Au Revoir, Lieutenant Navdeep Singh..
By: Major General Raj Mehta AVSM, VSM (Retired)
While writing my tribute to late Lt Navdeep Singh, titled “The Anatomy of Cold Courage”, I had taken an oath that I would visit his place of martyrdom at Bagtor, in the Gurais Valley in North Kashmir. With facilitation provided by the iconic, “Dil Se”, professionally driven Corps Commander, Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM**, I started on the final leg of my journey from the Officers Mess at Bandipora for Gurais, at dot 7 AM on a grey, early October morning. With a military convoy scheduled to depart at 7.15 AM, I really had no choice. No one with high altitude driving experience will want to overtake a winter-stocking laden military convoy on an ascending, mountain trail, with construction tippers coming careening down from the opposite direction… No wonder when my Ganpat (affectionate name for soldier) from Navdeep’s Paltan; 15 MARATHA LI said that the 90 kilometers to Bagtor would take four hours, I unquestioningly accepted his pronouncement. In the Himalayas, you learn fast – or lose out.
I needed to get my mind off the young man and his monumental sacrifice. Less than two months earlier; on the dark, velvety night of 19/20 August 2011, this charged young lad had died while performing his duty to Paltan and Nation in the finest traditions of the Indian Army…His commando (Ghatak) platoon boys, aided by additional soldiers, had, under his unrelenting, lethal “fire only after I fire” command that almost certainly guaranteed his death, shot dead 12 terrorists; all “ace” killers determined to succeed and trained in both shooting and survival skills against all odds. In his moment of victory, however, death had laid its sure, icy hands on him, that chilling night astride the swiftly flowing Kishanganga River…Partly getting up to pull in his wounded buddy, Sepoy Vijay Gajare, young Navdeep was dead before he fell down, shot through his skull, just above his bullet proof “patka” (the steel half-helmet that protects one’s forehead against a frontal hit…Nano seconds after shooting his fourth terrorist, the brave lad lay dead, his life blood oozing out on the pristine sand and stone bank of the tempestuous river.
Let us praise the Indian Army unreservedly; The Army that was born in battle in 1947 and still remains in battle in defence of the Union of India – quite disregardful of the supreme indifference of its political masters; the Government of the day. Lt Navdeep was a young ‘un; a wet-behind-the-ears whipper-snapper; a rookie still in “Boot Camp” but drilled, out of sheer necessity (grave paucity of officers) by his famous Paltan and his Ordnance lineage, into a potentially world class soldier. Note that all this happened in the killing fields of GuraisValley, and, before that, at the Corps Battle School, Khreuh, even before he had been sent on his mandatory, coming-of-age Young Officers Course.
Let me get back to my journey…To get my mind off the mental rigours of visiting his place of martyrdom, I did not want to discuss Navdeep. Instead, we discussed the flora and fauna…While on top, at the 11, 672 feet high RazdanPass, we bowed our heads at the mazaar of the Gurais fakir who means so much to Gurais and to all travelers on this breathtaking mountain road.
Descending down mountains is always easier than climbing up is. At the base, the road has ancient Kanzalwan village; its houses huddled together for comfort, with a shawl wrap of fog; part real, part cooking-fire driven. The Valley floor is narrow but ethereal, colourful; replete with sparkling water, fruit trees, handsome people and small homesteads. At Bagtor, the dynamic CO, Col Girish Upadhya, SM **, his key officers and Navdeep’s Ghataks were all there; proud, erect, happy that a retired veteran had come to salute in location, one of their bravest sons. It is surprising how effective unspoken hugs can sometimes be over voice communication, which seems unnecessary, affected and put on… So it was on this occasion: Firm handshakes with hard, calloused hands, recessed smiles of brave, silent men given to letting their work speak for them and bear hugs that would make even the Russians proud.
Past the weapon display of the 12 dead terrorists; their poignant personal effects in terms of diaries, letters that would never be delivered, pics of loved ones balanced by the cold impersonality of weapons, grenades, ammunition, grenade launchers, ciphers, satellite radios, first-aid kits, dried fruit/candy bars sachets with Urdu text, I was led to a stunning vantage point where the village Bagtor cluster lay languorously below us, with the Kishanganga slinking by sinuously with an angrai. Towering menacingly above, were 6000 feet of vertical mountains with the Indian security fence separating India/ POK clearly visible. Thickly forested till 12,000 feet, the mountains became increasingly gaunt and without forest cover as the eye went up to the jagged tops. On my right could be seen the dense Durmat rain forests across the Kishanganga; the term employed as an analogy to describe their thickness. Great place to slip in for terrorists; greater place for soldiers to lie in wait for intruders…
The briefing followed, relating the hachured one-dimensional maps to what had happened. In that bright morning sun, made more pleasant by hot, sweet langar tea and hot chilly pakoras, it was easy to get led away by how simple yet ingenious the operational plan of Op Bagtor appeared and how copy-book the responses by the just-inducted Burj Paltan. Backed by enlarged sketches of the area of operations, clear vision for kilometers around, the television presentation of pics taken pre/ post operations, and the alert, confident faces around me, one could be fooled into thinking that Op Bagtor had been a lark. Not so. It was nowhere near picture-perfect and ideal as one might think. With time against him, the CO had actually improvised a plan by literally thinking on his feet. Lesser leadership or lack of support from his senior officers would have been devastating. He decisively seized the fleeting operational challenge when it came – and rushed his men into battle, but with caution and feeling for the subtle folds of the ground. Oxymoron, right?! Soldiers invariably live with stark contrasts.
