The Special Situational Report (SITREP) on the October 29, 1994 giving out the operational details of the events that unfolded the previous day was received by the Col GS of 28 Infantry Division located at Kupwara. It mentioned the death of four soldiers of 16 Rajputana Rifles that included the name of Captain Sanjay Chauhan, a dear friend of mine.
The gruesome heartrending death of these brave soldiers, the manner in which it came upon, cannot be imagined. It is even more excruciating to come to terms, since the tragedy wouldn’t have happened had the CO of this unit planned this operation more deliberately and had the JCO in the reserve party not betrayed his brother soldiers, who died calling for help. This JCO deliberately ignored the repeated requests while he witnessed the bitter end from a vantage point. As the Col GS read the SITREP, the same day in the wee hours severely mutilated bodies of these four soldiers were found in the middle of Handwara town.
The events that led to this end were classic examples of perfidy and valour. A story that saddens me and evokes memories of good times we had spent as friends during our training at Dehradun. Sanjay Chauhan was my coursemate and we both were from the same Imphal Company at the Indian Military Academy. I remember him as a sincere and a hard working cadet who took the minutest of the details in training very seriously. He was a man of few words, who was generous and very helpful by nature. How could the God be so unkind to such a wonderful human being I wonder?
At that time the situation in the Valley was definitely not in control of the Indian Army. There were reported pockets of so-called ‘liberated zones’ in the middle and North Kashmir. Like many other brave men of Indian Army, Captain Sanjay Chauhan had given the supreme sacrifice, laying down his life for his motherland. India was undergoing through a very critical phase in its history when the secessionist forces were having an upper edge.
Pakistan had unleashed proxy war in an effort to wrest the State of J&K from India. Thousands of young men had crossed over to POK after the 1987 elections which were massively rigged at the behest of the National Conference. Despite a wave in favour of Muslim United Front that promised Nizam-e-Mustafa and complete freedom from exploitation and corruption of the ruling classes, National Conference won conferring Chief Ministership to Mr Farooq Abdullah, someone who was disliked and considered a traitor by the state’s majority.
The betrayal of the popular sentiment of the masses led to the fading of all hopes of justice under the existing setup of rule from Delhi. Hordes of young men crossed over to Pakistan to bring arms from across and force a change by bullet since the ballot had failed. Kashmir entered the phase of armed struggle by its Muslim population.
The political immaturity shown by the young Indian leaders who were ill advised and far-fetched from ground reality led to this explosive situation. No doubt Rajiv Gandhi was a dynamic young Prime Minister of India at that time; he wanted India rid of its long standing problems and surge ahead on the path of growth and prosperity unhindered. The intentions were noble but the path was dangerous. Rajiv-Farooq Accord of 1987 and latter followed by massive rigging in elections spelled doom for the state. There is no doubt in my mind that it was pre-mediated. The long standing desire of the Kashmiri people of a plebiscite was first betrayed in 1974 in Indira-Shiek Abdullah Accord and later the elections of 1987 destroyed the faith in ballot. The seeds of insurgency that were sown in 1974 were now a fully grown crop. A poisonous crop was harvested by our adversary in 1987, hoping to settle scores of 1971 and complete the unfinished partition of 1947.
During my engagements in Kashmir I always tried to seek answers to many questions related to the start of insurgency in the Valley. Did Farooq Abdullah dupe Rajiv Gandhi into an accord of 1987? Was there a lobby working in its vested interest that kept the reality of Kashmir and common aspirations of the people hidden from the young prime minister of India? Do the people of Kashmir want a merger with Pakistan? Or complete independence? Were they happy with the status quo? These questions troubled me and I always tried to seek an answer from the common man away from rhetoric generally witnessed on the political arena.
During my numerous interactions with the educated lot in the Valley in my quest to seek answers. I discovered that a large section strongly believed the Muslim United Front should have been given a chance to form the government through a fair election process. Had this conglomeration of right wing parties won the elections of 1987, the faith of Kashmiris in the Indian democracy would have been strengthened. The seeds of discontent sown in 1974 would have failed to mature. The right wingers would have taken oath of allegiance to the Indian flag. The question of secessionism would have died with their coming to power. We all know that the election rhetoric is different from actual governance.
