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Bravery Personified: Lt Navdeep Singh, Ashoka Chakra

February 11, 2012 by  
Filed under internal security

Conferring the Ashok Chakra on Lt Navdeep Singh is the latest but not the last episode of gallantry in the long and chequered history of the Indian Armed Forces. His actions speak of military professionalism and placing duty, honour and selflessness above personal needs. 

Maj Gen Raj Mehta (Retd)

Lt Navdeep Singh (right) and the Ashok Chakra awarded to him posthumously being received by his father, Hony Lt Joginder Singh from the President on Republic Day
Lt Navdeep Singh (right) and the Ashok Chakra awarded to him posthumously being received by his father, Hony Lt Joginder Singh from the President on Republic Day 2012 

 A rookie Ordnance Corps officer on attachment to a fine Infantry battalion, 15 Maratha Light Infantry, Lt Navdeep Singh, lost his life in the high altitude, Gurais Valley in North Kashmir, in August 2011, while conducting a highly successful ambush. As many as 12 out of a group of 17 heavily armed Lashkar terrorists were neutralised by Navdeep and his Ghatak (Commando) Platoon, with two more being shot later. This stunning military success was the fallout of Navdeep’s classic interpretation of soldiering – placing duty, honour, selflessness and sacrifice above personal needs. Intelligent and multi-skilled, the lad was in love — with uniform, life and fiancée. And he sacrificed all three cheerfully — for the Idea of India.

His legacy is that he was doing a job that soldiers do night after night…an ordinary, routine job… However, when opportunity knocked on his doorstep, he was ready. He did an ordinary job with extraordinary zeal, fortitude and “follow me” traits. Navdeep died but remains deathless because his legacy lives on – applicable across age, gender and occupation, both military and civilian.

A Midnight Call

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, the iconic commanding General in Kashmir remembers that it was 2.30 AM on that dark, fateful night of 19/20 August 2011, when he was woken up by a strident, insistent ring. Instantly alert, he intuitively sensed something amiss. Lt Navdeep Singh; the peppy rookie officer he had complimented for his professionalism at the Corps Battle School for new inductees, had attained martyrdom at Bagtor, in the Gurais Valley while ambushing a “track” of Lashkar intruders. The stark, poignant epitaph that honours the dead Spartans of the Battle of Thermopylae in Greece in 480 BC; “Here we lie; having fulfilled our orders” was now his. His “Ganpats” (affectionate term for Maratha soldiers) had lost Navdeep in execution of the Indian Army tradition of Service Before Self.

Commissioned into the Ordnance Corps, young Navdeep died on the banks of the azure, Kishanganga (called Neelam in POK), flowing through the narrow picture-postcard Gurais Valley, which the Line of Control (LC) cuts across. He ensured, by his personal example, that 12 of 17 armed-to-the-teeth Lashkar terrorists were shot dead by him and his Commando platoon. In saving the life of his “buddy”, Sepoy Vijay Gajare, he was fatally shot at five meters, just above his bullet-proof “patka”- a typically Indian improvisation of a full-scale steel helmet that protects the forehead but leaves the head bare. Navdeep had no chance, dying even as he pulled his buddy to safety…he had shot his fourth terrorist before he succumbed.

Gurais Valley

Located on the erstwhile Silk Route, Gurais Valley at 9000 feet, is as much famous as the birthplace of Kashmiri civilization and the Sharda script, as it is for its pink trout, sapphires, friendly people as well as for the romantic, deathless story of Habba Khatoon; the ethereally beautiful Guraizi girl who loved and lost, pining for her beloved through her songs till her last breath. She lives on in Kashmir through dirges that speak of having loved and lost; The Scottish bard, Robert Burns captures her situation poignantly through his immortal poetry: “Had we na’er loved nor parted, we’d na’er had been so broken-hearted…”

Post his death, I did deep research and wrote extensively on his sacrifice. Determined to honour this lad at his place of death, I crossed the daunting Razdan Pass at about 12,000 feet to enter Gurais Valley before it got snowed in for six months. 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. At Bagtor, the dynamic CO, Col Girish Upadhya, his key officers and Navdeep’s Ghataks were all there — proud, erect, happy that a retired veteran had come to salute one of their bravest sons. Firm handshakes with hard, calloused hands; the recessed smiles of brave, silent men given to letting their work speak for them and bear-hugs surrogated for mundane verbal communication.

