Kupwara was a sleepy small town or better called a hamlet in late 70s with little population and practically no facilities. The only land marks were Sheer Bhavani Temple, local Gurudwara and Mosque. The town had sizable Hindus and Sikhs living in complete harmony with Muslims. Our Battalion was located approximately a Kilometer or so away.
One Thursday evening, our Unit was getting ready to train at night when a message arrived that there was a massive fire in Kupwara main chowk. It took only a couple of minutes for the Officiating Commanding Officer to order mounting a rescue. As if on cue, the fire fighting equipment was collected quickly and the Companies ran to the site of fire. The scene was petrifying with flames quickly engulfing the wooden structures of one of the buildings and spreading to the neighbouring ones.
There was only a small police post in the town and nearest fire engines were either at Baramulla or at Chowkibal, too far and even if they came much would have perished by then! Everything depended on speed of decision and action on part of the group of soldiers. Parties to fight the fire source to control its spread, rescue the people threatened by ever enlarging zone of fire, spraying water on the adjoining buildings to keep them safe from spread of fire, cordoning off the area, setting up a Medical Aid Post under the Regimental Medical personnel were ordered and it was exhilarating to see the ultra-quick and precise response from rank and file. Officers and junior leaders led by example. Minimal orders and maximal response!
As firefighting progressed one found oneself leading a party to put out fire from what appeared the centre from where it was spreading. We climbed up steps to spray water from as close as possible. High temperature and smoke made it difficult to see and move quickly. One was focussed on how to make water reach the centre of fire when suddenly, one was pulled back rather rudely. Even before one could get upset one saw a huge burning beam fall at the spot one was standing a moment ago. My eyes met Naik Dharam Singh’s and everything became clear despite momentary silence. He had saved my life! Must confess was shaken up, he quickly sensed that and moved at the head to continue fighting fire. Dharam Singh rose to become Subedar Major of the Battalion and retired as Honorary Captain! An outstanding sportsman and a through professional. We served long years together including the period one was in Command and never once, he sought to take advantage of the soft corner and gratefulness one had towards him! A Hero indeed!
One saw men coughing due to smoke, putting wet towels around faces moving swiftly back to get the fire under control. One doing a better job than the other! Each one rising to fight the fire as if it threatened something precious to them personally! No orders! Putting themselves to risk to save what little could be! Saw a few senior JCOs comforting locals and assuring them of all help to re-build their lives! Fire was controlled in a couple of hours and saved much greater loss of property!
After the rescue, Unit organised relief by way of sharing next day’s ready to eat meals and also distributed dry rations to the affected to survive for a few days. Military hierarchy worked closely with civil administration to provide rehab resources and monetary support. The locals re-built their lives rather quickly. One saw first-hand, skills of local artisans using local resources to build damaged structures anew within a short period of time! The locals always smiled and waved when any of us crossed the town on foot or in vehicles as never before! It was special! A bond build during an adversary where they saw their ‘fauj’ save property and lives without any consideration to who it belonged without prejudice to religion or creed!
In 1980, the Battalion moved to Gurez Sector to be deployed along the Line of Control. It was an underdeveloped area serviced by a road that could only take jeeps and 1 Ton trucks. The area remained cut off for six months due to heavy snowfall. The localities close to the line of control at the peak winter experienced approximately forty feet of standing snow. Scant local population in the area relied heavily upon the nearest Unit for all assistance. Come winter and all able-bodied male population would migrate to plains of North India to make a living as porters leaving behind women, children and the infirm. The Unit Doctor observed that village folk stopped taking medicines from August onwards and would hoard those for sever winters that were to follow. The area was avalanche prone and heavy snow conditions would make movement treacherous even on the valley floor.
One day in very early in the morning, a message arrived from one of the posts that a local young boy informed them there was a lady in the village was very ill and needed urgent medical attention. The only place she could be evacuated to was the medical aid post at our Battalion Headquarters. Even during summers, it was good two hour’s walk away. In mountains distance is unusually measured in time. It varies depending upon weather, time of the day, snow or rain conditions and the like. It had been snowing for a couple of days and it was perhaps the only day of respite. Weather was expected to go bad again within next twenty-four hours. The Commanding Officer considered pros and cons and ordered a rescue to be mounted immediately. The Doctor could not be sent out lest there was another emergency requiring his presence. A platoon strength under Subedar Prem Singh (finds mention in an earlier post too) with a nursing assistant was ordered out.
The challenges were, how to reach the patient quickly negotiating fresh snow that would have obliterated all signs of track, give her first aid for a condition that could only be gauged after reaching the spot, organise evacuation if required, depending upon her state i.e. lying or sitting case, what kind of medical equipment needed to be carried along keeping the requirement of speedy movement and also to ensure survival of the patient till reaching the doctor. Thus, all planning was to be done quickly under conditions of ambiguity. It became imperative to plan for multiple contingencies. Troops had to in any case, carry rations, equipment to survive prolonged stay as an insurance against weather turning foul. The Doctor explained to the team, what to be done based on hearsay report that was available. He assured the party that he would be available on radio throughout to guide the treatment and rescue. Add to all that was unpredictable life of batteries for radio sets due to climatic and other reasons that could cause a serious communication emergency. Preparing as best as they could, the party departed.
Movement in fresh snow requires beating the track by leading two or three persons at a time. It is very tiring and saps a lot of energy. Boys have to be changed every hundred or two hundred meters. It took the platoon good four hours or so to reach the patient. Her condition was relayed to the doctor who guided administering first aid. Doctor thanked God for correctly predicting the possible ailment and condition! It was facilitated thanks to his skills and knowledge of local patients who came up for treatment to him in good weather. He advised immediate evacuation. Considering the condition of the patient and gender issues it was jointly decided by the Doctor and the Team Leader to evacuate her as a lying case. This meant putting her on an improvised sleigh and pulling her without causing her much pain. She was indeed a brave lady and agreed to the method of evacuation. Snugly tucked and tied, the team started pulling the sleigh. There were innumerable challenges. While negotiating slopes uphill or down hill the sleigh had to be controlled at both ends. Pulling it even on the valley floor in fresh snow was extremely tiresome! Party had to rotate the snow beaters, pullers, anchors and the navigators. It virtually meant getting relieved from one tough job and moving on to another perhaps a tougher one! The journey back had to be fast as the weather started packing up again and the nightfall hours away disguised multiplied problems. Subedar Prem Singh sensed that the boys were extremely tiered and somewhat exhausted and it required effort to keep them going. He constantly exhorted them often juggling between giving progress to the Headquarters and relieving one of the boys. He walked up to each one of them and stuffed either a toffee or a fistful of dry fruit into their mouths. Thankfully, toffees and assorted dry-fruits were provided as part of rations! The team trekked along taking breaks more for patient than for themselves! It was well into the night around 8 PM that the team reached the base exhausted, famished but grateful to God for making them save a life! They broke off after settling her in the medical aid post and offering ‘Ardas’ a ritual followed in ‘the Regiment’ by all parties leaving for and arriving after a mission!
The doctor and his team took off from thereon. She was well managed and cured to a large extent. Care provided by his assistants went a long way to help her get back on her feet! Her young son who accompanied was happy being pampered with all the goodies he had never seen!
Unsung heroes – each one of them! And this is routine, everyday happening in Indian Army even today!