Love story of a Commando is the second book of Swapnil Pandey which depicts the intricacies of Commando’s life style,service responsibilities,social aura,deep feelings and a way to attain unattainable. Ladies are unsung heroes of Armed Forces and make huge sacrifices to sustain the principles of freedom this country holds. Swapnil Pandey books are perfect tribute to the silent Veeranganas who stay behind, hold back so that the men they love can serve this country and protect its honour. Its time women behind the men get their due and also deserve equal adulation as men in uniform.
Chapter-12 The Prime Minister’s Visit – Loving someone with all your heart and losing them can have apocalyptic effects on one’s soul which can never be fixed by anyone else but by the ones whom you have lost. You are never the same person. The soul dies a bit or maybe goes away with the lost love. You see the world little differently and you end up finding mostly dark grey shades in your once colourful life. It hurts when someone you love remains in your heart and you cannot take them into your arms. You cry, you sob, you shatter things, but nothing can bring them back. Perhaps, they were never meant to be yours.
They were there for a silly moment to teach you the lessons of love, life and pain all at once. It felt even the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ could not shelter me away from my miseries, memories and pain, Kashmir was still not that alien. Where could have I run away from my inner turmoil? I sobbed into my pillow till daybreak and the next day, I woke up with a fog of fever. I was burning like I had been in a sauna for hours.
Susan visited me and brought some Paracetamol tablets and antibiotics with her. Rafeeq had told her about my condition and she duly informed Mr. Ahmed Khan about my fever. He asked Susan to tell me to rest till I recovered, and not bother about classes. I felt so relieved. Susan was turning out to be one very special person in my life. She was nothing like me; we both belonged to different creeds, nations and ethnicities. But our common situation and loneliness bonded us over those snowy lands which were alien yet beloved to both of us.
She asked, “What is so wrong with you? What happened to your immunity? You looked fine just yesterday.”
I replied, casually suppressing my agony, “Nothing! Maybe just a viral due to the weather change! You tell me what happened today?”
“Nothing much! But yes, the kids were asking about you and they played solitaire in your absence. I’d say you’re creating some genius solitaire players here.” She giggled.
“Ha ha! Actually my idea of education is synonymous with having fun. I mean what would you learn if you didn’t enjoy it,” I explained.
“I know that, and the kids love you.” she said.
“I know! You see…I am very passionate about this job. I love teaching these kids. I never felt like this before in my previous job,” I said.
“By the way, there is some big news too,” she said.
“What?” I asked
“The Prime Minister is visiting us next week. It had been kept under wraps due to security reasons, but the preparations have been going on for a while. He wants to connect with the locals here and spread his message of love and peace to them directly. He wants to project a secular image to the Kashmiri people and shed the outsider image especially, after so many Kashmiris voted for him in the previous election. He is also coming to our school to meet the kids.” She was almost whispering.
“That is great. Who told you all this?” I asked casually as if Prime Ministers visit rural Kashmir all the time.
“Mr. Khan himself! He got the call from the state home minister directly from Srinagar and had been asked to keep it under wraps and not inform the media. They anticipate the media directly on the day of visit or they might even bring their own media personnel with them.”
She left after a while and I also resigned for the day by slumping against the pillows on my bed.
I was feeling much better the next day.
As I stepped out of my room to join the classes I saw a convoy of military trucks on the dirt track connecting our shelter home to the village. I walked towards the willow and poplars near the aluminum fence of the school to get a clearer view and I saw moving military vehicles, armed soldiers, armored cars with machine guns mounted on it and even army battle tanks.
My mouth fell open.
I mean military convoys; armed soldiers were not an alien concept in Kashmir but the magnanimity of the view I had was different. By now the entire school, hearing the loud rumbling noises of battle tanks and extraordinary military movements, had turned up on the common grounds. The trucks at the first row of the convoy screeched their brakes and came to a halt at the gates and with them the entire convoy halted systematically. The soldiers were moving in and one of their officers asked for the ‘in charge’.
After some sharp murmurs, Mr. Khan moved from his place and stood before him claiming his authority. The officer said something to him in an inaudible tone unlike their loud and commanding voice and I could see Mr. Khan nodding nervously. After a few minutes, the officer went back to his convoy and started giving instructions to his chaps.
Mr. Khan wiped his profusely sweating forehead with a handkerchief and instructed us to take the kids back to the classes. We herded the students together and took them to the classrooms. The soldiers set to work fast. In a few hours, the trucks had been unloaded and soon the shelter was turned into a military camp. Over the next few days, they built watchtowers and sandbag bunkers along the school fence. Scores of machine gun nozzles and stern looking soldiers stared from the rectangular firing slats of the bunkers, draped with wire mesh aimed at deflecting potential grenades.
We were given new rules to follow which especially emphasized that we were not to visit half the school building at any times. We were also instructed to carry our identity cards with us all the time and show it to the soldiers every time we entered or left the school.The soldiers never bothered us, and we went on with our daily schedules.
