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The soldier who became a legend

Reportage: Archana Masih. Photographs: Rediff Archives and the Batra family. Design: Dominic Xavier, Rajesh Karkera

Lieutenant Vikram Batra had to complete his mission successfully.

Pakistani invaders had taken positions in bunkers at a height of 17,000 feet on Peak 5140 in Jammu and Kashmir. Lieutenant Batra and Captain Sanjeev Jamwal -- both from the Kangra valley in Himachal Pradesh -- were ordered to recapture the peak on the night of June 19, 1999, about five weeks after the Kargil war began.

The operation was much too dangerous to be carried out during the day.

Aware of the enemy's vantage point, Lt Batra -- who was later promoted to captain on the battlefield -- decided to attack the enemy from the rear.

Peak 5140, the highest point on the Tololing Ridge, was one of the most arduous and crucial peaks in the Drass region. If it fell, it would clear the Pakistanis from that sector and pave the way for further victories.

He knew they had to win.

Captain Vikram Batra in the Drass sector

It was dark and cold. The men crawled, quietly. Batra, who had earned an instructor's grade as a commando, was determined not to lose any men.

He was deeply upset when a terrorist's bullet meant for him had struck his man behind him during his first posting in the terrorist-prone region of Sopore in Jammu and Kashmir.

'Didi, it was meant for me and I lost my man,' he had told his elder sister over the phone.

But tonight his guide was the framed motto of the Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun, that he had brought home to Palampur, Himachal Pradesh, at the end of his training.

The safety, honor and welfare of your country come first always and everytime.

The honor, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next.

Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and everytime.

The motto had been molded into his heart as a Gentleman Cadet. There was no better time to live by it than now -- when India was at war and he, in his first major battle.

24-year-old Vikram and his men assaulted the enemy.

The camp was routed, many enemy soldiers killed and 13 J&K Rifles won a decisive victory.

All his men had made it alive.

Vikram was elated. 'Yeh Dil Maangey More' -- the Pepsi catchline those days -- he told his commander at base camp.

His words became the catchline for the Kargil war.

Vikram Batra had led a brilliant operation in one of India's toughest campaigns in mountain warfare. His men swore by him. General Ved Prakash Malik, then the Chief of the Army Staff, called to congratulate him. His triumph was being beamed from television screens across the country.

Photographs of him and his men striding the captured Pakistani gun at the base camp made it to every newspaper.

In a time of war, he became the face of the young Indian soldier who fought ferociously and died fearlessly.

His code name was Sher Shah.

The other soldier India knew with the same name had lived in the Middle Ages and was called 'The Lion King.' Sher Shah Suri was an accomplished commander who defeated the Mughal emperor Humayun and sat on the throne of Delhi for five years.

Vikram Batra was the hero of the nation. Two weeks after his conquest of 5140, people would remember him as the Lion of Kargil.

Daddy, I've captured.'

G L Batra can never forget that phone call that June morning. Vikram's voice was cracking through the satellite phone. He was talking too fast and wasn't clear at all.

For a moment, he thought his son was captured. But the school principal knew it was preposterous to think that he would be allowed to call his parents if he were a prisoner of war. Yet he was frightened and asked Vikram to speak clearly.

'Oh Daddy, I've captured the enemy's post. I'm OK, I'm OK.'

'Bete [son], I'm proud of you,' replied Mr Batra, 'may God bless you to carry on your task there.'

It was the happiest moment of his life. He had named his son 'Vikram' because the name spelled character and strength and he had lived up to it.

It was the morning of June 20, 1999. Through the previous night Vikram had commanded a daring operation and his father reveled in his accomplishment.

The capture of 5140 would finally lead to the decisive fall of Tiger Hill, and to India's eventual victory.

Nine days later, Vikram called from base camp. He was leaving for another crucial operation.

He never called again.

