Saturday, August 1, 2009

THOUGHTS OF CAPT. VIKRAM BATRA'S TWIN

I received the following by email, as a forward. I wanted to share these thoughts.

My dream of visiting Vikram as a commanding officer of a regiment couldn’t come true. But he still commands—in the hearts of the soldiers posted in Kargil and Drass
When I talk about Luv, I don’t know where to begin. Capt. Vikram Batra PVC (posthumous) is Luv, and I, his younger twin, Kush. His identical twin. Ours was a childhood spent in the hills of Palampur making the most of our identical looks—playing pranks, filling in for each other and at times even getting punished for one another’s mistakes. The similarity ran deeper than looks. We also had the same interests. Both of us started playing table tennis at the age of ten. It’s another story that Vikram went on to become the school champion for five consecutive years. But I’d like to believe that I had a big hand in that. After all, I chose to lose to him in the semi-finals in the fifth year so that he could make the school record. But deep in my heart, I know that my brother—Shershah of Kargil—was a winner right from the start.

Shershah of Kargil. That’s what the enemy too called Vikram. That’s the mark he made on them on those unforgiving mountains of Kargil. I don’t know at what stage Vikram marched on way ahead of all of us. We’d grown up as regular kids, making our choices as we went along. The first different choice that I remember is when our father started giving us Rs 50 a month for the school bus fare. I chose to travel to school by bus. Vikram opted to walk it and instead spend those rupees in the canteen. As we grew up, Vikram opted for the Army, and I, rejected thrice by the Services Selection Board, settled for business administration. How thrilled he was when he made it to the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehradun.

It was 6 December 1997. Vikram Batra’s dream came true. He took the oath as an Officer of the Indian Army: The Safety, Honour and Welfare of your country comes first, always and every time / The Honour, Welfare and Comfort of the men you command comes next / Your own Ease, Comfort and Safety comes last, always and every time. /
Mom and Dad pinned up the stars on his shoulder. He stood there smiling from ear to ear in his crew cut and several kilos thinner after the rigorous training. It was a grand moment. But it wasn’t going to be an easy life and Vikram knew that.

When he’d come home on annual leave, we would talk for hours about the challenges he faced in Sopore—the strife-torn town in Jammu & Kashmir’s Baramulla district—which was his first posting. He had been commissioned into 13 JAK Rif. We would dream of the day he would command his regiment and I would get a chance to attend some of the regimental functions with his family and children. That dream is lost now.

Never could I have imagined, even in my wildest dreams, that the stories we saw in the famous TV serial, Param Vir Chakra, which we watched at a neighbour’s house in 1985 (we didn’t have a TV at home back then) would one day become so real for me. And Vikram would be the hero. Vikram was awarded the country’s highest gallantry award, posthumously. He was only 24. His famous words from the height of 18,000 feet: “Yeh Dil Maange More,” after victory over the enemy, still ring in my ears.

It’s been ten years. A lot has changed. And a lot has remained the same. I have many more grey strands in my hair. Vikram is as youthful as ever. Time cannot touch him. In these last ten years, I have longed to visit those mountains that he conquered. And then suddenly, out of the blue, I got a call to travel to Kargil and Drass. It was as if Vikram was calling me to have a chat with him. I didn’t look back, packed my bags and set out to meet him.

I landed in Leh at 10:30 in the morning on 2 July, five days before Vikram’s tenth death anniversary. The valley was more beautiful than it is made out to be in books. From the snow-capped hills surrounding it, I could almost sense Vikram looking at me. I then began the road trip to Drass to meet him. The mountain wind blew faster than the speed of the car and in my mind there was just one picture—of the bearded young man who had become a legend for pushing the enemy back at insurmountable heights where even life does not exist.

