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HomeDEFENCEThe inside story: Mashkoh– Kargil as I saw it # 4

The inside story: Mashkoh– Kargil as I saw it # 4

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Before I tell you how the actual war was fought, I would like to give a brief about my Jat paltan. When I passed out of Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan School in Delhi in 1974, I got admission to National Defence Academy (NDA) and pre-medical course in Dayal Singh College in Delhi. I was not very fond of studies, and I knew that pursuing a medical carrier involves a lot of hard work and studies. Therefore, I was determined to join NDA. Before I joined NDA, I was informed by one of my relatives, Justice Jagjit Singh that “training in NDA is going to be tough and many cadets who are mentally and physically weak, quit NDA within 2/3 months of training. Since you are a Sikh, don’t ever think of quitting, else you would disgrace your religion and the family”. I took that advice very seriously and was determined not to quit come what may!

Life in NDA was very hard. The day started with early morning physical training (PT), riding, drill, weapon training, continued with academics and in the afternoons and evening sports activities, swimming, study periods. Ragging was prevalent those days. It was quite natural for a sixteen-year-old to feel depressed at times. But I was determined to stay on and continue. For me, my determination kept me in control and motivated me to continue despite all odds. Without determination, it can lead you to give up because of the difficult situation you are faced. I used to take solace in the gurudwara located within the academy on Sundays to escape ragging by seniors, get shelter and rest. Every time I woke up in the morning, I used to remind myself of my determination to stay on and pass out successfully from the academy. After completing three years in NDA and one-year training in IMA, Dehradun, I got my commission into 17th battalion the Jat regiment.

Allotment of regiments on commissioning is a factor of mainly chance. Only those in the top twenty get their choices or some with the parental claim (father either CO or Subedar Major). The rest opt for regiment someone close is serving in or impressed by an instructor/uniform. Quite a few hearts are broken on the day choice of arms is announced. I was allotted 17 Jat, though it was not my first choice. The regiment and its troops grew on me as time passed. It did not take long to develop pride in my unit. If asked to choose 40 years later, the answer will be “Jat regiment, none other”.

Each regiment has its ethos and way of functioning. Since the troops are of specific class composition or from a particular area, their habits are also similar. Let me take you through my Jat regiment. The Jats have a unique ability to achieve whatever task is allotted. There is a challenge, too – they require firm handling. It is not easy to command them.

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Jats have both anger and humour in great measure. He is not meticulous, nor cautious, but is brave to the point of being foolhardy. The soldiers are tremendously fit, lean and weary. They are physically fit and complete mandatory runs in excellent time, climb the rope like a monkey and with a pack on his back, move up mountains with surprising agility.

The Jats are mainly from Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. They are good sportsmen and whichever formation they are; they would impress the brigade commander and the GOC with their sports talent and physical fitness. They are hardworking boys and can be moulded as you desire. They are equally good at firing and other professional competition. In peace stations, they would impress everybody by winning most of the matches. Your chest swells with pride when you belong to such a regiment/battalion.

Their language tone is slightly harsh and blunt. To a newcomer, it may not seem very respectful, but you get used to the style and tenor with time. You also pick up some traits of your men over a while. He is witty and full of jokes. But by nature, he is adamant too. He is a miser when it comes to spending money. He is from a village stock and is fond of his ‘tadka’ when eating his food. No matter how well the langar dal is cooked, it has to be given a special ‘tadka’. Some of the troop’s habit can frustrate any CO. My best efforts to provide them with thalis (with separate segment) came to a nought as they would prefer eating out of a steel bowl, into which will go all (dal, sabji and dahi).

They are very fond of sweets. ‘jalebi and choorma’ are their favourite dish. They are mainly vegetarians, but now some of them also take non-vegetarian food. They are very fond of desi ghee. Each one of them will bring a can of desi ghee from his village when he returns from leave. Their sense of music is limited to their favourite folk songs called ‘ragni’. They would start their bara khana with a ragni with a matchbox giving a piece of background music. It is difficult to stop them after they get into a mood to sing these folk songs. One large peg of rum is good enough to get them to high spirits and anything more than that, you are inviting trouble.

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The war cry is JAT BALWAN JAI BHAGWAN, which means that the ‘Jat is powerful, victory to God’! The motto is SANGATHAN VA VEERTA, which means ‘unity and valour’. The Jat centre is located at Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. There are 24 battalions in the Jat regiment. The regimental insignia is IX. This Roman numeral nine represents its ninth position in the regimental hierarchy of the Indian Army of the 1920s. The logo also has a bugle indicating the light infantry antecedents of two of its battalions.

