of our stories was edited or censored by the forces. They allowed us to be journalists and storytellers.
The second book in the series has forewords by the Chief of Army Staff and the Chief of Air Staff and the Chief of the Naval Staff. Apart from what appears in the book, did they offer any other words of compliment or encouragement or thoughts about the book that you would like to share with our readers?
The chief of the forces has been enormous engines of support in the crafting of India’s Most Fearless. When we told them what we were hoping to do, all they did was open their doors and provide us with access to the units, officers, families and mission logs. They saw enormous value in the idea that military men and women who would otherwise be forgotten beyond award citations and some renown in military circles, could be known by an India-wide, the perhaps worldwide audience. That both these books have been bestsellers is very gratifying proof that they were right. The daily feedback we receive from units across the country (frequently from units deployed in J&K, where many of our stories are based) is a constant reminder that we must never stop writing. The words of Army chief General Bipin Rawat at the launch of our first book in the series in 2017 are words we still hold on to: “Our men and women in uniform have never let us down. Never the service. Never the country.”