The soldiers set about their work of ‘area domination’- patrolling the road passing by the school, now and then. Strangely, none of it filled me with a sense of security. Being a north Indian, the word army had always instilled confidence in me, but here, in this small village of Kashmir, it was collapsing with my definition of insecurity or fear maybe.
The Indian Army is a very dreaded and hated term in Kashmir. Unlike tourists or other people from the rest of the country, who are mostly welcomed here, the Army is always considered the enemy. The setting up of military camp in our shelter home also made us prone to guerrilla attacks. We, uneasily, expected the inevitable. It was strange to be into the shoes of a Kashmiri. The militants or the army both are considered a threat in Kashmir.
Who loses after all? A common Kashmiri!
During my stay, I had learnt about some hard facts too. Kids as young as ten years old were sent to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir for arms and ammunition trainings. Some were forced to join the ongoing war by their friends or relatives, and some would just be inspired to join by themselves. Such kids would leave their families and flee their houses to join banned organizations like JKLF (Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front) or Hizbul Mujahideen or many other terrorist organizations. These various organizations were ideological rivals. JKLF fought for an independent Kashmir whereas the HM supported the merger of Kashmir with Pakistan.
Many of the Kashmiris trained locally in orchards or meadows and were prone to regular Army raids. But those who managed to cross the LOC without getting shot at by BSF or Indian Army and could also come back without getting killed were considered heroes. The families loathed every single minute of it, but they were treated with great respect if their sons returned safely to fight against Indian Army. It also helped the young terrorists attract female adulations, but the end result led to only one fate “To mourn the death of their wards by family members.” The consequences to fight against an organized and highly equipped army were inevitable and they were to be eliminated sooner or later.
Here, the roles of separatists or terrorist heads was pivotal as they were the ones to provoke generations of youth to join the so called ‘jihad’ while their own sons and daughters were studying abroad and becoming doctors and engineers, and yet they never liked to serve Kashmiri awam. The Indian government also had limited options here. These separatist leaders, sponsored by the enemy country spoke openly against the country they lived in but Indian government chose to ignore. Any strict actions against these popular leaders meant protest by the masses and also raking up of Kashmir issue among International communities.
Government would just imprison them occasionally.
This is politics. This is the world. It demands blood and flesh. The struggle between masses and the government is always of apocalyptic proportions. Who benefited? Those leaders who turn to be gold diggers or those governments who turn to be tyrannical? Where should a common man go who is affected the most by the clashes and also by the negotiations?
The day of the Prime Minister’s arrival was close.
Though there was no official statement issued yet. Mr. Khan looked perplexed. There was grave danger looming over his head because of the terrorists but being a government employee, he had no option.
Watching those men in uniform would also make my stomach churn sometimes. Though their camouflage combat uniforms were nothing like Virat’s black overall. But the presence of the army reminded me of him again and again.
The happiness that I gathered recently, the smiles that I would flaunt and the past which called for a truce were gone suddenly and the nightmares of blood, death and him were back in my life. The angelic faces of the kids were calming but I was mostly distracted and could not put in hundred percent of my energies towards those kids. I felt guilty most of the time.
Finally, the day for the Prime Minister’s visit arrived. It was a three-day visit to Kashmir. His itinerary included various important places. He had a very charismatic personality and the media just loved clicking him. The newspapers, TVs and social media were all buzzing with ‘what he ate’, ‘where he visited’, whom he met and many things more.
His candid pictures hugging Kashmiri locals, offering chadar at Hazratbal, sharing sweets with troops or a shikara ride on Dal Lake in Srinagar were going viral. The TV channels promptly set up debate panels over the long-term result of his unexpected visit.
He gave speeches of peace and prosperity.
He looked promising when he said the dark phases were over and now the youth of Kashmir deserved an equal opportunity as any citizen of India. He promised more colleges and hospitals. Thousands of people turned up to his public events. It all looked very appealing. But there was something odd about everything. The unusual silence in the valley! There were usual rants by separatists’ leaders who appealed to people not to attend his events but there was no major terrorist activity or bomb blasts reported anywhere in Kashmir.
Kashmir looked deceptively peaceful and welcoming.
Tral was scheduled to be visited on the last day of his official tour and by then we were all eagerly looking forward to meet him. The general worry was replaced by excitement. The entire school was done up freshly. The Indian Flag was installed in the school premises where the Prime Minister was supposed to hoist it. The young kids looked bewildered and for them it was like a big awaited carnival which they never witnessed. Many of them saw Tiranga for the first time and related with it.
