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Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Love Story of a Soldier in Kashmir; Lt Gen HS Panag


The Love Story of a Soldier.
He was an Indian soldier, she was a Kashmiri. Could this have a happy ending?

Posted by : Lt Gen H S Panag

Spring was in full bloom in the Vale of Kashmir and sitting in the 100-year-old Chinar Hut, as the Northern Army Commander, I looked back upon the first five months of my tenure with mixed feelings. Two hundred terrorists had been eliminated; summer posture for counter infiltration was in place; the snow-damaged fence was being repaired at a feverish pitch; but human rights violations were continuing to be a matter of concern.

Insurgency had been on the wane since 2004 and with a concerted effort by commanders at all levels, there had been no human rights violations from either deliberate or ‘rogue’ operations. However, due to tension, over-enthusiasm and at times panic, there had been inadvertent violations leading to resentment amongst the people. There were allegations galore.  A 2005-2006 case of ‘fake encounters’ in the Ganderbal area being pinned on the Indian Army turned out to be the handiwork of a rogue police officer, for instance.

As the Army Commander, I had addressed the maximum number of troops at a number of places and sent out a personal message, which was conveyed to the 370,000 personnel of Northern Command emphasising the upholding of human rights. In those days, there was an unwritten code of conduct followed by the people of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Killing of terrorists, whether Pakistan nationals or local terrorists, by the security forces evoked no protests. There were protests only when there were human rights violations.

Suddenly the mid-day calm was shattered by the breaking news on TV. Massive protests had broken out in the small town of Kangan on the Srinagar-Sonamarg Road. It was alleged that a soldier had raped a young girl and killed a man. There were also confusing reports about the soldier being killed and his body being dragged in the main street. I got through to the Commanding Officer (CO) of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) Battalion in 30 seconds and was informed that the incident had taken place about an hour ago. The body of the soldier had been retrieved and the matter was under investigation. The protests in Kangan continued and started a chain reaction leading to more protests in neighbouring small towns and villages. BBC and CNN were also giving extensive coverage ridiculing the Indian Army and the local Government.

Noting the gravity of the incident, we decided that this incident would be investigated in 24 hours to assuage public sentiments and punish the guilty. J&K Police, the Intelligence Bureau and the RR Battalion cooperated to get to the bottom of the incident. In addition to this, the profile of the soldier was pieced together to draw appropriate lessons. What came out was a tragic story of human emotions.

Sowar Ranjit Singh was from a small village in Punjab and had joined 63 Cavalry (CAV) – an armoured regiment – after his training. ‘Sowar’ (the one who rides) was a term used for a Sepoy in cavalry units and continues to be used by the armoured regiments even today. It was also once used as the moniker by the Swiss West End Watch Co for a line of watches. Ranjit was a handsome Sikh, who joined the army at the age of 17, in 2000, after finishing school. He was an all-round sportsman, excelling in basketball. A gunner by trade, he was appointed the gunner on a tank with only two years’ service, which was an exception. His mother was pressing him to get married, but he insisted that he would get married after his J&K tenure.
RR units were raised to specifically to fight insurgency in J&K in the early 1990s. Today, we have 62 RR Battalions under 15 Sector Headquarters and five Force Headquarters. The composition of the RR is based on 50 per cent troops from an Infantry Regiment and 50 per cent drawn from all arms. The RR forms the mainstay of our Counter Insurgency Grid and is a success story of the Indian Army. Ranjit was very excited about his RR tenure, but was also apprehensive about the infantry predominant operations in J&K for which he had done only the basic training that is applicable to non-Infantry arms.

With these thoughts, he arrived at the Corps Battle School (CBS), which conducts the most comprehensive and realistic training for counter insurgency and counter-terrorism in the world. As the Director General of Military Training, I had also made a contribution for refining the three CBSs. As the Army Commander, I visited the CBSs at least twice a month. At any time 3,000 – 4,000 soldiers were under training at one CBS. Every soldier/officer inducted into J&K has to undergo four weeks of training at the CBS. Training is done under realistic conditions to simulate situations troops would encounter in operations.

Ranjit did very well in the training at the CBS and was adjudged the best student of his batch. That is when I met this young soldier. I presented to him the Best Student award and remembered him, due to his excellent bearing and fitness, and also because he was from 63 CAV, which had served under my command when I commanded 43 Armoured Brigade at Patiala.