More than secessionism, it was the corruption in the government and apathy of those in power towards the commoner that the masses lent support to the Muslim United Front. The general negative sentiment of the people towards the National Conference was exploited by the separatists and Pakistan saw in it a golden opportunity to settle an unfinished agenda of partition in its favour. And thus the state of J&K became a battleground between the Indians (army and Kashmiri militants) and the Pakistanis (army on the LC and Jihadist in the Valley). All young men who faced the brunt were basically innocent young men having different allegiances in faith and nationalities in fighting each other; the innocence was trapped in the burning Kashmir Valley. By the time we got commissioned in 1991, the insurgency was full blown. There were thousands of local Kashmiris wielding a gun against the state.
Ethnic cleansing was evidently a systematic component of these terrorists’ strategic agenda in J&K, and estimates suggest that, just between February and March 1990, 140,000 to 160,000 Pandits had fled the Kashmir Valley to Jammu, Delhi, or other parts of the country. Simultaneously, there were a number of high-profile killings of senior Hindu officials, intellectuals and prominent personalities. Eventually, an estimated 400,000 Pandits – over 95 per cent of their original population in the Valley – became part of the neglected statistic of ‘internal refugees’ who were pushed out of their homes as a result of this campaign of terror.1
In the bitterly fought operations by our young Indian soldiers to win this proxy war unleashed by Pakistan, hundreds of misguided Kashmiri Muslim youths with guns were killed in a series of encounters. Many Indian Army soldiers were martyred by the end of 1991 in this conflict imposed by our belligerent neighbour. In an effort to push in the militants across the LC, the Pakistani Army regularly clashed with Indian Army and in the bargain young blood was spilled on both sides of the divide. Hundreds of men in Khakis and the Olive Greens lost their lives to this mad frenzy unleashed.
My generation’s soldiers, who have grown in their careers, are witness to all the phases of Kashmir insurgency or the proxy-war. They have probably sacrificed the maximum in this saga of perfidy and valour. The acts of betrayal have been from the Kashmiri leaders on the subjects of the state for greed of power. The Pak Army betrayed the poor devout Muslims of Pakistan by inciting religious passions for nefarious geopolitical designs. Ironically, the Kashmiri militants betrayed the Pakistani Jihadist for making some extra money. Worst to mention the perfidy by the comrades in arms on own buddies.
Since the advent of the gun in Kashmir valley, many zealous young Indian soldiers have laid down their lives ensuring Kashmir remains a part of India in times to come. Out of many stories of sacrifice, the bravery of Sanjay Chauhan has very few parallels. The events that led to his martyrdom are rather too unfortunate. My friend fell prey to an unpardonable act by his fellow soldier; treachery in the face of the enemy.
On the eve of that fateful day on 27 October 1994, general situation was far from satisfactory. The writ of the government of India was limited to the areas few kilometers on either side of the national highways in the state. In the border areas it was probably up to ten kilometers from the LC in the depth.
The foothills of Pir Panjal, Shamsabari mountain ranges in the South West of Kashmir valley and the Himalayan mountain ranges in the North East were heavily infested by the militants. Some of these areas had been declared liberated zones by the militants. The forested areas of Zachaldor, Hafruda and Lolab were such zones. The militancy in Kashmir at this period was in the hands of Pakistani and Afghani militants who had vast experience in fighting the Russians in Afghanistan and these battle hardened, barbaric militants were sent to Kashmir for waging Jihad against India.
In contrast the local Kashmiri was a fun-loving, god-fearing individual. For him, his family and the village where he lived, the fields that he tilled and the Sufi Shrine where he worshiped were his world or the complete Kayanat. They were basically craftsmen and farmers who had basic aspirations towards prosperity. This dream however was hijacked by those who had sinister political designs. Poor Kashmiri was a victim of betrayal by the very own at the helm of the state’s political canvas. Unfortunately these leaders had narrow personal political ambitions over the well-being of the common masses.
