– by Maj. Gen. Randhir Singh (retd.)
In 1983, as my Batallion moved into the Imphal plain, Manipur was emerging from a ferocious counter-insurgency campaign. Splinter militant organizations were licking their wounds, awaiting an opportunity for resurgence . Army units were on a counter-insurgency grid to keep control of the situation. One Batallion with its sub-units occupied the airfield and the rural areas of South Manipur. A turncoat militant leader lived under their protection with his family, occupied a small hut in one corner of the field. As an insurgent , Prem had a fearsome reputation, enhanced by his large frame and ruthless temperament. A Meiti ( Hindu inhabitant of the Valley) , he had married outside his community to Mary, a pretty tribal Kuki girl. They had a couple of small children and lived an isolated life, dependent on the Army’s largesse, as their community ostracised them. Prem earned his keep as a source and interpreter for the Army.
I was a company commander and since my unit was to replace this Batallion, my company came under it’s command to learn the ropes. Prem operated under me and I had paired him with one of my newly joined, enthusiastic youngsters, Kashi. They worked smoothly together and achieved some success. Over time, we learnt to respect Prem’s knowledge and courage.
One day, I was on my way to lunch from the unit lines when I heard a hullabaloo from the direction of Prem’s hut. I walked down to find the furious Second in Command (2IC) of the unit giving Prem a thrashing . I could see Mary standing half-hidden inside the hut. I managed to restrain the 2IC with some difficulty and asked him the reason for this uncharacteristic behavior . Shaking with fury, he pointed at Prem and sputtered , “This ungrateful wretch! We saved him and his family and he pays us back by spoiling my Batallion’s name! I will beat him up and hand him to the police.”
This was indeed a very grave sin. No soldier worth his salt would tolerate a blemish to his unit’s name. It seemed Prem had used his influence with the Batallion and bartered it to run an extortion racket by targeting suspected individuals who came under his scanner. Handing him over to the Police was as good as a death sentence at the hands of his former comrades. In the normal course, I would have disowned this fellow. However, there was Mary standing in the hut, her face stoic but her eyes hauntingly expressive. I could hear Prem’s little girl mewling away in the background; and then strangely , I thought of Kashi and would he like it? Despite my austere attitude, Kashi cheerfully risked his life in carrying out my orders , except for an occasional raised skeptical eyebrow. I really had no choice. I asked him to hand Prem over to me, assuring him that I would take full responsibility for his actions. The glowering officer finally agreed, but not before saying that he hoped I wouldn’t regret it.
So there I was , saddled with Prem. In front of my junior leaders, I held a solemn meeting and read him the riot act. My senior JCO (Junior Commissioned Officer) met Mary and told her the consequences of Prem violating the rules. Kashi was made responsible for Prem.
I wish I could say Prem reformed himself . After a couple of years, Prem restarted his racket by cleverly roping in one of my junior leaders without Kashi’s knowledge. The inevitable happened and Kashi discovered what was going on. The JCO was dealt with ruthlessly and sent home. It was touch and go for Prem. Kashi, who now had a standing in the Batallion, prevaled upon the company commander and Prem was once again let off. However , now even Prem’s former comrades ignored him.
The Batallion finally received orders to concentrate at the base , in preparation for move to a peace station. The company was in the process of winding up when , one evening, Prem rushed into the company commanders office and in great excitement said that he had traced a notorious militant and was willing to lead a party to his hideout. Though reluctant to use Prem, the opportunity was too good to miss and he and Kashi moved out with a raiding party. Prem’s information seemed accurate and the team cordoned the village hut.
Now Prem, though brave, was a pretty canny chap. He would usually keep himself well away from the line of fire. But in this instance , he barged in just ahead of Kashi, roundly abusing the house owner. From a curtained alcove, an automatic weapon opened fire. Prem received several bullets and must have died instantly. Kashi, grievously wounded, managed to grapple with the militant , wrest his weapon and collapse. In the ensuing chaos, the militant escaped temporarily into the darkness. Shortly thereafter Kashi, the best and the brightest of the Batallion , succumbed to his injuries. The mystic chord which tied Prem and Kashi , remained intact in their death too.
Two months later, I reported to the Batallion, after completing a posting to a High Altitude Area. While chatting with the senior JCO, I learnt that Mary and her family had remained behind in the dilapidated hut at the base of the hill. I asked the JCO to go and look to their welfare. He reported back somewhat shamefaced and told me that Mary had bitterly accused us of discarding her family once our purpose had been served. This shook me, especially as I realised how right she was. I asked the JCO to go back and find out what she wanted. He returned and told me that she wanted to return to her village and live in a house of her own.
This was daunting : Mary’s village, guarded by an Assam Rifles post, was in the heart of Tangkhul Naga country. The Tangkhuls had been raging a violent insurgency campaign against the Army and this particular post was a favorite when they wanted to take pot shots at the security forces. The road leading to the village was not one in which I would care to venture, as it passed through hilly and forested country.
After a few days of moodily thinking about my problem, I realised that I had to do what Mary wanted. The project had to be planned like a military operation and I required help. I approached the Commanding Officer (CO) and tentatively outlined my proposal. He threw a tantrum at first, but ultimately gave in and managed to obtain approval from his superiors.
I now collected the company and told them that there would come a time when we would all go our separate ways and memories of Prem and Kashi would forever bind us. Abandoning Mary and her children would be a blot on our honor and a negation of their sacrifice. Gorkhas are experts in showing no expression at all, which was exactly how it was as I spoke. At the end of my speech, when I looked at them somewhat apprehensively , I could literally feel a collective sigh pass through the company, as if they had been waiting for this.
Things moved rapidly thereafter. I sent my two best men incognito for a survey. They returned to say that they had contacted the pastor, who had agreed to sell a small plot next to the Church at a concession. His only condition was that we work unarmed in the village. This was a major risk but I delayed the decision till we reached there. I borrowed the Batallion carpenter, and with thirty men we went back to base near the airfield from where we collected material, and then on to the dilapidated hut where Mary and her children were staying. Their pitiable possessions were loaded in one corner of the vehicle and we were off. It was a nerve-racking journey on the winding road but by early evening we had reached the village.
Early next morning we trooped nervously into the village with our implements and without weapons. One of my Junior leaders, who had built his own house, was the Chief Architect. The house came up firm amd strong as the days went by. Mary, trailed by a bevy of pretty girls, would visit us thrice a day with tea and snacks. Mary’s daughter would cuddle up on my lap and watch the activity going on with her large liquid eyes.
After five days, we had a two-room house of thatch and corrugated iron sheets ready. It was not a masterpiece of construction but we were inordinately proud of it. Mary avoided my eyes as she, her sister and the children took possession of their home. Some money and rations, amongst other things , were gifted to them while the village was presented with new volleyball equipment. The party organised by the village lasted well into the evening.
We left early next day, not looking forward to the next few dangerous hours. The village came to see us off en masse. I shook hands with the pastor and other friends and waited for Mary to finish saying goodbye to my men. There was a lump in my throat as I tried to say a few words but she uncharacteristically burst out crying. It was difficult keeping myself under control but I managed it as I hugged her and the children. As our vehicles left and we waved farewell , I hoped we had paid our debt to Prem , and that Kashi would be proud of his company for whom he gave his life.
– by Maj. Gen. Randhir Singh (retd.)
Credits – Pradyumn Bhatt