The young soldier joined his unit after the tough training, hoping for some respite. But he soon found that the life at Company Operating Base (COB) was even more gruelling. Indian Army follows the grid pattern of deployment and response in the hinterland of J&K. Each RR Battalion deploys 5-6 COBs. A COB depending upon its composition can have 60–80 troops. Out of these, one third are engaged in administration and security, one third are out for patrolling or operations and one third are resting and training. During a big operation or in an emergency all hands are on deck, for as long as 24-72 hours. On an average, a soldier gets only 5-6 hours of sleep in a 24-hour cycle, and that too wouldn’t be in one stretch but in two or three intervals.

Human intelligence is the mainstay in counter-insurgency. Each COB has an intelligence cell that develops sources in the local population. Ranjit acquitted himself well in operations and in next six months, he was a member of small teams that took part in a number of operations that killed seven terrorists. He was enjoying his work and liked the challenging life. After one year, he was selected to be part of the Intelligence Cell.

Personnel of the Intelligence Cell went to the villages with Medical Teams and also as part of the Sadbhavna Projects. Ranjit developed a number of sources based on whose information successful operations were launched. On a visit to one of his sources, he met the source’s cousin who was a college-going girl. It was love at first sight, straight out of folklore. A handsome young Sikh soldier and a beautiful Kashmiri girl met shyly at first, but then daringly found ways to meet despite the societal restrictions and Indian Army rules and regulations. Soon, they were madly in love, oblivious of their religion, cultural background and the raging proxy war. Ranjit knew he was violating orders, but who can resist the call of the heart? Since meetings were infrequent and that too virtually in public, the two spoke for long hours on mobile phone and in so doing, Ranjit had to forgo his rest time, which he did not begrudge.

When he went on leave he bought a ring and quietly handed over the same to her at a Medical Camp. His tenure of two years was getting over. He volunteered and got an extension of six months. At the end of it, he went to meet his soul mate to reassure her that he would be coming back on leave from his place of posting to take her away to get married.

Ranjit coordinated with her to meet in Kangan town. Since, he was to move on posting the next day, he had not been assigned any duties and hence could not go out of the COB. He saw an area domination patrol moving out of the COB and joined its tail without either informing his immediate superior or the patrol leader. As the patrol reached near Kangan town, he quietly peeled off. He was armed as all soldiers are in J&K, all the time. As he moved towards the rendezvous, an abandoned house on the outskirts of Kangan, he was aware of the risk that he was taking. But in matters of love, caution is thrown to the winds. The meeting was brief, but both were in bliss. He promised he would be back in a few days to take her back with him. Needless to mention that in the given circumstances, the relationship was platonic and there had been no intimacy beyond holding hands.

After the meeting, as he came out of the house, he was surrounded by an angry crowd, which accused him of molesting/raping the girl. He tried to reason with them and tried to tell them the truth. The girl also arrived on the scene and screamed his innocence. But when tempers are high, who listens to anyone?

Pushing and shoving began. Ranjit cautioned them that he was armed. On hearing this, one enraged man, wielding an axe, came towards Ranjit. Having no choice left, he fired and killed the man. The crowd parted and Ranjit walked away. He had barely gone 50 yards when from the opposite side, an even bigger crowd came towards him. Soon he was in the centre of the street, surrounded by a crowd of 150 people. He fired in the air to warn the crowd, but it had only a temporary effect. The crowd started stoning him. He tried to use his mobile to contact the base, but it got knocked out of his hand. He was in a dilemma. He could resort to firing and throwing grenades to make a getaway, but it would result in four to five people being killed. He was probably already feeling guilty of having had to kill one man in self-defence and would have known that he was likely to be court martialled for this violation of law. He looked beyond the crowd, searching for his friend. He saw her weeping helplessly and held back by the crowd. Not wanting to cause more loss of life and overcome with perceived guilt, he put his forehead on the muzzle of his AK 47 and pressed the trigger.

The police retrieved his mobile and through it got to his friend. The brave girl stood by Ranjit and gave full details of the incident. The village elders were called and the girl narrated the tragic story. The protests ended. The family of the man killed by Ranjit was suitably compensated by the Government. The girl was adopted by the Indian Army and her education was sponsored.

And Ranjit Singh? How would we handle the death of this young soldier in unusual and tragic circumstances? After a lot deliberation, we decided that since he committed suicide to save innocent lives, he would be declared ‘killed in action’.


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