G L Batra in the office at the petrol pump awarded by the government in Vikram's honour

G L Batra and his wife Kamal saw glimpses of their son on television. He looked different with his beard and camouflaged jacket.

Like always, he was brimming with confidence and his spirit was soaring.

Like always, that smile never left his face.

Mrs Batra's heart had lurched when Vikram called to tell her that his unit was being sent to the Kargil front.

The last war India had fought was in 1971, three years before Vikram and his twin, Vishal, were born. He was just 24, had served in the Indian Army for only 18 months -- what if…

She quickly pushed that thought out of her mind. If all mothers were to think that their children shouldn't join the army, who would protect this vast nation?

When she heard that he had captured his first peak it was as if she had won.

She had lived most of her life in the lap of the Dhauladhar mountains in Palampur. She saw the mountains each day and knew them as invincible. Now her son was telling her that he had captured a perilous peak like the Dhauladhar, maybe even higher.

She felt proud like only a mother could be.

G L and Kamal Batra at their home in Palampur

Vikram you are going for another crucial operation, what are your thoughts at this moment?'

Mr Batra watched his son on the evening news when the television reporter questioned him at the base camp.

Over the past few days, the school principal had tried to catch a glimpse of his son after he came home every day. But that day something about Vikram left him uneasy.

'I wish the families of the deceased soldiers are looked after well by the government and society,' Vikram replied and turned his face from the camera.

Sitting in his home, hundreds of miles away, Mr Batra read the facial expressions of his son and instantly knew what was going on in his mind.

Vikram doubted his return, Mr Batra thought.

This time, the father turned away from the television screen and broke down.

His wife asked him why he had suddenly become so sad. He did not have the courage to tell her what he felt.

At that moment he knew their son wasn't coming back.

Kamal Batra with a picture of Vikram. His cap and the Indian flag that had wrapped his body is kept in front.

The last time Vikram was home with his family in Palampur was during the Holi festival in 1999.

He had got leave for a few days and his mother pampered him with the goodies he liked best -- pakodas, home made potato chips and mango pickle.

Like the ritual he followed on each visit, he went to the Neugal Café, a Palampur eatery by the Neugal river, for a coffee and met an acquaintance who spoke about the war.

'The war has begun, who knows when you will be asked to go, you better be careful.'

'Don't worry, Vikram told him,' remembers Mr Batra, 'I'll either come back after raising the Indian flag in victory or return wrapped in it.'

Before Mr and Mrs Batra knew, Vikram's holiday was over and they were at the bus stop seeing him off. The mango pickle and potato chips were packed in his bag for him and his friends in Sopore.

His unit had received orders to move to Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh but the war altered their deployment and Vikram was deputed to report for duty in Kargil on June 1, 1999.

He informed his parents, asked them not to worry and called them at least once in ten days. He made his last phone call on June 29.

He asked about everyone in the family. His elder sisters Neetudidi and Seemadidi. His twin, whom he fondly called 'Kushli.'

She was relieved to hear Vikram say: 'Mommy, ek dum fit hoon, fikar mat karna [I'm absolutely fine. Don't you worry.]

That was the last time he spoke to her.

Vikram Batra would have joined the Merchant Navy. He was to join the ship in Hong Kong. His uniform had been stitched, his tickets booked.

But he changed his mind.

A decade later, his decision would become the opening line of an Indian Oil print campaign. The public sector company paid tribute to the Kargil hero and lauded him for rejecting a lucrative career for the service of the nation.

'Sometimes an ordinary Indian can make a Rs 120,000 crore company feel humble. For every step we take, there's an inspired Indian leading the way,' read the ad copy, alongside a black-and-white etching of Captain Batra.

A framed picture of the text hangs in the petrol pump awarded in his honour to his parents. The advertising agency also sent the etching, which Mr Batra has kept carefully.

On the wall on the other side is a photo-copy of a magazine feature commemorating 'The Lives and Good Times of a Country.' Vikram heads the list of heroes.