The soldiers felt familiar by now. Many kids even befriended some of them and would proudly flaunt the little goodies, chips or biscuits offered to them by the security forces.One multi-layered security blanket was thrown around the day the Prime Minister arrived at Tral, which was also declared a no-fly zone for that day and a drone was keeping an aerial tab on the security. The streets were blocked and identity cards were checked at every step. More than hundreds of CCTV cameras were installed across the village and we could see many unfamiliar, non-Kashmiri people lurking around in civil dresses, which hinted of their secret service cover.
There were sniffer dogs deployed and it felt as if that small Kashmiri village had been shut down for the day. Early on Sunday morning, the Prime Minister of our great nation arrived in his Air India One Mi-17 V5 helicopter. The huge rotor blades were spinning in the air and the vibrations stirred the ground. Several men were running around in their black suits, the crowd was shouting his name, the barricades were almost breaking. People from far flung areas of Kashmir had gathered for a single glance of the man, the police, military and other security personnel looked alert.
He emerged out of his bird, smiling and waving to everyone, several high-profile Jammu & Kashmir officials had gathered to receive him, and he shook hands with many.
Patting and applauding, he looked really generous, social and happy.
I was there along with five other children from the shelter to present him a bouquet of flowers. We were to move straight to our school along with the convoy. I was briefed by an Army major from RR just a day before regarding the arrangements and about our expected ‘code of conduct’. He was the in charge of his local security in Tral.
Just as the PM took a few more steps I saw those ‘Black Uniforms’ again!
Two of them jumped behind him from the same helicopter and a few more from other helicopters were jumping out like black cats…swiftly, quietly and alert. All the black cats were masked and only their eyes were visible, but I could feel his presence around.
He was one of them, I was sure of that.
I was numb for a moment and then my stomach began to churn and my heart began to beat menacingly, sweat trickled down my face and eyes widened in shock. I clutched my stomach and almost collapsed to the ground.
The kids turned to me, hassled. “What happened? What happened? Get up! Get up! The Prime Minister Sahib is here.”
Their voices awakened me from my trance and I managed to regain my strength. The kids heaved a sigh of relief. How embarrassing though! I was supposed to look after them.
I don’t care about anyone now. Black cats, white cats or no cats! I don’t even like cats. To hell with everyone! And even if he is here it does not bother me a bit. I hate him from bottom of my heart. I know this and I am firm about it.
The little thought bubbles assured me of my sanity, and I repeated it several times until I was signaled to greet Mr. Prime Minister. The poor Army JCO, who was tasked to take us to him, had to literally shout the instructions before I understood it.
But trust me I was absolutely normal. Okay! Fine! I might be a little distracted.
It was a glorious moment. The kids offered him the flowers which he accepted humbly and shook hands with me. Yes, he actually shook hands with me and I could hardly control myself from jumping. Man! I just shook hands with the most powerful man in India. He is my Prime Minister too. I vouched to vote for him next time, even though I had never participated into any election before.
He patted the kids and chatted with them for a while. I was mesmerized by his magnanimous personality and then I suddenly felt as if someone was watching me intently. I looked around and could not see anyone doing so. All the NSG guys were scattered by now and some joined the Prime Minister security bubble, and it was impossible to identify them.
They all looked identical.
The PM moved ahead towards his convoy of bulletproof vehicles and we were hurriedly escorted into one of those vehicles by some other officials. The crowd was scattering but the eulogies of his name were reaching the sky.
Kashmir was so welcoming. Who knew!
The school looked like a Kashmiri bride from a distance. Glowing and adulating its own beauty! As if it realized its magic for the first time and mesmerized the world by the same. The building was freshly painted. The wooden windows and ornate pillars were reflecting the fresh varnish. The snowcapped mountains were glowing in the sunlight, the Chinar trees were standing tall in their golden glory, while the cold air smelt of saffron harvest. The Chinar trees were changing their colors and turning a dusty shade of red before shedding their leaves. The usual Kashmiri autumn day felt more pleasant than the usual days.
This is the Kashmir of our dreams and it is not an illusion any more. The good days are here. The future generations would prosper, and the bloodshed will be a thing of the past.
I smiled as the Kashmir of my country leapt before me in its full glory.
The halting screech of black Mercedes interrupted my thoughts. We stepped out of the car and saw a huge crowd gathered along with Mr. Khan. He presented the Prime Minister a gorgeous bouquet of fresh Kashmiri flowers, which he humbly accepted only to pass it to his staff.
The Prime Minister was deep inside the security bubble and NSG guards with masked faces were marching, waving their guns. We were walking just a few steps behind him. I was happy in spite of all those black uniforms around me. I smiled and glanced at the Tiranga inside the school premises ready to be hoisted by the Prime Minister.
What a rare honour!
But suddenly there was a shift in the air. And next second, there was a loud bang. An explosion!
There was a whistle of splinters as the glass from the school windows crashed and a suffocating mix of powder and dust covered the venue. We were blown off our feet. Before I could make out what had happened, another smaller explosion went off somewhere in the school building.
And then I understood what had happened.
It was an attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister!!