Articles >> Saga of Nawang

Saga of Nawang

Maj. General (Retd) Randhir Sinh is a close friend of the family. In many ways Lt. Nawang’s interaction with him inspired Nawang to join the army.

by Maj. Gen (Retd.) Randhir Sinh

I met Nawang in the grand, natural setting, of the Siachen Glacier, when he accompanied his father, Harish Kapadia, on the Rose Expedition. After a gap of many years, it was the first time a civilian expedition was venturing into the Siachen; an occasion we were looking forward to as it would show that the Glacier was ours and also highlight the difficulties and sacrifices of the Army. I still remember the enthusiasm and dynamism of Harishbhai, very familiar to those who know him, as he outlined to me the Expedition’s itinerary and objectives. Nawang stood quietly in the background listening to his father’s lucid briefing. I was briefly introduced to him and liked what I saw. Imagine our surprise and trepidation when, after the Expedition had ventured in, its clearance was withdrawn, for reasons not clear to me even now. This led to a painful confrontation with Harishbhai, who was livid for obvious reasons and refused to withdraw. Ultimately he did so in great umbrage and moved out of the Siachen Base Camp for Leh in high dudgeon. This was turning out to be a major PR disaster for the Army and I was compelled to salvage some grace out of the unsavoury incident, mainly because I was loath to have a great mountaineer like Harish as my enemy. I promptly despatched my most suave staff officer to intercept him with instructions not to come back without Harishbhai and his colleagues. And so it turned out that on a sunny afternoon at the Mess in Partapur, the Expedition Members and the Brigade Headquarters Staff quaffed vast quantity of beer in increasing conviviality while reliving memories of the Himalayas and Siachen. It also set the stage for a firm friendship between our families, though it took some time for Harish to forgive the Army. I remember conversing with Nawang. He spoke little but firmly and preferred to sit quietly watching the interplay between the rest of the people present. Warmed by his presence I remember telling the company that he was the right material for the Army.

We maintained contact and Harish and Nawang even visited my home in Rajpipla where Harishbhai gave a brilliant exposition on the Siachen to an assembly of friends and relatives we had invited in his honour. It did my reputation no harm as the people realized most clearly what it meant to serve in one of the most inhospitable regions of the world. As conversation flowed, I and my Father were nostalgic about our life with the Gorkhas and Nawang was much at ease. It was here that he possibly made up his mind to join the Infantry.

Nawang’s determination to join the Army is already well documented. His father kept me informed of his progress up to the Officers Training Academy, where Nawang with grim determination kept up with the training. His quiet but helpful nature made him some firm friends. A few months before being commissioned all gentlemen cadets are asked to give three choices for the arm and regiment they would prefer to join. Because of the severe privations and the danger one has to undergo, Infantry is not a preferred choice, except by those who are hardy or adventurous. One day I got an e mail from Nawang asking me for advice as to which regiment and battalion he should opt for as he had decided to join the Infantry. I was delighted and obviously advised him to join any of the gorkha regiments (always a firm favourite with gentlemen cadets) and preferably my battalion, 4th Battalion the 3rd Gorkha Rifles, as my son was serving in it. Without hesitation Nawang opted for the Unit and was commissioned into it. He was a great catch for the Battalion as good, altruistic and dedicated officers are rare, especially someone like Nawang, who gave up a thriving family business and a rich inheritance, to live a spartan life.

I was at that time posted near Jammu and one day got a call from Nawang, sounding very tentative, formal and respectful, as youngsters talking to senior officers are wont to do. He was at the Transit Camp, en route on posting to the Battalion, and sought permission to call on me. I immediately invited him to dinner. It turned out to be a pleasant evening as I waxed eloquent about the Battalion in which I had served most of my military life. It had made me what I was and I re-assured the youngster as to the future. Nawang looking bronzed, fit and chiselled sat stiffly upright and on the edge of the seat; and though he joined the conversation frankly, refused to unbend his posture. The Battalion was serving on a mobile role in counter terrorist operations, always a dangerous assignment, and was presently deployed in the Kupwara Sector. Kupwara is notorious for its rampant terrorism spawned by a sympathetic population, proximity to the Line of Control and difficult terrain. I knew that the Unit was on continuous operations with a paucity of officers resulting in a fairly strenuous time for those present. I tried to instil some caution in Nawang but knew that for a young man, embarking on a new career and confident in himself, caution is a word rarely understood. It is more familiar to cynical, old soldiers determined to die in bed. Nevertheless, most officers have won their spurs; with a modicum of luck, serving in such an environment and looking at Nawang I was sanguine that he would prove a great asset to my unit. But as Forster put it, ‘there is much good luck in this world. But it is only luck. None of us are safe’.

When Nawang joined the Unit, it was busy in operations with a severe shortage of officers. While an infantry battalion is supposed to have more than 20 officers, the strength, at times, is barely half on account of manning shortages, leave, duties and so on. This result in those present having to shoulder disproportionate burdens and for 4/3 GR, deployed under cruel circumstances, the burden on its officers was fairly heavy. It was an environment fraught with difficulties where leadership is always at the cutting edge and calls for much sacrifice.