A little outside Leh, we reached Gurdwara Pathar Sahib. I said a prayer for Vikram and for all those great soldiers guarding those mountains and our motherland. I recalled what Vikram had written in one of his last letters before the attack: ‘Life is at total risk. Anything can happen here. Take care of yourself and Mom and Dad… My picture has appeared in The Times Of India. Keep a copy for me. I want to see it once I’m back.’ The picture had appeared on the front page of The Times of India on 2 July 1999. It showed him standing with an anti-aircraft gun and weapons he had captured from Pakistani soldiers. This was after the first ferocious attack on Peak 5140 launched after they performed pooja at the Ghumri Base Camp with the call of “Durga Mata Ki Jai”.

Vikram and his men captured point 5140 on 20 June 1999, and two weeks later, when his company launched the attack on point 4875 on 5 July, Vikram was fatally wounded—hit by sniper fire. The company captured the peak, but after 11 casualties. Vikram was one of them.

It was months later, at the Western Command headquarters, when I met the junior commissioned officer (JCO) who was with Vikram the day he was fatally wounded. He was the last man to speak with Vikram. Sub Major Raghunath Singh started wailing when he saw me. He solved the mystery of my twin’s death for me: a young officer, Vikram’s junior, was hit and crying for help. The JCO wanted to go out to help but Vikram stopped him. “The enemy was firing heavily. ‘You have a family and children back home, I will do this,’ saahab said. He stopped me with these words and went out,” Raghunath Singh told me as he wept like a baby, inconsolably. But Vikram was hit by sniper fire. Having realised that, the charged company went berserk, mad with rage at their leader being hit, and killed the enemy soldiers. The tricolour was planted atop point 4875—they call it Batra Top now. Vikram reached Palampur before the sun rose on 11 July 1999. He was wrapped in the tricolour, lying calm almost as if he was trying to catch up on sleep he had lost during these arduous assaults on those treacherous peaks.

Was I really so close to those peaks that I could almost see him fighting there? I wanted to reach up there as fast as possible, but the track was treacherous—the rocky mountain on one side and the sheer fall on the other. In some time, we had left the Indus River behind.

It was a breathtaking journey. A place so beautiful and yet caught in the crossfire of war a decade ago. Midway, at one of the military posts, we had lunch with the commanding officer of 4 JAK Rif. I also met an officer six months senior to Vikram—now a major—and a JCO, both of whom had fought the war together with Vikram. “You look so much like Vikram Sir,” the JCO said and hugged me. I’ve been told that a billion times in the last ten years. There are people now who know me as Captain Vikram Batra’s brother. Many of them even walk into my office at ICICI Bank in Delhi and stare at me as if they know me. Some of them even say, “We’ve seen you somewhere.” When I tell them I’m Captain Batra’s twin, they say, “Oh, ‘Yeh Dil Mange More,’” and shake my hand.

My dream of visiting Vikram as a commanding officer of a regiment couldn’t come true. But Vikram still commands. He’s there in the hearts of the soldiers posted in Kargil and Drass. In that mountain named after him (the Batra Top). And in the transit camp in Drass, called Capt Batra Transit Camp, where weary soldiers break their journey in the call of duty.

‘Call of duty’, the mention of these words takes me back to the days he was to be commissioned as an officer. When he was in the IMA, the footnote of Vikram’s letter pad read, ‘If Death comes to me before I prove my blood, I promise I’ll kill Death.’ You kept your word, Vikram. My Brother, My Twin, I salute you.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

FROM MY LOG BOOK - PART II

In continuation from here........

Our first landing at Leh was an experience. We were still relatively shielded from the army and thus at least I had no clue about Op Meghdoot. We were ready to ferry back, now that the trial landings were a success. Instead we now had orders to continue at Leh until further orders. These further orders were received on 25 Sep 84, when it was no longer feasible or required to operate from Leh - five day trial landings became a five month sojourn at Leh - this is not abnormal in the fauj. Faujis don't complain because they make the best of the worst that is meted out to them - it is this 'never give up' and 'make the best of everything, with very minimal complaint' spirit that I love about the fauj. Coming back to Leh...

