2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: A Sky Stunned by Artillery

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 2. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999.

Sanjak: Batalik is the step-child  of the frontier. Drass gets attention because it holds the key to the national highway, supply line to Siachen and Leh . Batalik’s only highway is the turbulent Indus which carries only silt and anyway flows into the Pakistan.

Leaving Sanjak the morning after the bombing of the skies
Leaving Sanjak the morning after the bombing of the skies

It was only much later that Ishaq would tell us that Batalik was home. As a child he had played in its famed apricot orchards and frolicked in the Indus and the many streams that feed its flow. We had spent too long one evening in Batalik chatting to soldiers returning from the battle for the Muntho Dalo ridge (above Batalik). It was dark by the time we were ready to leave which meant, in effect, that we could not leave.

We had spent most of our time that evening at a forward base hospital. It was a cluster of tattered tents on a ledge where mules roamed and dust ruled. Wounded soldiers stood in a long line before a doctor who sat on a collapsible chair in the open. A few lay in the tents. Most of them had splinter or bullet wounds, but some were simply in shock. A young rifleman had not been able to urinate far a week on the heights. He lay in a tent, bloated, pale and in pain. Another had developed neurotic disorders from the sound of shelling, he could not hold himself up or walk.

They were soldiers of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JAKLI), back from the raging battle for the Muntho Dalo ridge. Most of them were Kashmiri Muslims fighting India’s war for Kashmir. Later that night I mulled over whether I should make a point of that in my despatch and decided against it. The soldiers were not there proving a special point; they were fighting just like jawans from elsewhere in India. To see something unique in their participation in the war would perhaps have been presumptuous. I, in fact, asked two Kashmiri jawans — Riaz Ahmed and Mohammed Shafi — if fighting Pakistani intruders in Kashmir meant something more to them and the expression on Riaz’s  snow-scorched face immediately made me realise I had made a horrible mistake . “Would you ask that kind of question to a jawan from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar?”

My mind went back to the Apati gunner and his sour little sermon on trusting Muslims. Kashmir has long been a split-level war — a battle with the enemy within and the enemy without. That sense was constant in Kargil. “This is no ordinary war,” the Apati gunner had told us. “We are fighting a hostile enemy from hostile ground. There is little local support. You see, this is not a war for Kargil, this is a war for Kashmir. We have had to fight Kashmiris to keep Kashmir. Trust is a tough thing.” More’s the pity I had asked that question of JAKLI rifleman Riaz.

A wartime porter in Batalik
A wartime porter in Batalik

It was dark by the time we left the base hospital and there was nowhere to spend the night. Ishaq said he knew people in the area for it was home. He took us to a cottage in Sanjak, a little wooded village across the Indus in Batalik. We arrived late in the night and without prior notice but the large and lovely family of Akbar Khan, a local government contractor, was welcoming. They gave us food — sumptuous chicken curry, spinach and rice — and a warmly carpeted floor. We went down to the river for a while and lay across a plank bridge in the dark watching Bofors guns fire across the Batalik frontier. The guns were far away so we couldn’t hear them; there was only the sound of military trucks droning and the river running. The shells were little lights silently leaping into the sky and mingling with the stars. They were stunning.

Sanjak would be our first night in many without bedbugs. And the next morning, we would get fresh water from the stream to wash with.

Part 1: A Good Soldier on a Bad Night