The details of the encounter in which Nawang laid down his life are fairly well known and so I will only touch on certain facets. In the normal course an officer is groomed carefully in a battalion. He is made to imbibe its traditions, learn leadership at the grass roots by commanding a section, the smallest sub unit, and then graduating upward and doing a wide variety of cadres, which allow the officer to develop a bond with his men. The infantryman, especially the gorkha soldier, is slow to give his nod but once he smiles at you he’s yours for life. This all happens in a peace time cocoon. In Kupwara there was never such luxury. Leadership and soldiering was an everyday affair, supervision by superiors was difficult as they were rarely there. Nawang was learning his ropes through the unforgiving hand of experience. I recollect a similar experience in 1983 when in the middle of intense counter insurgency operations in Manipur I had 2/Lt S Kashinathan posted into my company. While the presence of an additional officer is always a boon, Kashi’s apprenticeship was, at times, irritating to me as his mistakes and eagerness to learn diverted me from my duties, which I could ill afford, short as I was in sleep and time. Kashi learnt on the job and how! His luck held for two years by when he had received two gallantry awards. When I was away he was killed in hand to hand combat by a terrorist bullet. Nawang acutely reminded me of him in many ways and like him was on the short end, learning with every experience. Unfortunately he had too little time to learn so that when he faced a life threatening crisis it were only his instincts and core qualities which he could fall back upon.

The Battalion was operating in the Rajwar Forest area notorious for its broken terrain and thick undergrowth, which restricts movement and reduces visibility. Nawang was with his platoon whose members, mostly young soldiers, he was just getting to know. The Platoon Havildar was the linchpin; a former battalion boxer, well known to me, confident and a good mentor. Nawang’s company had earlier operated in the vicinity and had only that day moved through the area without finding any sign of terrorists. When the Platoon chanced upon the terrorist hideout the encounter was sudden, brutal and at close quarters. In the heavy exchange of fire Havildar Chitra Bahadur was severely wounded. The men went to ground and manoeuvred for tactical advantage. In such a situation every man finds himself alone as he desperately tries to protect himself from hostile fire. Subsequent reconstruction of events showed that Nawang had positioned himself behind a tree and was trying to rally the troops. Chitra Bahadur’s cries of pain seemed to have galvanised him into trying a personal rescue attempt, where he possibly got mortally wounded. He nevertheless continued to fire and pin down the terrorists, who in a desperate attempt to escape the closing cordon targeted Nawang and closed in on him with concentrated fire. When Nawang was found it was noticed that his body was facing forward, weapon in hand with its magazine empty.

I would like to highlight two issues which have a bearing on what Nawang did. The first is an attempt to understand what impels a soldier, especially an officer, to act in a manner that puts his life on the line even though a safer and easier alternative is available. There is enough empirical evidence to suggest that an officer’s sense of responsibility, the idea of duty and honour; his unwillingness to be shamed in the eyes of his men and colleagues, all contribute to his ability to lead and be averse to taking the opprobrious path. Here is an officer just newly commissioned into a battalion whose men come from a background at complete anti-thesis to the life style he has led; he barely knows them and is operating in an unfamiliar terrain. When faced with an intensely dangerous situation he does not hide or flee, which was possible, but tackles the danger directly, perhaps instinctively, knowing that he may not survive. Nawang came from a family without the tradition and, sometimes, baggage of a military background. He joined the Army despite a powerful disincentive in the form of a thriving business. He was overweight and had to go through a strict regimen of exercises to get through the medical board. Patriotism and religion are unlikely to have made him so determined seeing his egalitarian background. In any case the last two aspects are not an over riding source of influence in our army. It was obvious that a powerful motivation was working on him, perhaps a fallout of his Father’s love for mountains and his association with mountaineers. It is a calling similar to the military on account of the trust, discipline, expertise, hardihood and daring required in good mountaineers. His Mother’s selfless nature and brother’s love may also have shown him the path of sacrifice. When it came to the crunch Nawang refused to take the safer and dishonourable road.

And this is where I raise the second issue of courage. This is the core virtue. It cannot be imbibed or force fed. If a man does not have courage all his other qualities will fail him in times of crisis. During training the soldier is made to realise this quality in him. It is nurtured in a manner that the soldier understands what he’s capable of, the limit of his endurance and resistance to privations; the ability to withstand danger. However, the training institution can only make a soldier realise his courage, it can rarely inculcate it. It knows that more it makes a soldier exercise courage the stronger he will be. The Institution also knows that without courage all other qualities are as nought and though it may ultimately make an officer out of the trainee he would not be a leader. As Senator John McCain put it, “Without courage all virtue is fragile: admired, sought after, professed, but held cheaply and surrendered without a fight.” One thing Nawang never lacked was courage.

Fate plays strange tricks. It picks up a cloth merchant’s son, a lover of mountains and puts him in the face of maximum danger from where he refuses to budge and pays the price. He came from the same city in which, during the Kargil War, a boogieing youngster, now perhaps a captain of industry, told a TV reporter that he did not care that people were fighting and dying. One may well ask was such sacrifice worth it. And I would ask in return do you value the laughter of your children as they gambol in the park or the cosiness in the bosom of your family, ensconced in the shelter of your homes. If you do, then also realise that it has been made possible because Nawang and others like him, have faced countless privations and even death to ensure our way of life. Security does not come without a price. I find it a great pity that those who have the most to lose are rarely willing to sacrifice for it. In Nawang and his saga I find a ray of hope. In the end it would be apt to quote Alan Seeger, 28, poet and warrior, who died in the trenches during the Great War:

God knows ‘twere better to be deep

Pillowed in silk and scented down

Where love throbs out in blissful sleep

Pulse nigh to nigh and breath to breath

Where hushed awakenings are dear…

But I’ve a rendezvous with Death

At midnight in some flaming town,

When spring trips north again this year,

And I to my pledged word am true,

I shall not fail that rendezvous’.