We had flown in the valleys North of Bagdogra and Tezpur, but had never landed at such high altitude. Some of us had landed at Srinagar, elevation about 5000 ft, but Leh was close to 11000 ft. What's the big deal? Two things come to mind; first is the mind itself, which happens to be the biggest problem, and secondly of course are the physical limitations, which can be overcome; and the limitations of the machine, which should not be transgressed under normal conditions. However, this was not a normal condition. In this instance, the mind had got no chance to be prepared for this mission - this normally happens in the fauj, because surprise and secrecy are two of the basic principles of war.

Mind says its never been done - this is the first time; we don't know the risk involved; what are the problems; we did not even get time to study and ask the experts about solutions to the problems; we've never been there; the terrain; the obstacles; the pressure altitude; the runway without arrester barrier and Indus river in the take-off path; and finally 'what if?'; we told our near and dear ones that we are going for 5-day trial landings at Leh. None of us had been there - fear of the unknown. Well the fauj trains you in how to deal with such situations. This is where squadron, izzat (honour), esprit de corps, nation and the other higher sentiments come into play automatically and one is ready to do what is needed, and the doubts in one's mind are put to rest. The families also understand the meaning of the term "service exigencies", and are generally very supportive.

The physical limitations were not insurmountable but just to highlight a few that were encountered. For one, the aircraft flies in the medium of air and any changes in the pressure and temperature (pressure and temperature reduce with altitude) of the air has an impact on the performance of the aircraft and engine - suffice it to say that the aircraft performance at altitude is less than that at sea level. Secondly, Leh is in a valley at 11000 ft, with even higher mountains around it, peaks touching about 18000 ft. Khardung La pass is at 18380 ft, just NNE of Leh. Fighters typically do a circling approach to land, and aim to keep the runway in sight all through the process. In Leh, this was not possible because of the mountain ridges all around. The ground is sloping all around with hardly any flat stretch. Thirdly, the Leh runway is sloping - this has its own implications on takeoff and landing - you could only land one way at Leh and takeoff only the other way, that is towards the Indus river. This has implications - slope may be favourable but then winds may be totally unfavourable for takeoff. Leh gets very strong winds during the day, and mostly adverse for take-off, and even the temperatures go beyond 30 deg Celsius during summers - not a good combination for aircraft performance during take-off. Lastly, on short finals one flies over the Indus river, where normally wind shear is encountered as the day progresses.

Anyway, the landings were successful and we were now ready to find a room and rest, as per the doctor's orders. We could hardly see any building in the area - there was sand all around and some mud hut kind of structures. We were taken to the Officers mess - a small outfit catering to the small contingent of Air Force officers permanently based at Leh (2 year hard area tenure), and for helicopter crew operating on detachment out of Leh. Helicopters, Cheetah and Chetak had been there for some years before us - for how they reached there you can visit this page. The rooms were thus in short supply in the mess. We were assigned two to a room - small rooms with two beds each and a kerosene bukhari in the centre - the bukharis kerosene supply ends on 31 March, irrespective of outside temperature - audit requirements. It had an attached toilet but no water pipes or taps. There were two buckets to store water in the toilet. Water had to be collected from two big open drums kept in the courtyard, which in turn were replenished by water bowsers twice a day. Temperatures at night were still sub zero, and thus the water would freeze in the metal buckets. In case one wanted to have a bath in the morning, we had to insert the bazooka (a local innovation - a long wooden stick on which a 2000 W heater element was wound and which could be plugged into the socket - served the purpose of an immersion rod) in to the bucket before going to sleep. There was no 24 hour electricity, but a generator supplied electricity for a few hours during the morning and evening hours.

Having put our luggage in the assigned room, and looking at the state of our accommodation, we went and had lunch followed by the saunf. It was interesting to see some vitamin tablets in the same tray. On inquiry it was revealed that until the roads to Leh open, fresh vegetables are scarce and thus most of the food cooked is from packaged tins. This food causes digestive problems and it is thus advisable to partake a tablet of Vitamin B, along with the meals. Anyway, went back to the room for some rest.