The Briefing

I was led to a stunning vantage point where the village Bagtor cluster lay below, with the azure, crystal-clear Kishanganga swiftly flowing past the huddled villages. Towering menacingly above, were 6000 feet of vertical mountains with the security fencing separating India and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir clearly visible. Thickly forested till 12,000 feet, the mountains became gaunt and without forest cover as the eye went up to the jagged tops. On my right could be seen the dense Durmat forest across the Kishanganga — great place for terrorists to seek refuge or soldiers to lay deadly ambushes.

The briefing followed, proving the point that Op Bagtor had nowhere been as 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 had rushed his men into battle, but with caution. An oxymoron, but then soldiers invariably live with stark contrasts.

To discover that, he drove me, with Navdeep’s Ghataks following, to the Bagtor village cluster. 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”. 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 Srinagar.

The Ambush

The real conductor of this tiered orchestra of military capability was, of course, the astute and alert Upadhya. He and Navdeep were in the Officers Mess, after an exhausting 12 hours of working out contingencies, when 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. It was, literally, a desperate, time-sensitive race to the swift…

Share the excitement, my dear reader! Imagine you are on a bucking, snorting, racing jeep, its headlights barely piercing the gloom, the forested darkness astride the dirt track. Listen with excitement as the CO changes gears with one hand while he barks confident, crisp orders to young Thomas, the Adjutant, on his radio, “Relocate. Redeploy. Get the men running to reach the new ambush site before the terrorists do. I want all 17. Hear me?!!” “WILCO!” yells the Adjutant. Hastening slowly – this article is loaded with oxymorons – the men redeploy on the run with caution…the enemy is too close. In the co-drivers seat, Navdeep speaks quietly, issuing instructions to his men. Disembarking at Tactical Headquarters, races off. At the ambush site, his men quietly point to the ghostly, looming shadows emerging from the inky darkness. There is only time for whispered consultations and readjustments by the young officer to ensure that the ambush is correctly sited. Navdeep then whispers, “Fire only after I fire,” as he cocks his AK with a soft, lethal click. The die is cast…

That chilly night, I’m in black dungarees and carry Navdeep’s AK – loaded. The CO and men are armed too. I lie down exactly where Navdeep had lain down, his buddy, Sepoy Vijay Gajare alongside me. The terrorist approach is played out with 17 Ganpats. With pride, I realise that when Navdeep finally opened fire, he actually waited to literally touch them, crowd them into a little rock-strewn slope from which it was death anyway by drowning or bullets or both. His buddy makes me half-get-up, as Navdeep did, to pull him in after he was hit. A Ganpat, 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 while pulling in his buddy to safety as he fell dying. He had fired 81 out of the 90 rounds he was carrying. He died nobly.

Award of the Ashoka Chakra

On returning home on January 24, 2012, from a lecture-tour where I had delivered 15 talks to people across gender, age, social strata and occupation on the legacy of bravehearts like Lt Navdeep Singh, I spoke to Navdeep’s father; Hony Lt Joginder Singh. “Indeed, sir, my son is getting the Ashoka Chakra. We await the honour on 26 January 2012…we are proud of what Navdeep did, sir, and of the Army where father and son served.” The Ashok Chakra is India’s highest military decoration awarded for the most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent valour or self-sacrifice in peace.

Fathers are trained by genetic engineering and social custom to be stoic, to hide their true feelings. Navdeep’s brave Mother, sister and brother sat in the audience, crying their hearts out, as Navdeep’s sterling citation was read out. The father, escorted to the President by CO 15 Maratha LI, Col Girish Upadhya, tried his best to hide his loss; his tears of pride …he almost succeeded.

Navdeep’s immortal Legacy

The Indian Army was born in battle in 1947 and remains in battle in the defence of India – quite disregardful of the supreme indifference of its political masters. “Martyrs, my friend, have to choose between being forgotten, mocked or used. As for being understood: never”, a cynical Albert Camus has written. This hurts because it is so true.

Navdeep was a wet-behind-the-ears whipper-snapper; a rookie still in “Boot Camp” but, drilled, because of grave paucity of officers, by his famous paltan and his Ordnance lineage, into a potentially world-class soldier. This, even before he was detailed on his mandatory, coming-of-age Young Officers’ Course. Navdeep brought to the table, in the prescient words of Lord Moran, cold courage as a moral and physical choice, an act of renunciation that he knew could result in his death. His men knew this as well, but were fired up, ignited by his grit and daring. Add to that, the other ingredients of transformational leadership; creative intelligence, physical fitness, junoon, grit and selflessness and you have his legacy. With an MBA and a Hotel Management degree behind him, he was Ivy League and could have gone into safe, well-paying jobs, but obviously that wasn’t the case. Like deathless 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal and Capt Vikram Batra, both PVC’s (Posthumous) before him, he too scorned death, exchanging it for mission completion. I am dead certain Navdeep did not want to die. No motivated, gifted, loving, young person does. He had it all — a potentially brilliant career, loving parents and siblings, peer respect, capability and capacity. He was in love, with a beautiful girl, with life, with Gurais, yet, he discarded it all — for mission completion.

