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Gasping for breath on scary highway!

   By Vijay Darda | 01-08-2022

You cannot even imagine how difficult the life of soldiers is on the snowy peaks!

Vijay Darda

There is deep gorge on one side! So deep that if your vehicle slips even slightly, there is no chance of survival. And on the other, there are tall mountains which pose the danger of stones rolling down every moment. You never know which stone will come rolling down or when an avalanche will block the road! And the width of the road, full of potholes, is not more than 15 feet too. The journey of about 27 kilometres, especially from Zoji La Pass to Sonmarg, was very frightening. I was accompanied by my brother Rajendra. We were remembering God every moment!

The journey along this dangerous road called NH-1 was just a coincidence. I went to Leh to receive the very prestigious Mahakaruna Award from the Mahabodhi International Meditation Centre. From there, we were scheduled to reach Dras by helicopter, where we had to dedicate to the soldiers environment-friendly Kargil War Memorial Home for Jawans built with contribution from Lokmat Foundation and funds collected from the members of public. It was reported that the weather in Dras was very rough, and the helicopter could not land. It took us 8 hours to cover the distance of 280 kilometres by road to Dras.

Located in the Kargil district of Jammu and Kashmir, Dras is the second coldest place in the world. Russia’s Oymyakon is at number one. The average temperature at Dras drops to minus 22 degree Celsius in winter. Last year, the temperature in this area had come down to minus 27.2 degree Celsius.

The lowest temperature recorded so far was on January 9, 1995, when it reached minus 60 degree Celsius. In 1999, the Kargil war too was fought in minus 10 degree Celsius temperature. Even before I reached Dras, I started recalling the memories of 1999 Kargil war. I recalled the name of shepherd Tashi Namgyal who climbed a high mountain to find his missing yak and saw some movement. It was on May 13, 1999. He informed the Army. It took India a while to understand the situation that the Pakistani army had secretly occupied the peaks. It was positioned at a high altitude and our Army was its easy target. But the Indian Army, having understood the situation, displayed exemplary courage which is unparalleled. About 2.5 lakh bombs, shells and rockets were fired during the Kargil war. The Pakistan army ran away.

On July 26, i.e. Kargil Vijay Diwas, I and Rajendra were standing at the Kargil War Memorial in Dras. My editorial colleague Suresh Bhusari and chief photographer Rajesh Tickley were with me too. In front of me were plaques bearing the names of 559 martyred jawans. My eyes became moist in the memory of the martyrs. My heart filled with emotion. I do not have words to express my gratitude toward those martyred jawans. My hands automatically joined together in an expression of gratitude. We sleep peacefully because of these vigilant and brave soldiers. It is because of them that our country is safe. They uphold the glory of the tricolour.

I expressed my curiosity to the Army officers standing nearby, Lt Gen Anindya Sengupta, Major General Nagendra Singh, Brigadier U S Anand and Brigadier B S Multani, and asked why this war memorial was built in Dras? Major General Nagendra Singh said the battle was fought on these high mountains and it was from here that the bodies of 559 martyrs were taken down. The bodies of the martyrs reached their homes, but in the memory of their valour, the Kargil War Memorial was built here. Nearly 70 per cent of the battle was fought on the peaks of Dras including Tololing Hill, Tiger Hill and Batra Peak! During winter, the temperature there goes down to minus 60 degree Celsius. These peaks were occupied by the Pakistan army. Their goal was to block the Srinagar-Leh road. Six months of logistics and military equipment are supplied through this route. Had the Pakistan army captured it, it would have been a disaster!

Meanwhile, Captain Vikram Batra was assigned the task of recapturing the peak 5140. Despite being an extremely difficult and inaccessible area, Captain Batra conquered this peak. His victory proclamation ‘Yeh Dil Maange More’ echoed across the whole world. His code name for this attack was ‘Sher Shah’. That is why Captain Batra was also called the Lion of Kargil. Captain Batra was also given the responsibility of capturing peak 4875. Captain Batra completed this impossible task too with courage, but due to serious injuries, he attained martyrdom. Peak 4875 is now called Batra Peak.

Leave alone war, it is not possible for an ordinary person to even imagine the difficult conditions in which soldiers live here even on normal days. Just thinking about it gives goosebumps. They wear warm clothes in seven layers. More than the enemy, the harsh nature is a challenge for them. Built with contribution from Lokmat Foundation and funds collected from the members of public, the special warm houses will be useful for the soldiers even in subzero temperatures. I am happy that the Lokmat Media Group has been involved in humanitarian initiatives after the Kargil war. I appreciate the contribution of Lt Gen Anindya Sengupta in getting these warm houses built.

After saluting the martyrs, we left for Srinagar. But the journey of about 27 kilometres at an altitude of about 11,575 feet from Zoji La Pass to Sonmarg was very scary, which I have already discussed at the beginning. There is a lack of oxygen at high altitude. I suffered nosebleed twice and my colleagues vomited several times. I was thinking that when this NH-1 is so important from the military point of view, why is it in such a bad condition? Union surface transport minister Nitin Gadkari is engaged in laying the network of roads. He completed most of the work of Atal Tunnel in the Rohtang area before schedule. Tunnels are also being built on the road leading to the China border in Arunachal. I congratulate Gadkariji for this but he should pay urgent attention to this NH-1 as well. China has built good roads from the Ladakh region to Arunachal Pradesh very close to India. It has started work on the new highway in Aksai Chin. I do not understand what is the problem with us. Good roads are as important to our Army as the cutting-edge war equipment.

I would like to mention one more thing. There I met Maratha Light Infantry officer Mr Mokha, a Sikh. I was surprised that Sardarji was talking to me fluently in Marathi. When I pointed this out to him, he said if I do not speak the language of the regiment I am in, how would I coordinate and understand my colleagues? Similarly, a Tamil officer was talking to me in fluent Hindi! Truly, the real India resides in our Army where there is no discrimination on grounds of caste, religion and language. Jai Hind!

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