Average Kashmiri was made to believe through the blitzkrieg of separatist propaganda that the misery, poverty and corruption faced by him would vanish if they win independence from India. Towards that goal they should be prepared to fight and give sahadat if situation so demanded. Pakistan, a Muslim neighbour was always willing to help the Muslim brethren of Kashmir. Pakistan will train and arm them in their fight for independence and help the Kashmiris in establishing the Nizam-e-Mustafa or the divine rule. Kashmiri Muslim was
brainwashed by the religious fundamentalists about the legitimacy of Jihad. They spoke about the divine blessing of Allah to the faithful in their fight against the Kafirs. This blessing was enough to fetch victory. The Kashmiris were given the example of the defeat of the Russians at the hands of the Jihadist who had this blessing of Allah. It will just then be a matter of time when Kashmiris will get rid of misery, poverty, Abdullahs and India. All this appealed the masses in a big way.
These Kashmiri misguided youths stood between the devil and the deep sea. They were trained in the camps across and well indoctrinated before being pushed back into Kashmir. They had been told stories of how the Indian Army denied those back home their fundamental right to worship in the mosques. Their women folks were molested and the mosques desecrated regularly. On their return they found no truth in that propaganda and soon got disillusioned. Many of them wanted to surrender but were not allowed to do so by their Pakistani and Afghani commanders. Now these foreigners were the new bosses in their motherland.
They were caught in this quagmire and were sinking by the day, seeing their world devastated in front of their own eyes. The foreign commanders did not respect the Kashmiris and their Kashmiriyat. The radicals believed in Wahabi Islam as the only legitimate way to practice the faith. In their eyes the Kashmiri Muslims who followed Sufi practices were not true Muslim. It is unimaginable to fathom the miseries that followed the uprising. Just to highlight the plight, the jihadists would forcibly take away women and rape them in the name of jihad. For them Muslim women’s legitimate contribution towards jihad was in the form of offering themselves to the jihadi fighters to quench their physical desires just like the way sex slaves served the Japanese soldiers during the World War II.
Like many remote villages, Lachimpora is a small village in the foothills of Shamsabari mountain range. It lay in a small bowl surrounded by hills and spurs covered with thick pine forests coming down from the Shamsabari. This village fell in the middle of the infiltration highway that the militants followed on crossing the LC and the mighty Shamsabari range. Nearest military base from this village was Chokibal and any movement would involve a lead time of up to four hours before reaching this place, sufficient for the militants to go into hiding in the adjoining forests. These hills had a large strength of foreign fighters and posed a great challenge to our commanders who were so far unsuccessful in gaining any meaningful control of this area as such.
The Indian Army was primarily limited to guarding the axis of maintenance, which were the national highways. These highways were the arteries for carrying out logistic support and move troops and reinforcements to the LC. As the situation improved, troops started going deeper and deeper in the forests to flush out the foreign mercenaries out of their hide outs and free not only the so-called liberated zones but also those Kashmiri youths who were trapped in this predicament. In absence of any form of governance, the Indian Army had a task to win the hearts and minds of the locals before integrating the misguided youth into the society back again. As I write, this goal has largely been achieved over the sacrifices of brave men like Captain Sanjay Chauhan.
Sanjay was located at Chokibal along with his commando platoon within the battalion headquarter. He was to proceed on leave to his home town, Solan in the Northern Indian state of Himanchal Prdesh. However, on the other side was intelligence input that he was getting of a likelihood of a major gathering of militants in the Lachimpora village of Wariban forest. At this meeting the militants were planning to rework their strategy in this area in future.
Sanjay had created a remarkable intelligence network over a long period of time. He decided to forego this leave plans and started working on his intelligence further. This young soldier drew a remarkable plan. Going by that if all went well, he would succeed in eliminating the complete foreign militant hierarchy in that area stretching from Handwara to Chokibal.
His plan was audaciously bold though full of high risks. His commanders had a lot of faith in the abilities of this young man and they promptly gave a go ahead. After all he had a long list of success and victory to his credit and that made Sanjay a seasoned and a battle hardened soldier. He had over a period of time mastered the art of fighting in small teams. He and his team would disguise as militants and infiltrate in their rank and file. They would eliminate them with much ease thereafter. His operations were intelligence based that were surgical and executed with lightening speed. Before the so-called jihadist realized, what had struck them they would make an escape. The name of this officer was enough to strike terror in the hearts and minds of militants. Shit scared of him they feared this ghost, sweating in the bitter cold. Such was an aura that he commanded in his Area of Operations.
