Preparing for War: The Train to Rajasthan
The other day I met EssKay. I accused him of being in the same station yet not finding time to meet up friends. He said – “Kya Karen, just returned from an Exercise in Rajasthan”. Memories transported me again…..Rajasthan holds special place for me in my career, I went there immediately on getting commissioned and trained most of my life as a soldier, in Rajasthan, more than any other place.
It was a chilly winter morning on the 17 Dec 2001. I was groggy when the brilliant sun broke through the early morning sky. We were on the move, the whole night and had reached Sami Ka Tala, a non-descriptive remote village in the map of Rajasthan, to progress the battle further. We were taking part in a major exercise in the sandy deserts of Rajasthan, totally oblivious to the happenings in the outside world. Barring the odd transistor which some of us carried, there was little else with which to know how the events were shaping up. The transistor too had kept its regular news updates. But something had brewed in Delhi. Terrorist had struck on the symbol of Indian democracy – The Parliament. And a decision was taken four days later. We were unaware of that, that winter morning.
The first shock came when a message was passed through the wireless radio, terminating the two day old exercise, which otherwise was planned for six long days. I had sleep in my mind when we heard rumours flying thick and fast. “Exercise Terminated; Mobilisation Ordered; War is on; We will avenge the attack on the Parliament”, so on and so forth. We huddled together around the lone transistor, tweaking it to listen if we could get some information. No, it never mentioned anything on the mobilisation. To make matters worse, there was no news coming from the official channels. Radio silence was imposed and we were ‘High and Dry’ in the information arena. Discussions on the radio channels by experts were going on at regular intervals, with their not so expert comments on how to deal with a rogue called Pakistan. Will a Surgical strike do the job, will it be a nuclear attack or will it be just a raid, or is it going to be a Hot Pursuit?
The tension was palpable on everybody’s face. It was not about war, but the lack of information about what exactly was happening. On the other hand we were really thrilled, to realise that at last we might have the golden opportunity that comes once in a lifetime, to put together all that we had trained for and fight; – Fight for the nation and be victorious in War. At seven in the evening, the Commandant of the Armoured Regiment with which I was affiliated came from a daylong conference at the Formation Headquarters. He confirmed that it was indeed “Mobilisation”. We were told to get back to our own Regiment location and reach a tentative Concentration Area. But not before a parting hug and some brave plans to meet in Karachi- Insha Allah! Suddenly, we found a new camaraderie among the Officers and men.
That started a long journey. A journey from the golden sands of Rajasthan to the unit location, and back to these rolling dunes, bringing along the full complement of our equipment, men and material. We barely breathed the next few days. Collecting all the persons and equipment strewn around Rajasthan on exercise and getting them at one place, and then rushing back a 1000 kms to the unit peace location to collect the balance complement.
Those at the Regiment peace location were more professional than the rest of us. They had prepared on a war footing and the entire Regiment was ready and packed up awaiting the vehicles, trucks and trains to move to the borders. In about 3-4 days, convoy after convoy started its move to the Op location. None knew where we would go, and when we would go. We knew it was Rajasthan and then Pakistan. I was one of the last to leave in a Train. Waiting for the train to take us to glory was indeed painful. My days started and ended at the railway station. Every dawn we were prepared to load the train in six hours only to be told at dusk that the train might be placed at night. That ensured sleepless nights too.
The kids were thrilled to see us at home for an extra day. But our thoughts were not centered on our family. The wife and kids were the last problems on the agenda. Our thoughts were dominated by the lone worry of getting all the men and material in one piece, fighting fit, to the Op location. And then the question, “Can we deliver, when the time comes?” The women folk were the bravest. No shed tears, no chest beating. Brave wives of officers and men rallied together. The bonding of family only strengthened. They were keen to look after each other and not run away to their parents. I wondered, Whether war actually does wonders to a peacetime army? Remarkable was the way everyone adapted to the new loneliness and separation. These were indeed brave women behind the brave men.
Fear was not seen nor mentioned by anyone. None of the many boys I spoke to mentioned fear. They were not afraid. On the contrary they were eager to fight. Fed up of peacetime soldiering, they were ready and eager to go to war. After all some of them had only trained and trained their entire life, and they now wanted to know if it were of any use. A new camaraderie, a purpose in their lives, a sense of heightened responsibility, all were seen emerging. I could sense smartness in the way the young boys moved about in their daily work. Little did we all realise that the long wait in the deserts would take the gleam off their new found thrill.
Our Formation had practiced the mob drills often. Hardly had two months passed since our last practice during the routine annual inspection. Hence getting prepared for the mobilisation was not new to us, but moving lock stock and barrel to the Op location was indeed very much new to us. Our Regiment was in three different locations all over India, when the call came. A part of it was on exercise in Rajasthan, some were in Delhi practicing for the Republic Day parade, and a major portion had just returned a day prior from the missile firing from the eastern coast. Yet getting all these groups together was achieved without much delay. Persons were sent all over in all directions and we all converged back into Rajasthan. Some on Tank transporters, some on vehicles and the rest on the two trains. Brave boys of ours undertook this mammoth task and did it without any mishaps. They reaffirmed the faith reposed in them that we could count on them when it mattered the most.
I was the man deputed and entrusted with bringing the train safely at the earliest to our destination. Little did I sleep properly during those days. I had a wonderful set of officers who undertook their respective tasks and all that I did was to sit back and go over my checklists to see if I had overlooked anything that I would require once I land up there. The train move was wonderful. The railways were giving the military traffic priority over the Coal trains. In all my erstwhile peacetime moves, the coal used to be treated better than the soldiers. For once we were thrilled to know that we were better off than coal.
We moved faster than we imagined. Children, women, men old and young waved at us and showed that they supported us. It was a patriotically charged atmosphere. We felt elated and proud to have got an opportunity to show the nation that we meant business. We knew that they were looking at us expectantly to deliver – to teach the Pakis a lesson. The entire country was with us. We were on top of the world getting all this undivided attention.
Again I sat back and thought, in the normal course of things none would have even batted an eyelid to see us move, but today we were the cynosure of all eyes, the saviours of the nation. What a change in the behaviour of the people! I thanked Musharaff. We became heroes overnight. Brave hearts ready to live or die for the nation, brave martyrs or glorious victors! Suddenly we woke up to a new meaning and purpose in our lives!
The train moved on……
Sand to our left, Sands to our right
Endless stretches of undulating sand in sight…..
Undaunted in spirit, Unshaken in resolve
Onwards, towards Victory
We soldiers marched……….