Navdeep’s deathless legacy is applicable pan India and across gender, age, social status and occupation. In the prescient words of Lt Gen Gautam Moorthy, Colonel Commandant of the Ordnance Corps, it is the ability to do the routine in an extraordinary manner, and as a matter of course, not as an exception. The India of our dreams does not need cynicism but self help as contained in this practical, yet demanding legacy. It could be India’s “Mind Map” to excellence.

The writer has commanded a Rashtriya Rifles Sector and an Infantry Division in the Valley 

Ashok chakra

l The Ashok Chakra is India’s highest peace time decoration for gallantry, and is awarded for the “most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice other than in the face of the enemy.”

l Its wartime equivalent is the Param Vir Chakra, awarded for gallantry in the face of the enemy. Two other awards in the Ashok Chakra series are the Kirti Chakra and the Shaurya Chakra.

l The award was instituted in 1952 and has been conferred on about 60 persons, including armed forces, para-military and police personnel as well as civilians. 


15 Responses to “Bravery Personified: Lt Navdeep Singh, Ashoka Chakra”
  1. Gen Harbhajan Singh says:

    Dear Gen Raj Mehta,

    I read your absorbing article this morning on the center page of the Tribune. May I compliment you on a very well researched write up by going on the ground and re-enacting the scene and meeting the CO and other ranks who participated in the ambush.

    The wording of the write up is excellent, which not only those who wear the uniform but our civilian brethren too would have read with great interest.

    Lt Navdeep indeed showed exemplary courage and qualities of leadership.

  2. V R Menon says:

    Truly heartening in today’s India where news is mostly about greed and corruption.

  3. VK Sharma says:

    I salute you for an article ‘Par Excellence’ in the Tribune of date. My compliments for the same. Having been Colonel Adm of a frontline Div in Op Vijay, having seen so many dead bodies of the brothers in arms as also badly injured soldiers never brought tears in my eyes. Even the fatal and non fatal casualties during number of encounters in valley failed to moisten my eyes.Yet going through your article, I was emotionally charged and tears welled up in my eyes.

    • Gen Raj Mehta says:

      Dear VK,
      Your reaction, coming from a hard bitten, tough soldier with 14 years service in Kashmir in so many tenures, has moved me deeply.

      It comes as a pleasant surprise how much you can see goodness around you, once you free yourself from the constraints of “thinking within arm”. I have done that as a conscious choice, which is why I write about brave hearts without bothering which arm they belonged to.

      Navdeep would have done any arm/service/Army proud, or, for that matter, Air Force or Navy. He had that spark in him that we so badly need; all standing, regular armed forces…

      Your recognition of his merit is itself worth a salute.

      I am deliberately not seeking your permission but will send this mail to the Army Chief, Gen VK Singh. He must read first hand, how soldiers who are ESM respond to the military values they learnt; and their exposition by a brave new generation.

      Thank you.

  4. Lt Gen(retd) V K Kapoor says:

    It brought tears to my eyes as I straightened my aging shoulders. This is Indian Army and not what is published by the media in the form of scams. Those are aberrations.

    I remember my days as a 2nd Lt and the expression on the faces of my brave tank crew as we emerged from our tank which had been hit by an anti-tank weapon during the advance to Phillaura in Pakistan in 1965 war just prior to the battle of Phillaura. We destroyed four enemy tanks. As soon as out tank was hit when we neared the Libbe village our tank was hit. We were blinded and eardrums pierced. I just fell out of the tank.My crew lifted me and told me that I would be all right after a fwew minutes. They aske me to lie down and indeed as the shock faded my hearing and eyesight returned. The courage of our men can only be experienced in battle. May God give Navdeeps parents the courage to bear this great tragedy.He was indeed a brave son of India and we,the veterans, are proud of him. Kudos to you for writing a beautiful piece.

    Lt Gen (Retd)V K kapoor

    • Gen Raj Mehta says:

      Dear Gen VK Kapoor sir,
      What a marvelous personal narration of bravery under fire by a very respected senior Cavalry officer when he was Navdeep’s age and Navdeep in letter and spirit.
      The common man does not realise that though a few men get honoured the way Navdeep has been honoured in death, there are so many more who did not get honours and awards the way some of our brave hearts did, but did almost as much…By implication; much of the mainstream Army is a high value, ethical, courageous and selfless Army simply doing its job in the only way it knows how; by doing SERVICE BEFORE SELF as a matter of routine and quite regardless of any pressure other than to commit life to country always and every time.
      I am sure your core message will reach out far and wide, sir, that the Army has its Navdeeps, Khetarpals and Batras everywhere…They need to be respected in service and in death, as well as when retired because they stake their all for India and without any expectation. Thank you.