To discover that, he drove me, with Navdeep’s Ghataks following, to the Bagtor village cluster. It was great to see the salaams; approving smiles and positive body language he got from women, teenagers, school kids. Red cheeks and chocolate sweets go together as does tousled hair, and so it was, through the one street village and beyond…Upadhya explained with clinical precision how the intruders were sighted that dark night, and how, before that, he had been sounded on “kuchh hone wala hai” (something big will happen shortly). To remain alert even after you get such warnings so often, is of course the essence of soldiering on the Line of Control (LC)…
We saw everything, that fine morning; Saw where the Lashkar terrorists had debouched assembled their dinghy, crossed over and then walked single-file, along the river, keeping sleeping Bagtor village aside. We saw the well located ambush site. I mentally saluted Navdeep and his bravery; his men’s bravery. We saw where his parties had deployed and where he fell…Deeply moved. I promised to return that night in uniform to pay him homage. I did.
What the CO had really conveyed was that there was intelligence synergy and redundancy at work out there; from those towering heights at 14,000 feet, through those increasingly thicker forests as one came down, right down to places of entry into the Paltan’s areas of operational responsibility. Sitting far away, at Davar, near the Habba Khatoon massif, the Brigade Commander and staff were also up, having enabled and networked these leads, as were the alert Division Commander at Kupwara and the Corps Commander in far away BB Cantt, Srinagar.
The real conductor of this tiered orchestra of military capability was, of course, astute and alert Upadhya. He explained, how, pulses racing and with unconcealed excitement, the first sighting was reported to him … “17 terrorists, sir! Armed to the teeth! All in black! They are setting up, inflating something…A rubber dinghy! They are crossing over. Should we fire?!!! The CO was a veteran. He knew that the opening burst by his three man party that was in contact wasn’t enough. Dropping three or four out of 17 hardened, well trained killers in the opening burst would allow the others to escape; come back another day. All or nothing was his firm decision. He and Navdeep had been having a chhota peg (small tot) of rum in his “Officers Mess”, after an exhausting 12 hours out working out contingencies. The CO and Navdeep had slogged to tie up plans, telling soldiers affected what needed doing and where. The Bar was where the call came. The intruders had been spotted! He and Navdeep, he recalled, literally raced in the CO’s jeep to Bagtor; the four kilometer distance to his Tactical Headquarters seeming unending.
Not surprisingly, the enemy had done something unexpected and might get away completely if the deployed troops weren’t repositioned faster than the terrorists were moving. It was, literally, a desperate, time-sensitive race to the swift…
It is midnight and biting cold. The valley at 9000 feet sleeps – most of it anyway – Share the excitement, my dear reader! Imagine you are on a bucking, snorting, racing jeep, its headlights barely piercing the gloam; the thickly forested darkness astride the dirt track. Listen in with excitement as the CO changes gears with one hand while the other holds his walkie-talkie, as he barks orders to young Thomas, the Adjutant, on his walkie-talkie. Relocate; redeploy, get the men running to reach the new ambush site before the terrorists do. I want all 17 terrorists, hear me?!!! WILCO! Comes the adrenalin-driven, confirmatory roar comes from the Adjutant. Hastening slowly – this article is loaded with oxymoron’s – the men redeploy on the run with great caution…the enemy is too close to risk yelling. In the co-drivers seat, Navdeep speaks quietly, issuing final instructions to his men. Disembarking at Tactical Headquarters, Navdeep races off. As he arrives at the ambush site, his men on their surveillance devices quietly point to the ghostly, looming shadows emerging from the inky darkness. There is only time for whispered consultations, readjustments and professional reassurance by the young officer that the ambush is correctly sited. Navdeep then whispers “Fire only after I fire” as he cocks his AK rifle with a lethal click. The die is cast…
That chill night, I wear my black dungarees (I am a tank-man) and carry Navdeep’s AK. It is loaded. The CO and men are armed too… This is a war zone. I slip noiselessly into the ambush mode. The CO whispers that ALL he had was 40 minutes between spotting the terrorists; their surprise diversion from the route he thought they would follow, and his frenzied redeployment to trap them. I lie down exactly where Navdeep had lain down, his buddy, Sepoy Vijay Gajare alongside me. The terrorist approach is actually played out with 17 Ganpats. With a shiver of pride, I realise that when Navdeep finally opened fire, there was no way the terrorists could have got away. He actually waited to literally touch them, crowd them into a little rock strewn slope from which the only choice was death by drowning or by bullets. His buddy makes me half-get-up, as Navdeep did, to pull him in after he was hit on his cheek. I do. The soldier, who has taken position behind a boulder, simulating the terrorist who shot Navdeep, is just five meters away. This was the distance at which Navdeep was fired at, pulling in his buddy to safety as he fell dying. There could not have been a nobler death. Let us join in saluting this bravest of brave men who gave his today for our tomorrow.
I did at Bagtor. You should salute him, man or woman, from wherever you are.
- Au Revoir, Lieutenant Navdeep Singh.. (southasianidea.com)
- Go, Navdeep, Go! (southasianidea.com)
- Lieutenant Navdeep Singh Was Awarded the Ashoka Chakra- We Salute Our Hero (ecopackindia.wordpress.com)