In the evening, my Flt Commander and I went over to have a look at our airmen's accommodation - it could be termed as 'just to survive'. I was getting agitated now and my senior told me to relax and wisely told me that "water will eventually finds its level", and it eventually did. Our clothing was pathetic for the climatic conditions. The local base issued us coat parkhas and monkey caps which became our survival kit. The airmen had to be briefed not to touch any part of the aircraft or metal at night or early morning, lest one looses the skin of his hand - we did not have the requisite gloves - the move was at very short notice, and also to a place we were never planned to operate from.

We rested on 06th May and my log book shows that I flew a handling sortie over the Leh runway on 07th May. Each one of us had done a sortie each, and the Leh valley was reverberating with jet engine sound and Hunter aircraft doing aerobatics over the airfield. We were trying to adjust to operating the aircraft at higher heights - the handling characterstics change; of course, the terrain at Leh is also imposing and needs to be pictured in your mind's eye to make one comfortable operating there. After landing we decided to investigate our surroundings, now that we were destined to stay at Leh for an extended duration. All of us piled up in the jeep and headed to the Army movie hall. We were still in our anti g-suits. When we got off the jeep, we were received by the army who termed us as their biggest saviours - they told us how they feel re-assured now that our Air Force is here. The movie was on and we were ushered in to the last row of seats and were told that this row would always be kept for us. Our reception by the Army jawans was spontaneous and heartfelt - it felt nice to be wanted. Later we pieced together information about Op Meghdoot and how the Army had pre-empted Pakistan and moved on to Siachen Glacier on 13 April 84. Sometime after this 4 Pakistani Mirages had overflown the glacier and that is when the Army had sent in an SOS for the IAF, and we were selected at short notice, with that phone call on 25 April 84.

The next day we had a severe dust storm and the visibility dropped to less than 10 metres. The wind was howling and the there was sand all over. Our aircraft did not have the requisite protection for these conditions and so despite all our sea level protection, we had sand in every opening in the aircraft. A lot of time and energy was thereafter spent on cleaning and ridding the aircraft of the sand. In the mean while Pakistan army had launched an attack, which was repulsed by our troops, as we were sitting at higher heights. We were planned to be taken on a glacier recce trip in the helicopter to get to know the conditions where we were required to operate. We were picked up in a Mi-8 from Leh and were transported over Khardung la to the Base camp. At base camp, there were two Cheetah helicopters that were assigned to take us up the glacier, and show us the two passes - Sia La and Bilafond la at an elevation of about 17000 ft - these passes were overlooking the Pakistani troops stationed 3 -5000 ft below.


A Cheetah helicopter over the Siachen glacier. Image courtesy - Bharat-rakshak.com

...................................To be continued.

Monday, July 27, 2009

FROM MY LOG BOOK - A SANITISED GLIMPSE

25th April 1984.....around 2 pm; Hasimara, West Bengal. We had finished flying for the day and were getting ready to packup when the phone rang. Command Headquarters on line asking for the Commanding Officer. Boss took the phone and we could all hear him saying, "Yes sir". We instinctively knew that something was on. He puts the phone down and tells us that we were required to fly to Srinagar for trial landings at Leh...an airfield at 10734 ft. elevation. (Some of us in the Air Force had never heard of Leh back then. As per us, only the Army ventured there - hard area. The transport and helicopter fleet also landed there to support Army operations, specially in winter when the roads all shut down due to snow). When? We need to fly out tomorrow early morning. Get everything ready - 4 aircraft with 230 gallon tanks on and 100 gallon tanks to be carried in the AN-12, which will be landing here tonight. How? Nobody could understand, but one does not question on operational matters. Everyone gets busy... men getting aircraft ready, pilots getting maps and briefings ready.... will be staging through Kanpur, as we cannot make it direct to Srinagar.