      • Lt Gen (Retd) V K Kapoor says:

        Dear Raj, keep up your good work.I am glad that there are some among us who write about values and ethics and courage in battles. Our countrymen deserve to see the sacrificing face of the army. Unfortunately what is being deliberately or by default projected about us is not what the army is all about. Winning wars of the Nation is our mission and sacrificing the body for the love of our country comes easily to a soldier who is well motivated and trained. The political leaders and senior officers of the armed forces have to understood that if we love our country and countrymen, it will spontaneously take away our greed and corruption because love only gives, it does not take. So what is the way of making our people love their country – this is what needs greater emphasis in our schools, colleges and academic institutions.

        • Gen Raj Mehta says:

          “The political leaders and senior officers of the armed forces have to understood that if we love our country and countrymen, it will spontaneously take away our greed and corruption because love only gives, it does not take. So what is the way of making our people love their country – this is what needs greater emphasis in our schools, colleges and academic institutions.”
          These are wonderful words that the schools, colleges and Universities I visit will hear from me, sir, and with attribution. They rhyme so well with the words of Gen Ata Hasnain that Navdeep simply did what was expected of him and of Gen Gautam Moorthy, who feels that we need to do ordinary tasking with extraordinary passion for India to rise up in our and in world esteem. With this as our dominant DNA, the war between corruption and probity becomes a joke as the scale weighs so heavily in favour of probity…Imagine i.2 billion of us all fired up to do right and do good and the country is on song….Possible, indeed, sir. I have invested a lot of my time and mind on these thoughts and feel inspired to find reinforcement and such clarity in other senior minds that ends up adding more value to what is really the Idea of India…the India of our dreams.

  5. Sandeep Singh says:

    The whole family read the full page article on Navdeep in yesterday`s
    Tribune.The article is very well compiled.It is great moment for all
    of us that Navdeep is getting the much deserved recognition from the
    whole country.Your work is one big reason for that.
    Sandeep And Family

    • Gen Raj Mehta says:

      Sandeep, the wide ranging, moving responses on what Navdeep was all about; from students across gender; distinguished men, women serving and ex soldiers of the Armed Forces places a burden on you and Navjot to carry the torch forward…Just Do It.

  6. Raj Sharma says:

    Sir, an excellent write up (& a fitting Tribute) about the gallantry displayed by the brave young officer. I served in that area (1973-1977)…very scenic, though; very tough… particularly in winters. Since Independence (won through so-called non-violence), so many lives have been consumed from both sides of the border/CFL/LOC…

    • Raj Mehta says:

      Raj, thank you…If you are JATS, we have served together at the NDA as Instructors. Yes, Gurais is a very tough area to be in; agree.

  7. cadet pardeep singh says:

    He was like my elder brother. I knew him very closely.he just asked me to join the ncc.

  8. SS Bajwa says:

    I made the coffin for the first AC from the valley, Sandeep Shankhla, Dogras. Those days we saw “Tracks” of 75-300 at times. These stories of the brave are what need to be imbibed in the youth of India. As Gen Kapoor say’s the rest of the IA scams are abberations.
    Somehow, the man in the civi street does not see the bravado and the selflessness in sacrifice the mil does. He views the meddalion as a ‘dole’ to rehabilitate the NOK of the deceased. Hence the clamour for the 26/11 AC’s for the police. In the din of such callousness the society remains oblivious of the ‘soldiers way of life’.
    If one reads the account of LeT, their training and motivation as brought out in the book, ”The Siege’by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clarke – one sees that they honour the ‘matyrs’ with grandure due to kings. India has never honoured its dead. The lack of a national memorial is a stark reminder of this unsavoury fact.
    Arlington cemetry is world famous, so are many others where the nations pay homage to their dead, we Indians do not. 15-20 % movies in the West are stories of war and the brave deeds of the men in uniform, we have ‘Haqueekat’ 1963 and ‘Border’ decades later to mention. One attempt now being made is by Gen GD Bakshi to bring in comic books series like the erstwhile comic books of ‘Phantom’ etc – purely on the deeds of Ashok Chakras.
    Your efforts are comendable. We need a collective effort to bring the nation to sit up and take note that it has more to do than lip service to the dead.

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