After receiving the go ahead, that very evening he staged forward to the company located North East to Chokibal. He tied up all the details of his operation with the company commander there. He discussed his plans and the company commander earmarked a platoon as reserve party under a JCO from this company. This platoon was to act as a quick reaction team in case the situation so warranted. They left the next morning and headed straight to the intended village.
The reserve party was to take up position on top of a ridge overlooking the Lachimpora village. Sanjay Chauhan along with his small team of four, attired in militant like outfit moved out in the danger zone to seek engagement. All of these young soldiers were sporting long beards and having shoulder size hair just like the Pakistani or Afghani militants. They wore ferens over the salwar kameez and their AK 47s hidden under. Their headgears were Peshawari caps and in their feet they wore locally available snow boots made of rubber with artificial fur lining inside.
The salwar kameez is common attire in this part of the sub-continent; in particular it is very commonly worn in Pakistan and Afghanistan besides Kashmir. A feren is an oversize tunic worn in the winters over the dress. An individual generally dons it with his hands pulled inside from the sleeves to hold kangri which is a small earthen pot held by a frame and a basket made of cane and this contraption with burning charcoal is held close to the abdomen to keep warm in the cruel winter months.
A foreign militant could easily be identified by his long hair and unruly beard. These men look different from the Kashmiris who are generally fair complexioned having sharp features; however these foreigners bore greater similarities to the North Indians. Sanjay and his men, who had mastered key phrases in Pashto language spoken in Pakistan’s North West, could easily disguise as a foreign militants.
As these brave men descended the spur into the village, they were greeted by other militants present there. Despite the meticulous disguise, these boys could not hold on to their false identity for long. Soon the suspicions over their identity got confirmed. Sanjay and his team were well prepared for this contingency. They escaped the gathering shooting into these militants killing a few of them straight away. On finding themselves heavily outnumbered they took up position in an isolated hut overlooking this village.
The JCO who was watching all this through his binoculars saw up to 20 to 30 militants descending from all sides and moving towards the position of these four brave men. The communication over the radio set could not be established, so he sent two jawans to inform Chauhan of the developing situation. Sepoy Dalbir in this attempt got killed while the others could somehow manage to return to his reserve party. The effort to link up had failed.
However these surrounded men continued to put up a resolute fight. Since they had limited ammunition on them, they repeatedly called for help over there radio sets to the reserves locate approximately 500 meters up on the ridge overlooking them. Unfortunately there was no response from the reserve party under this Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO). As the minutes ticked, the militants surrounded them completely. They were now gradually inching towards Sanjay and his men under the watch of the reserve platoon up the hill. Sanjay and his men were last seen shifting their position at 1300 hours by the men in reserve. These soldiers were probably caught alive after they had finished their ammunition. The barbaric Pakistani militants tortured them. They pulled their nails, gauged their eyes and chopped their hands, bleeding them to death. The recovered mutilated bodies bore the horrific tales.
The Brigade Headquarters realizing the gravity of the seriousness involved dispatched a column of 100 men led by four officers from 24 Rajput and 4 Grenadiers. During their search they came across the body of Dalbir Singh found 800 meters from the forest. The operation was called off at 0500 hours on October 30, 1994.
Those four brave men had killed eight dreaded foreign militants and seriously injured two before being caught and tortured to death. There were many question raised related to this incident. Why the JCO failed to response when he could see everything unfold right under his nose? Where were the company commander and the battalion commander located during execution phase of the operation? Why was this special operation not being monitored by the higher headquarters? Answer to these questions may remain obscured from the public even today. Whatever be the circumstances the fact of the matter is that we lost a great soldier, a friend and a wonderful human being.
There are many great stories of heroic deeds by the young soldiers and many are being written as the fight over Kashmir continues even twenty years after the death of Major Sanjay Chauhan and his team. Sanjay was awarded Shaurya Chakra, posthumously for his valour, a third highest gallantry award, awarded for brave action in the face of enemy.
1. The Kashmiri Pandits: An Ethnic Cleansing the World Forgot by Mr KPS Gill; http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/kpsgill/2003/chapter9.htm