In one entrance test for the Indian Administrative Service, says Mrs Batra, one of the questions was -- 'Name the peaks captured by Captain Vikram Batra?'

"It is very rare and our good fortune that we were given a son like him who put the country first."

Click for bigger image
A fortnight after he became the face of the Indian soldier in the Kargil war, Vikram Batra died.

He was mortally wounded on the morning of July 8 after fighting through the night while recapturing Peak 4875. He was ill but had insisted that he was fit for the mission and completed it in a manner that put him alongside some of India's greatest military heroes.

Vikram with his men had begun a tortuous climb to strengthen the flanks of the Indian troops fighting the invaders at 16,000 feet.

The conditions were extremely tough. At a gradient of 80 degrees, the thick fog made the advance even more precarious.

The enemy got wind of Batra's arrival. They knew who Sher Shah was, by now his military prowess had become the stuff of legend.

Vikram with another young officer, Anuj Nayyar, fought the enemy's counter-attack ferociously.

They cleared enemy bunkers, egged their men forward, engaged in a hand-to-hand combat and forced the Pakistani retreat.

The mission was almost over when Vikram ran out of the bunker to rescue another junior officer who had injured his legs in an explosion.

"His subedar begged him not to go and said he would go instead," says his father, "but Vikram told him: 'Tu baal-bacchedar hain, hat ja peeche. [You have children, step aside]"

He lunged forward to save the young lieutenant, when a bullet pierced through his chest.

By the morning India won back Peak 4875 but lost Vikram Batra.

For his sustained display of the most conspicuous personal bravery and leadership of the highest order in the face of the enemy, he was awarded India's highest decoration in battle -- the Param Vir Chakra, posthumously

His comrade in battle, Anuj Nayyar, also died while clearing his fourth enemy bunker.

He was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra -- the nation's second highest honour.

Captain Vikram Batra's statue in the town centre in Palampur

Vikram's parents received the news of his death the same day.

No one was at home when two officers arrived at their doorstep that afternoon. When Mrs Batra, a schoolteacher, came home and her neighbours told her about the visitors -- she screamed.

Army officers would only come home if there was bad news, she thought, and prayed fervently before dialling her husband's number.

When Mr Batra reached home and saw the officers, he doubted Vikram was alive.

He told the two colonels to wait, went inside and bowed his head in the pooja room first.

When he came out, one officer stepped out, held his hand and said: 'Batrasaab, Vikram Batra is no more.'

Mr Batra collapsed.

The next day, his son's body received a hero's welcome and was cremated with full military honors.

In their sorrow, the family drew strength from Lord Rama, whose twins Luv and Kush were the inspiration for the pet names of the Batra boys.

"Our child had captured three peaks, he had taken the nation by storm and suddenly he was no more," says Kamal Batra, rivulets of tears flowing down her cheek.

"But when God gives you a mortal blow, he gives you the strength to cope with the grief. Guru Gobind Singh sacrificed four sons for the country. Maybe there was some reason why God gave me twins -- one he had marked for the country and one for me."

Captain Vikram Batra's funeral was attended by a host of dignitaries and citizens. The Chief of Army Staff visited Vikram's home and commended the young officer's courage.

'Had this kid returned from Kargil, he would be sitting at my post in 15 years,' General Malik told Mr Batra.

His father laughs heartily. The first time in the four hours we have spent talking about his son.

Vishal, Vikram's brother, had hoped his brother would be a brigadier one day. His friends would be so impressed, he thought, when he walked by Vikram's side.

Now he has lost count of the number of times Vikram has given him a chance to be proud of being his twin. It happened again recently when he was away on work in the UK. He had gone to Scotland and entered his name in a visitor's book at a tourist hot spot.

'Do you know Vikram Batra?' asked an Indian onlooker on reading his name.

"Is there any better reward than that people remember his name in a far off place like Scotland!" says Vishal, a banker, who returned from London last month.

