He was young and ambitious like most young service officers. He had been promoted as a Major and posted to Jammu and Kashmir region. For nearly three months he was commanding a company deployed in the Baramula district of Kashmir. His men were highly vulnerable due to their proximity to the Line of Control with frequently unprovoked firing by the enemy troops. There were villages on either side of the porous border and it was an open secret that the insurgents received help from the villagers living on either side of the border.
He was fast learning the ground truths that human sentiments had hardly any space in the life he was subjected to. He had a miraculous escape when he was attacked by a young man whose father he had helped. In fact, he had taken the bleeding old man who was hit by a speeding truck to the hospital and given his blood to save his life. The victim’s son had expressed profound gratitude and vowed to eschew violence. For a young idealist having great respect for human values that was a moment of personal triumph.
A week later, the young officer was ambushed while returning from a recce and it was a rude shock for him to find the young man as one of the assailants and when he was brought before him for interrogation, he saw no trace of remorse on his face. Worse, the officer was in for a rude shock when the old man whose life he had saved was equally stubborn and refused to talk to him. It was a new experience and he knew he had to adapt it.
He had received an intelligence message that the terrorists were meeting in Khusbag village, which fell within his area. He was now cautious and sceptical and less emotional -all essential attributes for survival. He planned the search operation carefully and alerted the commander of the adjoining post to be in readiness for any support if required.
At mid night, he moved out with his men encircling Khusbag village. All routes were blocked and troops were positioned to ambush any one entering or getting out of the village. Under the dark clouded sky, in the cold April night, he and his troops waited to kill or to be killed. In a counter-insurgency operation, one with an alert mind and swift action was the winner and the survivor.
Suddenly they noticed a light. It was a thin, pale light, perhaps of a lantern. He alerted his troops to wait for his signal.
“Let the bastards come closer. I want none of them to escape the cordon,” he whispered to his junior.
The light was coming nearer and they could hear the footsteps now. Perhaps they were three or four. They knew insurgents moved in small groups as a matter of strategy. And then he could make out that one of the voices was that of a woman. That was a bit surprising.
As the group came closer, their nerves were strained and tension mounted high. Suddenly a soldier pressed the trigger. And then it was a mayhem, all weapons spilling fire. Then they heard the group shrieking and shouting.
“Please stop firing. Please stop firing. We are from Khusbag village going to get a doctor.”
Another trick, he thought but intuitively he signalled to stop firing and shouted.
“Come out on the road, hands up and no mischief; you are surrounded from all sides.”
After few tense moments full of apprehension, they saw a young girl coming on to the road, her hands raised and a lantern resting on her head. Behind her was a small boy. The third person fearing punishment suddenly took a plunge into the bushes. A volley of fire followed in his direction. It was difficult to make out whether the man was hit or otherwise.
“Keep a watch; we will search the area after the daybreak. Shoot anyone trying to escape,” he ordered.
He then started the process of interrogation.
“Where are you going at this hour of the night? Who is the man who has vanished? Are there any outsiders in the village?” He had to know the answers before deciding the further course of action.
“Sir, my mother is seriously ill and we were going to the next village to get a doctor. This is my younger brother and the man who fled out of fear is my uncle. Please leave us,” the girl told him crying.
“Shut up, you bloody liar,” he shouted. “I will kill both of you if you don’t come out with the truth,” he said pointing his revolver at the young boy.
“Sir, my mother is on the deathbed. Please let my brother go at least. They are waiting for the doctor. Sir, you can find the truth by coming to the village with us.”
Going to the village at that hour meant falling straight in to their trap. He lost his cool and slapped the girl so hard that she fell down.
“Tie their hands and feet and put them in the jeep. Keep a close watch and be very careful. The terrorists may attack any time to rescue them,” he briefed his men and passed a message over the wireless to the adjoining units to close in.
The sunrays were breaking the skyline. The search had begun. Every male member over the age of six was asked to stand aside. The huts were searched inside, around and below. Men, women, and children were identified with the help of family identity cards. Apparently there was no outsider in the village unless someone was hiding in the fields.
As the search was going on, he called the girl, apprehended in the night and asked her who was the other person accompanying her.
The little girl didn’t know what to say for she feared for the life of the man who was her uncle. That made her a suspect in the eyes of the officer.
“Tell me the truth or I will put all of you behind the bar,” the officer shouted at her.
The young girl was frightened.
“Sir, he was my uncle and has been hit by a bullet. He is lying in the barn, scared of you.”
The officer ordered his men to get the man before him.
The frail man had his right leg bandaged by linen and the officer could see it was soaked in blood. The man could hardly stand on his feet.
“Keep a watch over him,” he ordered his men and then asked the girl to take him to her hut.
There were a few sheeps outside the hut barricaded with bamboo fence and on the other side was a big oval shaped bamboo basket in which few chickens were incarcerated. The animals and the poultry were protesting for being kept under detention at the hour when they normally enjoyed their freedom.
There was a typical smell of raw flesh, tobacco and kerosene stove inside the hut. He hated that smell and for that matter he hated to enter any hut. But he had to establish the truth of the story given by the girl.
In the grim silence of the hut, a human figure covered with a sheet of cloth was lying near the hearth. A woman perhaps, as he noticed the long tuft of hair spread on the floor. She was alone, her husband must be outside for the identification, he thought.
“She is my sick mother,” wailed the girl as she bent over her to uncover her face. And then she shook her violently, coaxing her to say a few words to vouch for her story. She wanted her to speak to save her brother and her uncle who were now in the custody of security forces. A word from her mother was very important.
The human figure rolled over. The words wouldn’t come, the woman was dead.
The girl was dumb as she sat near the body of her mother for whose sake she had risked the life of her younger brother and her uncle. The officer was shaken once again. “I am sorry,” he said as he came out of the hut.
“Close the search,” the officer ordered and then he called the father of the girl who was still waiting for identification.
“Go to your family and take this money, you may need it,” he said handing him some money.
There were tears in the eyes of the man. He hesitated but the officer insisted.
The man then raised his head and said, “Shukriya Janaab. With this money, I can at least give her a decent funeral.”