Kargil Vijay Diwas: Saurabh Kalia, the 22-Year-Old Soldier Who Never Returned

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Kargil Vijay Diwas: Saurabh Kalia, the 22-Year-Old Soldier Who Never Returned

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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n February 27, Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was on a mission: To intercept Pakistani aircraft flying over Jammu and Kashmir. Two weeks after the suicide bombing that saw 40 Indian security personnel martyred in Pulwama, tensions between India and Pakistan had escalated into a series of cross-border skirmishes and air raids. Abhinandan’s plane, having crossed into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, was hit by a surface-to-surface missile. Pilot and plane went down, and were captured by Pakistani forces.

It’s been 20 years since the Kargil War was officially declared over. But the time elapsed didn’t stop the nation from remembering another hero who had, back then, been taken as a Prisoner of War: Capt Saurabh Kalia of the Indian Army. On May 15, 1999, Kalia and five other soldiers — sepoys from the 4 Jat Regiment who accompanied him on his reconnaissance patrol through the peaks of Ladakh — were not expecting to find enemies in the cold, inhospitable conditions. Unbeknownst to them, Pakistan had set up hundreds of guerilla soldiers in the rugged mountains, their infiltration efforts falling well inside the Indian Line of Control. 

When Kalia and five other soldiers – Sepoys Arjun Ram, Bhanwar Lal Bagaria, Bhika Ram, Moola Ram, and Naresh Singh – went to patrol the Bajrang Area post in Kargil district, they found themselves in a crossfire with Pakistani forces. The Indian army men ran out of ammunition, were soon captured by rangers, and held captive by the Pakistani Army for 22 brutal days. Unlike when Abhinandan’s plane went down, there were no blow-by-blow updates on the news or uproar on social media. The announcement came from PoK’s Radio Askardu, saying that the Indian soldiers had been captured.

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The announcement came from PoK’s Radio Askardu, saying that the Indian soldiers had been captured.

Vijay Gupta/Getty Images

Nor did Kalia return home safe like Abhinandan did. For weeks, he and his team were subjected to graphic torture, enduring broken bones, pulled fingernails, gouged eyes, and pierced eardrums. They were burned with cigarettes and had their body parts chopped off, before finally being shot dead. On June 9, Kalia’s mutilated body was returned to his parents, and a post-mortem report confirmed his torture. He was not 23 yet.

The Pakistani government continued to deny these claims, chalking the signs of damage up to “extreme weather”. Kalia’s father is still waiting for official action to be taken over his son’s killing. As the rest of the country gears up to commemorate our victory in Kargil, NK Kalia remembers his own grief and the injustice that has followed. In an interview with The Times of India, he spoke with immense pride of his son’s ultimate sacrifice, pointing out that his regiment was the first to discover that Pakistan had infiltrated the Line of Control. But his quest to pressure the Pakistani government for an official apology and a punishment for Kalia’s torturers, has been an exercise in futility.

The cost of war is incalculable and is always paid by martyrs and their families.

According to NK Kalia, then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other ministers had promised to raise the issue of Pakistan’s war crimes with the international community, but never pursued it seriously. NK Kalia tells ToI, “Sadly, for our netas security personnel are only numbers, of which they can have inexhaustible supply.” 

Undeterred, he continues to hold out hope that Capt Kalia’s suffering will one day be acknowledged. Besides being posthumously promoted to the rank of Captain, NK Kalia believes that government officials care little for what happened to his son. He reached out to former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to no avail, and has tried to get an audience with ex-PM of Pakistan, Parvez Musharaff. Although he’s thus far been rebuffed at every turn, NK Kalia believes that heinous crimes against soldiers will no longer go unpunished.

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The tragic loss of Capt Kalia and his men is, after all, a casualty of war, where the most inhumane acts are justified under the guise of winning.

NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A large part of his faith comes from the Modi administration’s response after Wing Commander Abhinandan was captured. While they have refused to press charges for Kalia’s death in the International Court of Justice, citing the action as “not practical”, the government has done a better job with Abhinandan, taking a firm stance against Pakistan. Abhinandan was safely returned across the border after 60 hours, unharmed by his time in captivity. 

As for why this NDA government has been more proactive than the previous one when it comes to cross-border relations? Maybe they are determined not to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors, whom NK Kalia has called “spineless”. Or maybe the memories of Indo-Pak clashes have grown fainter, as they have for all of us after a long stretch of relative peace.

On Kargil Vijay Diwas, the nation celebrates a hard-won victory — and hopefully, spares a few moments to honour those who made it possible. The tragic loss of Capt Kalia and his men is, after all, a casualty of war, where the most inhumane acts are justified under the guise of winning. Twenty years on, NK Kalia still tells us a cautionary tale: The cost of war is incalculable and is always paid by martyrs and their families.

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