My thoughts...my wife with our four year old daughter is booked to go to Delhi by Tinsukia mail from Alipur duar (about 40 kms away) in the first week of May. Our trial landings, we are told, will last for 5 days and so should be back by the time she has to leave. No sweat...lets focus on the task at hand. Personal life thoughts......put away.

Doubts linger in our minds....trial landings are not time bound....so, maybe we will not leave tomorrow...in any case there is no AN-12 anywhere close and we cannot leave without transport support. At night, we hear an AN-12 landing at Hasimara - a rare event. We now know that something serious is on. The AN-12 crew tell us that they were in Kanpur in the afternoon and had already loaded a glider to transport to some destination when they were ordered to throw the glider out and mover ASAP to Hasimara and take further instructions from our boss. It is late at night by now. Next morning...

The AN-12 is already loaded and we are ready to ferry out. Kanpur - land, refuel and off to Srinagar. On landing at Srinagar, we are informed to move to the satellite base. Take off Srinagar...land at sattelite base....aircraft are parked in blast pens. As we come out, we hear a helicopter coming in to land. Out comes a 3-star General who tells us that don't worry... in case you eject over the glacier, I will have my ski troops pick you up in 15 minutes....we are all flabbergasted...what glacier?....we thought we had come all the way for trial landings at Leh. The Base Commander steps in, and tells the General that we are unaware of the mission and could the General wait until we reach the underground, secure base operations. Our heads are already spinning...what's going on here?

We are given a 'need to know' briefing that tells us that our Army may need our presence at Leh and thus we need to do trial landings there, so that in case they need us, we would be ready for operations ex-Leh. It is still trial landings and then return to Hasimara. Leh is not a normal airfield for fighter operations, to say the least. Our aircraft are checked out and configured with 100 gallon tanks... 230s being stored for the return flight to Hasimara.

Next few days, we are briefed by our Packet stalwarts about the terrain, the route and the take off and landing considerations at Leh. We are all given an aerial reconnaissance trip in a Packet from Srinagar to Leh. This trip was absolutely mind boggling. The aircraft took off on two engines and once airborne the flight engineer started the jet pack, the aircraft orbited in the valley to gain altitude and then got into the valley heading towards Kargil. As it crossed 10,000 ft, the Captain asked us to have a hookah inhale....we were given a tube through which we inhaled oxygen through our mouths...like smoking a hookah. The aircraft is not permitted to enter clouds and the rate of climb, even with the jet pack on, was so little that we fighter pilots were feeling suffocated in the valley between tall mountains on either side; valley with clouds and the aircraft with no capability to climb .... we admired the guts of our Packet brethren to fly such an aircraft is such hostile conditions. It seemed that the wingtips of the aircraft would touch the mountains any time when the pilots were manoeuvring to avoid the clouds. Eventually they gave up and we returned back to our departing base. We were then briefed some more and we were ready to do it on our own, and we were happier, as our aircraft atleast had the capability to climb above the high mountain peaks.


Packet with a jet pack on top at Leh airfield.
Image courtesy Bharat-Rakshak.com


This was followed by a couple of handling sorties at high altitude; followed by overshoots at Leh. Our CO and flight commander land at Leh... in true military style...leader leads the way, always. On 05 May 1984, all four aircraft land at Leh and we are proud to be the first fighter squadron to have landed at Leh. The doctor comes and tells us to stay resting in the room for atleast 24 hours to let the body adjust to the high altitude...when one reaches above 10,000 ft, without acclimatisation, from sea level, it could lead to complications of water in the lungs due to inadequate partial pressure of oxygen at that altitude.

What happened to my wife and daughter? She got to know that we would not be coming back before her departure. She requested friends from the Air OP flight to have her dropped at Alipur Duar. The train was at night and that region is not very friendly, specially at night. 4 of our friends took time off and saw her off at the station and she reached Delhi. Service exigencies.....she, like most fauji wives, had understood the meaning of these two words very early in our marriage.....we generally brief them before the marriage itself.....there are cases where some weak hearted then have had doubts about marrying a fauji.

...................To be continued.