I got commissioned into the 17th battalion the Jat regiment on 10 Jun 1978. The unit was located in Pithoragarh, supposed to be a peace station but except for the availability of the accommodation, rest all other things gave it a look of a field area. Initially, I was quite taken aback by the crude language tone of the Jat troops, but slowly got adjusted to their style and language. It was a tough time to keep up with their physical fitness as they would effortlessly complete their 2-mile run with their long strides. Most of them were more than 5 feet 10 inches, and I looked like a pigmy with 5 feet 5 inches in height. As time passed by, I got adjusted to the troops, and they too accepted me as their leader. I could not beat them in their physical fitness, but I could keep pace with them. All that they wanted was that their leader should be physically fit and participate in all their activities like PT, sports, firing and training and rub shoulders with them in all fields and share their hardships during the training period. They also expected their leader to be fearless, professionally sound, honest and fair in dealing with the troops.

After Pithoragarh, we moved to a field area in Lam, Nowshera(J&K). There my wife and I met with a severe burn accident due to Bukhari burst in my basha (temporary hut), while we were asleep. It was night time, and all had gone to their respective places to sleep, except some soldiers on sentry duty at night. Our clothes over our body had caught fire and were burning. We ran outside with our burning body, shouted for help and started rolling down the slope on the ground to extinguish our fire. Long back, I had seen a movie ‘Tora, Tora, Tora’, wherein a particular scene, a soldier was burning with fire all over, and he rolls on the ground to extinguish the fire over his body. I remembered that scene and enacted the same act to douse my fire.

I had 50% burn injuries and was immediately evacuated to Rajouri hospital in a severe condition. Later evacuated to Udhampur base hospital for a week and finally to army hospital Delhi by helicopter. At all stages, blood was required by me, and there were endless volunteers from my unit who wished to donate their blood so that I could survive. Such was the bond between the leader and the led. A bond that is only seen in a close-knit family. Yes, the 17 Jat had become my second family. The doctors in the army hospital had no hope for my survival and told my family members not to undertake an outstation journey as my condition was deteriorating. I could hear the doctors murmuring amongst themselves that command hospital sends all gone cases to us so that they are not blamed for the death of an officer. Even my personal belongings in the unit were dispatched to my home in Delhi, as is generally done in the case of soldiers who are martyred in war. The unit had given up hopes for my survival. Unfortunately, my wife succumbed to her burn injuries after one week of arrival in Delhi army hospital.

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I was determined to live and overcome this setback. Though most of the time, I was sedated with reliable antibiotic medicines, I had that will to survive and bounce back. No visitors were allowed to visit me because of the fear of the patient catching an infection. But there was a window towards the head side of my bed, where my relatives could come during visiting hour and speak to me. I could not see them but could recognise them from their voice. One day in the evening, the doctor was on round, and one of my brothers-in-law asked from the window, “I am going abroad for few days, what should I bring for you from there’? I replied, ‘one bottle of scotch whisky”. Those days bottle of scotch was a rare commodity amongst officers. The doctor on the round was amazed at my reply. He told me, “you are dying and still thinking of scotch”. Well, that was my method to keep up my spirits high! Though I knew that I could not drink that scotch, but the very thought that I would drink it once I am out of the hospital motivated me to get well soon.

Slowly, I started recovering, and my doctors were somewhat surprised at my recovery. I had become a sort of celebrity where all VIPs were brought to show me as the test case, where a patient could still survive after 50% burns, due to sheer will power and determination. It was no less than a miracle for them. Probably my day for meeting with God had not come yet. I was out of the hospital after three months and sent on two months of sick leave in Delhi. When I came home, I was so weak that I could barely walk up to the washroom. But my determination and will power overtook all the challenges, and soon I was on my feet again and was riding my motorbike ‘Yezdi’. After my sick leave, I reported to the army hospital once more for further review and was admitted there for a few days. I was recuperating from my injuries of a burn accident; I chanced to meet one of my NDA course mates in the army hospital, Captain GS Sandhu, who was also admitted in the hospital due to a motorbike accident. He had his right leg in plaster and walked with the help of crutches. He walked up to me, and I recognised him immediately. That evening we had a reunion, a grand reunion, just he and me in the army hospital patient’s room. We managed our liquor from the market and smuggled it inside the hospital and drank to our heart’s content, remembering our good old days in NDA.

He asked me, “how did you overcome this terrible situation of your burn accident where the doctors almost wrote you off, and your survival was doubtful, but you managed to come out of this situation”. I told him, like in the NDA days, “I always used to be determined to go through the hell and often use to tell myself that I have to continue and pass out of the academy at all cost. This time also I was determined to live, and I kept telling myself that I just got to live”. In NDA, I was determined to pass out after completing my course, and now I was determined to live. So, this was a story of how I bounced back from the jaws of death because of my determination. The determined don’t give up their goal, regardless of how tough things get! They have potent reasons that force them to keep going, and their ability to continue to fight is what earns them success. They continue their fight to the finish.

To know more, read the book Mashkoh: Kargil as I Saw It.

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Brig Umesh Singh Bawa Vrc, SM
Brig Umesh Singh Bawa Vrc, SM
Umesh Singh Bawa Vrc, SM a PhD in Public Administration retired from the Indian Army as Brigadier. He is an infantry officer and author of a book called Mashkoh: Kargil as I saw it. He was awarded Vir Chakra during the Kargil conflict in 1999.


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