Vikram was the family charmer. So popular that his friends, teachers -- and even the barbers in Chandigarh's Sector 17 -- remember him to this day, smiles his father.

Chandigarh was the city where Vikram went to college.

It was also where he found the girl he would have married had he lived.

Top: Mr Batra receives the Param Vir Chakra from the President of India. Below: Army Chief General V P Malik in the Batra home

Vikram had met her at university and planned to marry her when he returned from the war.

'Make it a point to meet her whenever you are in Chandigarh,' Vikram had told Vishal when he left to join the army and Vishal had kept the promise.

Five days before Vikram's death, he was in Chandigarh and she came to see him at the station.

As Vishal stepped onto the platform, she called out his name and said, 'This time make sure to marry me off.'

'Pucca,' he replied.

When the news came, Vishal could not muster the courage to speak to her. At the funeral she stood with her parents and wept quietly.

Five years after she lost the only man she loved, his cards and the stuffed teddy he gave her still adorn her cupboard.

She is a teacher now and has sworn to never marry.

Vikram's parents tried to make her change her mind but it has all been in vain.

Like all mothers, Mrs Batra had hoped that her son would be married. He would have a wife, kids and she would see the next generation.

Last year, when Vishal was getting married in Chandigarh, she missed Vikram.

He should have been a groom alongside his identical twin, she thought.

As the band played merry wedding songs, as the shehnai boded the auspicious hour -- Kamal Batra cried for the son she had lost to the country.

The Batras have framed some letters of condolence. One from a lady who lost someone most dear to her in a cruel assassination in May 1991.

'In this hour of deep grief, I only know too well how words are of so little consequence, nevertheless, I do want you to know that you and your family are in my thoughts' -- Sonia Gandhi.

The chief of army staff wrote that in Vikram's death the army had lost a dedicated and devoted officer. 'It is a personal loss to me.'

Air Chief Marshal A Y Tipnis: 'I along with all the personnel of the Indian Air Force salute him for his patriotism and devotion to duty.'

George Fernandes, defence minister: 'I hope you will bear this loss with courage and fortitude.'

Vasundhara Raje, Union minister, now Rajasthan chief minister: 'Your son has brought honour to his unit and country.'

The agony on Mrs Batra's face is heart wrenching. "The day his body was brought home, it was excruciating. No parent can see the dead body of their young son."

Mr and Mrs Batra live alone in a house which bears Vikram's nameplate in the verandah. When they feel sad they look at his pictures, remember his words, his laughter. Sometimes, they cry, it lightens their heart.

"His loss for us is lifelong. But our son gave his life for the glory of this country. He made us proud in his death."

Captain Vikram Batra never lived here, but this is his home.

His parents moved here after his death. They know it is a home Vikram would have liked.

A board at the top of the lane points towards the house. Eight of his framed pictures adorn the walls inside; at the centre of the room hangs a framed citation that makes the hair stand on end.

The Param Vir Chakra -- India's highest award for gallantry in battle.

In a wooden frame lined with gold, the three words in red are powerful and dwarf everything and everyone.

A picture of Mr Batra receiving the award from the President hangs on the same wall. The award offered some consolation for Vikram's sacrifice, feels his father. It was reassuring to know that the country appreciated his son's exemplary valour.

When the officers handed the flag that had wrapped Captain's Batra's body and his cap to Mrs Batra, she packed them neatly in a transparent plastic sheet so that it did not get soiled.

She kept it on a table in front of his picture.

Every morning when she bows her head to god, she takes a look at Vikram too.

Today a statue of her son adorns the town centre.

Across Vikram is the statue of another soldier -- Major Somnath Sharma, India's first Param Vir Chakra winner, who also hailed from Palampur.

'I will fight to the last man and the last round,' Major Sharma said before he laid down his life evicting Pakistani raiders from Srinagar airport in 1947.

He couldn't have found a worthier successor than Captain Vikram Batra to share his space with.

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