Human face

An army regiment stationed in the Valley takes a group of young Kashmiri girls and boys on a Bharat Darshan

This is a story to prove, if such proof is necessary, that our gallant men in uniform facing untold hardships in J&K against a faceless, professional, armed and highly motivated foe have a very human side as well. It happened in Mumbai recently, was generally ignored by our media and so passed unnoticed.

The battalion concerned, now serving in the Uri sector, belongs to the Maratha Light Infantry, one of the oldest regiments of the Indian Army, raised in Bombay Fort in 1768. Its jawans were/are drawn from the erstwhile Bombay Presidency and now from the state of Maharashtra. By a quirk of fate there have always been two battalions of this regiment located in this extremely sensitive sector of the Valley. This writer had the experience of serving in this very sector in 1948 with the then J&K militia (95 per cent Kashmiri Muslims), and again in 1969–72 (he was the commanding general in the Valley during the 1971 War). Post retirement, he has visited the area on four occasions. As a result, most of the villages in and around Uri are etched firmly in his mind.

Understandably, he was pleasantly surprised to learn that a group of 30 Kashmiri Muslim children from Uri, boys and girls, between the ages of 6 and 16, were visiting Mumbai and would this old Kashmir hand make it convenient to meet with them? The visit was being sponsored by the battalion of his very own regiment located in the Uri sector duly supported by the formation he once commanded, the ‘Dagger’ Division.

Arrangements had been made for the group to visit Delhi, the Taj at Agra, Mumbai and Pune. The group was to be accompanied by Mohd Hussain, an elderly teacher from the area and Asai Begum, a very youthful and attractive young lady teacher from Lagamma village en route to Uri, major R Chowdhury whose wife joined him en route, a subedar and three jawans from the sponsoring battalion. Each child was provided with a very attractive tracksuit sporting the unit’s crest of the hunting horn, and baseball caps with the divisional sign of the Dagger.

The regimental network worked throughout providing transport, accommodation, and food. In Mumbai, for instance, there is no unit from the regiment located here, but Lt Col Balwan Singh who belongs to the same battalion happens to be posted in the local HQ in Mumbai. And it was through his initiative that the very excellent arrangements were made for the Mumbai and Pune legs of the10-day tour, exclusive of travel time.

While in Mumbai, the group was able to tour South Mumbai, see a ‘real’ submarine, visit the aircraft carrier INS Viraat, spend a delightful afternoon at Essel World and, the high point of the Mumbai visit, to meet and interact with our Bollywood film star, Hrithik Roshan. For the Pune leg, the group, inter alia, visited the National Defence Academy, the Bombay Engineering Group at Khadki and the Snake Park.

I met the group at the small office of the Leslie Sawhney Programme in Army and Navy Building. In they trooped, looking very smart in their tracksuits. They were all beaming as they gathered in the tightly packed office. They were introduced to Ms Sheila Masani who, fortunately was present in the office, Mr SV Raju of Freedom First and Mr Arvind Deshpande of the programme. The staff of the office and curious onlookers were thrilled to meet this group.

After welcoming them, ‘Chacha General’ recalled his days in Uri and rattled off names of some of the villages that he still remembered — like Lagamma, Chandanwari, Mandir Buniyar, Silicot, Chamkot, Kamalkot among others — much to the joy of these young people who were happy to know that their villages were remembered by this Old General, in downtown Mumbai.

Mohd Hussain, the venerable teacher, recalled that he too knew Rajah Muzaffar, the MLA from Chandanwari. Asai Begum was asked whether ‘akroot giri’ (walnut kernels) were still sold in the small Lagamma wayside bazaar. Yes, was her response. Had the Bailey Bridge launched not too long ago across the Jhelum by our engineers made a difference to their lives? Certainly, they responded, as it cut short a 10–mile walk along the north bank from their villages across the Jhelum to Uri and Baramulla.

Even their produce of the succulent ‘bagooghoshas’ (Bartlett pears) and walnut kernels could now get to Baramulla and beyond in a better condition. And what about the Markhor (Ovis Ammon) and Baloo (Himalayan Brown Bear)? Were they still found on the Chotta Kazinag Range? Yes, was the response.

And how did they like Mumbai? Many of them had never seen the sea before; in fact very few of them had even been beyond Baramulla. They expressed their joy at being able to see a ‘live’ submarine and visit the aircraft carrier INS Viraat. And what about Essel World? Oh, they had such fun there, never having experienced anything like it in the Valley.

And what was their most memorable experience of Mumbai? They were struck at its size, the thousands of people going about their business without a care in the world, the friendly smiles that they received, and the total absence of any tension. They enjoyed their visit to Haji Ali and realised how secular India is. But the high point was their interaction with their favourite actor Hrithik Roshan, as never ever did they think that they would meet India’s heart–throb in person.

I asked some of the older boys whether they would like to join the armed forces of India and the response was a loud affirmative. I advised them to have a careful look when they visited the NDA in Pune.

And would they like to ask me any questions? The spokesperson was a lively young girl, very confident, who said yes she did. "Uncle, why don’t you come and live in Kashmir?" asked this vivacious girl. This is perhaps the most effective rebuttal of the allegations of the armed forces being human rights violators.

I mentioned this incident to Dr Farooq Abdullah during his recent visit to Mumbai and he was immensely pleased to hear about it. There were repeated requests for a group photograph to be taken in which the staff of the office insisted that it be included.

While bidding farewell to Mrs Masani, they expressed a desire to see the famous Hindi movie Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. Unfortunately, there was not enough time in Mumbai to do so. But this did not deter Mrs Masani from calling up a contact in Pune and arranging complimentary passes for the whole party. She insisted that though they had left the building, a message was sent across to Pune that the mission had been accomplished and please would they collect the tickets from the designated individual.

Later reports confirmed that they were able to see the film, a fitting finale to this memorable tour. The feedback from Uri is that they are now looking forward to the promised visit of Chacha General to his old haunts in the Valley. Hopefully, this promise will be executed when the weather improves.

To conclude this tale two points need to be stressed. The first is, would the parents of these 30 children, especially their daughters, have permitted them to undertake such a yatra all the way to Pune and back under the arrangements of this "hated" Indian Army?

And with war clouds looming dark in the Kashmir skies, of parting with their children? Most unlikely.

The local impression that this visit made can best be judged from a telephone call received from a simple peon of the Leslie Sawhney Programme who enquired when could he expect to receive a copy of the group photograph taken with the children. Need more be said?

The moral of this tale is clear. Whereas there is bound to be the odd rotten banana in a bunch, jawans of our armed forces have a very human side to their character. Full marks to those units and formations of our armed forces in J&K for sponsoring such visits of impressionable minds without gaining any brownie points for doing so. May this good work continue.

The commonly held view for which our ‘security forces’ are constantly sniped at is that they are violators of human rights in J&K. It is unfortunate that this generic term willy- nilly includes the regular army deployed in that state since October 1947. These sanctimonious ‘snipers’ seem to forget the frustrations our troops are subjected to in the thankless and frustrating task of dealing with terrorists. In the bargain, many innocent Muslim, Hindu and Sikh lives are lost for which, invariably, the security forces are blamed.

Archived from Communalism Combat, July 2002 Year 8  No. 79, Breaking Barriers



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