Col R K Bhattacharya
I have been in Kolkata for the past six years. Since I never required heavy winter clothing here I finally decided to discard some of them. My long association with counter insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir had led me to accumulate too many of these heavy woollens but they had become redundant in the warm weather of Kolkata .
I picked up a faded, hand-woven, cheap-looking jacket. Should I throw it out? I wondered. It has been with me since 1997. It reminded me of the days when I was a Major.
I had just then been posted for conducting counter insurgency operations in the then most challenging district – Kupwara in Kashmir Valley. I had left behind my family at Allahabad. My wife and two small daughters were then fighting their own battle in order to adjust themselves in an alien town. I did not have time to get them settled. I had to move at a very short notice.
Within twenty four hours I found myself leading a major cordon and search operation on a cold winter night. There was snow all around and we had encircled the village where the suspected militants were holed up. The moon was up. I was sure that I was about to get a ‘good catch’. After all visibility was very good and the terrorists would be spotted, distinctly against the white snowy background. Remember those were the days when the army was yet to get night vision devices.
As was the custom we had asked the villagers to come out of their homes and assemble at a safe place just to avoid collateral damage. Then I saw her. She must have been of the same age as my younger daughter. Curled up in her mother’s lap she was looking as innocent as any baby in any part of the world. She was unaware of the fact that hell will break out soon. Automatics would open up, grenades about to be burst and the white snow would mingle with blood. She looked exactly like my younger daughter who had waved me good bye from her mother’s lap, when I left home. But this girl was out in cold. Possibly her mother could not get her woollens while hurrying to find a safe place.
I was wearing a heavy army jacket. Running between cover to cover with a blazing Kalashnikov, I may not require it at all. I was reminded of my daughters who would be under the quilt to ward off the cold in UP, listening to bed time stories from their mother. I shrugged out of the jacket and gave it to her. Then suddenly I heard a burst from an automatic from one of the houses. My search party must have come under fire. I rushed to be with them.
The operation ended in a resounding success. We had no major casualties, but eliminated two foreign terrorists. I had received a minor splinter injury that required some medical attention. In the ecstasy of a battle won and administering of first aid I forgot all about the jacket.
I was advised rest due to loss of some blood. So it took me a few days before I once again drove into the village. And there she stood wearing my olive green jacket with the field emblem of Major on it. She saluted me. I gave her a toffee as was the custom of all officers when they met children. But I did not have the heart to ask her to return my jacket. Will it be misused? May be yes, may be no. But I decided against asking for the jacket.
Later, whenever I passed the village she was always there wearing the jacket and saluting me.
Three years later I was posted out. I had made many young friends in the village by then. We played cricket with them. So a large part of the village was there to see me off. It was then she came with her mother with a hand woven Kashmiri jacket for me. I could not ask what was the price of the jacket. There were orders against accepting any gift from locals. But I simply took the gift. It is the same jacket which I was just thinking of discarding. No, I decided I could not throw it away. It went back into the same box where it had remained for so many years.
As I write this, news of another Fidayeen attack in the same village keeps pouring in. The soil of Panzgam is again soaked with blood. How long? Oh lord! How long must the Valley suffer? I wonder in deep frustration.