119 years of Trust A Soldier's Diary THE TRIBUNE
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Sunday, August 15, 1999

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City of peace in shadow of war
By K.S. Bajwa

AMRITSAR, the city that Guru Ram Dass founded, is the symbol of peace and our resolve to defend its sanctity. It proclaims the theme of universal brotherhood and welcomes all into its warm embrace. Paradoxically, this city of eternal light and peace, lives in the shadow of violence and war. The Indo-Pak border is but a stone’s throw away. An unending line of insignificant concrete pillars separates the land and the people on either side that look no different from each other. But the division is formidable; as deep as the roots of distrust we nurture and as wide as the spillage of streams of blood of innocent soldiers and civilians on both sides.

Yet, we are constantly reaching across this barrier of our own making, in old friendships with living nostalgia and in warmth. A letter from an old man in Pasrur, not too far away from the border in Pakistan, anxiously inquired about people and their progeny who remain fresh in his memory.

A host of sons and their sons bearing arms and some even cementing the division with their blood had failed to cast any shadows of bitterness. The years had not dimmed the sweep of his friendship. Even those, who have grown up as strangers on both sides, readily acknowledge the universality of their roots when they meet individually.

Old soldiers too remember shared comradeships before they were torn asunder. After they have stopped shooting at each other in their faithfulness to their uniforms, these golden men of honour get together and celebrate anniversaries which bear a living testimony to their never forgotten togetherness. This lends substance to hopes of a lasting peace. The leaders on both sides reiterate their desire for it, but do they really mean it? They welcome the buses of peace and then unleash Kargils of death and destruction. But the city of the Golden Temple that builds bridges of understanding between man and his God, lives on in the path of the long shadows.

Amritsar is no stranger to the tramp of the soldier. Destruction and desecration might have laid low what men built as the edifice of faith nurtured by the theme of martyrdom. The commonwealth drew strength and the Temple rose again in greater splendour. An O‘Dwyer, drunk and blinded by imperial power, lacked the deep insight to understand the dynamics of martyrdom, which was the abiding spirit of Amritsar.

The bloodshed of Jallianwala Bagh injected a new purpose into the struggle for freedom and spelt the doom for the British in India. And when the time came for them to quit, a Mountbatten could not remain immune to the need to safeguard this eternal symbol of peace and tranquility. He too came under its spell and made sure that Tehsils of Gurdaspur and Batala with a Muslim majority were given into the fold of India so that this city of the nectar of life could not be easily threatened.

The Pakistanis too did not reckon with the spirits of the countless martyrs that stand guard on the approaches to this shrine of inspiration. In 1965, their armoured Juggernaut met its doom in the sugarcane fields of Asal Utter.

The city and free India’s soldiers had a fascinating love affair going, which started with the birth pangs of the two neighbours in 1947. Overnight, the city had been catapulted from the heartland of Punjab to an outpost of a confused giant. It became a clearing house for the tales of horror that trickled over the newly acquired identity of the border. The flames of hatred and revenge that were fed, imprinted memories of terror on those bound for Amritsar and in the opposite direction to Lahore. The overworked band of soldiers strove valiantly to safeguard the fresh division of citizens.

By 1971, an inviolable emotional sanctity had come to be attached to every inch of Indian territory. Amritsar had become a priceless symbol of India’s determination to defend our hard won freedom. The city and its people too had grown in their resolve and courage to stand firm. Our defences had been carried forward right up to the borders and strengthened with a continuous belt of defence works. In the bargain, military commanders had been left with little room for manoeuvre. But on the plus side our decision-makers had learnt that an effective defence would invariably involve carrying the fight into the enemy territory. So we struck into the Shakargarh salient when Pakistan started the war.

Apart from skirmishes ahead of our main defences and along some of the Pakistani enclaves east of the Ravi, Amritsar did not face any actual ground threat. The air-attacks tested its resolve. Citizens themselves no less than soldiers in the frontline, took the air defence gunners, so near at hand and visible symbol of the soldiers in their hour of need, to their hearts.

The Guru ki Nagri brigade which I had taken over in March ‘72, had very proudly and valiantly stood guard in a state of confrontation on the approaches to the city. During this period, I and my men were enveloped with the warmth of the people of this great city and loaded with affection. As opportunity to serve here in uniform had emotional as well as a spiritual significance for me. From my very childhood and throughout the years of my growing up, I had come to this holiest of the shrines of my faith to renew its message of human universality and draw strength from its rich spiritual heritage.

At the time of the annexation of Punjab by the British in 1849, my direct ancestor, Kumedan Jiwan Singh at the head of his battalion the "Sherdils", was the military governor of the Govindgarh Fort. He was treacherously slain by two drunken British soldiers, when he was trying to pacify them. The "Sherdils" became the 19th Punjabis in the British Indian Army and then the 1/14th Punjab (now 5 Punjab, Pak Army). At the time of Partition, two companies of this battalion, joined 9 Punjab (Indian Army). Both the Govindgarh Fort and 9 Punjab were a part of my command. A great-great-grand son had humbly and proudly reaffirmed illustrious military traditions.

I went back to Amritsar again in June 1999. The long shadows of war loomed ominously once again over the horizon. Sri Krishan Khanna and his charming wife, constant and warm-hearted friends of the soldiers in Amritsar, were concerned if once again there would be a war at their doorstep. The leaders on both sides say that they seek peace and friendship. But who can say what they really mean? They welcome the bus of friendship and peace while they had already plotted the treachery of Kargil. We paid for their perfidy and our complacency with the blood of countless valiant sons of this soil. There is anger and we are repelled. But in the midst of it when we look towards this hallowed symbol of peace, the message is unmistakable.

Be prepared to guard your land and its heritage but do not go away from the search for peace. It is evident that Amritsar is even more priceless — a city of peace but of indomitable spirit when war clouds gather. The people know it. The soldiers are aware of it and well prepared. The city may hear the thunder, but will never feel the tramp of the alien boot. Back

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