2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: An Inch of Metal for Miles of Motherland

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 7 and last. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999

Mushkoh: Soldiers seldom make wars, politicians do; soldiers perish trying to end them.

In the end they just become dead weights loaded on the backs of unknowing mules, their dignity wrapped in tattered blankets. If they are fortunate, these blankets will somewhere have a little badge of honour pinned, an inch of metal for miles of motherland.

With soldiers returning from the recapture of Tiger Hill
With soldiers returning with Pakistani military ware from the recapture of Tiger Hill

Brigade-Major Rajeev Srivastava was in no mood to receive us. We had arrived at his camp deep in Mushkoh valley uninvited and unannounced. He was busy and he could well have sent us back. But he had ushered us into his tent and ordered tea. He was hard at work on an unsteady little desk piled up with files and papers. The tent was steaming like a sauna in mid-afternoon. “How have you managed to come here?” he asked, scribbling on furiously. “My orders are to allow no media personnel here. If they reach here, I have orders to escort them to Sonemarg, right out of the war zone.”

We mildly mentioned our permits and that we were not there to intrude, only to watch the war and write about it, whatever of it we could see and learn about. Then Neelesh — who later discovered a handy Lucknow link with the brigade-major — said something that touched a raw nerve in him. “Actually we just want to see what the jawans are up against,” he ventured, “Essentially we want to talk about their problems.”

The brigade-major looked up again from behind the paper piles. “What does the jawan get out of this?” he asked. He was suddenly shaking. “Tell me what does the jawan get? You get your story, we get our quotes in the newspapers, what does the poor jawan get? If he dies, he stops getting the pittance he gets as salary.” It was like a dam had burst somewhere inside him. Tears were quivering in his eyes,. He had been drafting commendation letters for soldiers killed in the fighting for the Mushkoh ridges. He had personally sent some of them off to the front. It was a terrible moment. “I’d rather not sign those commendations,” he said, “I’d rather have my men back.”

He was no longer keen on packing us off. He took us down into a bunker which was the camp’s infirmary. It was full of wounded soldiers. In an adjoining room lay a few dead, wrapped in blankets. It was only the third day of battle in Mushkoh but the camp was already brimming over with grim news. It was the same story as elsewhere: the intruders had the advantage of heights, they were heavily armed and well protected, the first Indian parties going up had little idea of their positions. Towards twilight, soldiers began silently gathering at the foot of the hill overlooking the camp; jawans from the front were coming down in streaks. Some of them were wounded. They were bleeding from bullet and shrapnel hits but they were still hurtling down. A few too badly hit to walk were being brought down on stretchers. Those who had escaped injury weren’t in terribly good shape. Their eyes were bleary, their general countenance quite delirious. Quiet descended on the camp. “This happens every evening when the platoons come back,” the brigade-major said, “it is very depressing. They are all what we call the walking-wounded, they might be very seriously hurt, but they have to walk back. We have again under-estimated the enemy, this is going to be quite a killing field.”

Writing the copy on how Mushkoh Valley was secured; it would later have to be phoned in
Writing the copy on how Mushkoh Valley was secured; it would later have to be phoned in

Mushkoh is not much of a valley. It is more a rock-strewn highland that gradually creeps up the heights where lies the invisible LoC. The track to Mushkoh forks off NH1A between Drass and Pandrass and quickly climbs onto a small plain dotted with abandoned settlements. The peaks of Drass had been cleared and the heavy guns were now being sent into Mushkoh. They were rumbling past the hamlets and little causeways and settling down at vantage positions in the new theatre of battle. Soldiers were scattered everywhere, like mountain goats on grass.

We were back in Mushkoh the next afternoon. If guns were jamming the highland, so were television crews and photographers and reporters. Mushkoh had become our Drass. We kept going back after wink-and-shower breaks in Hotel Siachen. That afternoon, as we were having lunch with a bunch of soldiers in a bunker, news arrived of the capture of Pimple II, a peak that had defied assaults. Pimple II was the second success in two days after the taking of Peak 4875. The soldiers cheered, but only briefly. The field phone had also brought news of high casualties. The injured and the dead were trickling down the hills slowly on foot and on mule back.

Later, Saurabh and I climbed halfway up the hill to meet another platoon bringing back recoveries from captured positions: broken guns, transmitters, boxfuls of anti-personnel mines, Pakistani Army identity cards, detailed jottings of Indian gun positions, area maps of the Kargil sector, unscrambled codes, radio frequencies the Indian Army was using. “The bastards know everything, down to our codes and gun areas,” exclaimed an officer as he spread out the recoveries in his tent, “No wonder they are taking the lives out of us even though we are eventually going to win.”

We stayed on in Mushkoh one night. It had begun to rain and a freezing wind was blowing. We were in the cosiness of an officer’s snow tent eating dinner when news of the ceasefire arrived. “This isn’t good news,” the officer said, “we are letting them go when they are on the run, we are letting them off the hook.” The guns were still firing; splinters were swooping low over the camp . “You see, by the end of September, there is thirty feet of snow where we are now. If we just let them go, we have to maintain a stricter vigil here, and how are we going to do that through the winter?” He seemed quite aghast and angry at the order to silence his guns.

The firing from across would not stop; it seemed to be getting more belligerent as the night wore on. We had to leave Mushkoh. The officer hadn’t a spare tent or a bunker and the shellfire was coming right over the camp. ‘You have to go,” he said. We had left at two in the morning — Saurabh, Neelesh and I with a very frightened and cantankerous Ashraf in the driver’s seat. He could not switch his headlights on — “Too risky, they may spot you and fire” — so we road the rubble-strip in the dark. When Ashraf couldn’t see a thing — it was rainy and foggy — we flashed a torch to pick the road. We reached Hotel Siachen three hours later, just as light was breaking. We were all in one piece but Ashraf’s mood was more menacing than all the guns.

I did not notice the seductions of Bimbet on the dazed dash to Srinagar to catch a flight to Mumbai. And the yellow roses had gone to sleep for the season. But the guns over Mushkoh were still firing. The Kashmir frontier hadn’t yet fallen silent.

Part 1: A Good Soldier on a Bad Night

Part 2: A Sky Stunned by Artillery

Part 3: One Side of a Bleeding Fence

Part 4: Winter Clues to the Portents of Summer

Part 5: Fire on a Forlorn Frontier with Ishaq and his Ramshackle Jeep

Part 6: A Hotel, A Hospital; A Birth, A Death