Saturday, June 10, 2000

A wife remembers a Kargil hero 
By Alka Ahuja

This week last year the Kargil war erupted.

"It certainly is a proud day for us.

Let there be lusty cries of Jai Hind.

Raise the Tricolour sky-high.

But forget not. On the border

Bravehearts have lost their lives,

Remember them all

Who did not come back."

— Kavi Pradeep



My husband Sq. Leader Ajay Ahuja was the first martyr in the Operation Vijay launched on May 26,1999, for driving out the intruders who had crossed over to Kargil from across the border.

May 27, 1999 — The day after

A period of over one year has elapsed since that fateful day, but the details are so deeply etched in my mind that it seems these have occurred only yesterday.

The sun had risen as usual on that day. There was no foreboding in the air of any cataclysm looming ahead . By the time the sun set, my world had turned topsy-turvy.

Alka Ahuja, wife of late Sq Leader Ajay Ahuja, receiving the Vir ChakraWe had moved to the Killi (Bathinda) Air Colony a year or so ago. Things were slowly settling down. As our son Ankur was just a child, I had enough time on my hands. I also liked teaching children. I had joined the Air Force School there. The schools had just closed for summer vacation and I was at home. Ajay had left for Srinagar on May 16 for some emergency duties. As I said, it was a day like any other day. Our compact colony was quiet as usual. Perhaps more so on account of the fierce Punjab summer. The only dissonance was of, the IAF planes thundering overhead occasionally. In colonies near air bases, residents almost develop a defence mechanism which shuts out the roar. I had a severe headache coming and had decided to sleep it off. I had rushed through the morning chores, fixed a quick lunch. Watched a little TV and then straightway retired with Ankur. I must have dozed off almost immediately. Darling Ankur also did not disturb me.

By the time I woke up it was almost evening. The headache had disappeared; After taking a wash, I felt quite refreshed. Suddenly the doorbell rang. Wondering who could be there, I opened the door to find the Commanding Officer of our Air Base standing on the doorstep. This was rather unusual. I was puzzled. My heart missed a beat. And when he blurted out "Ajay is missing" the beating almost stopped.

But how could that be? Was it not only yesterday (actually it was five days ago on the 22nd) that I had talked to him on phone, wished him on his birthday, and suggested that we could all get together in Srinagar and celebrate. He was all for it. I would have left for Srinagar but for the sudden suspension of all flights to the place , the following day.

Ajay appeared to have left in his MIG 21 around 11.00 hrs on the day on reconnaissance of this mission. While flying over the Mantho Dhalo area, he received a message that the plane of Ft. Lt. Nachiketa had been hit. He located the downed plane and started communicating its position to the Indian helicopters on a rescue mission. While he was doing this, a Stinger missile fired by the intruders hit his plane and it burst into flames. This was around 11.20 a.m. He ejected from the plane. There had been no message from or about him since then.

Hordes of questions began to plague me. was Ajay safe? If so, where was he? Or had anything happened to him? Questions for which even the Army with all its might had no immediate answers. But I was not to remain under suspense for long. The evil tidings which we feared most and hoped against hope would not come, came around 8.30 p.m.

May 28, 1999.

But when I heard what I did the following day, I felt that the state of suspension with all the dire possibilities inherent in it was preferable. Despite the ever-present dire possibilities, there was always a ray, albeit a very weak ray of hope there.

I was to learn that Ajay’s death had come at the end of six long hours of physical torture. There were reports about the gruesome details in the papers at the time and I read them. However, when I received a copy of the post-mortem report, I could see that the truth was revolting. He was repeatedly stabbed in the abdomen and also shot through the ear. When I first saw the report, I clenched my hand and teeth in rage. What could I do after all than sob?

But this obviously revolting report held a strange fascination for me. I would go over it again and again. My mind would dwell over the incidents on that day, that is May 27. Around 11.30 ,while I was enjoying my lunch Ajay had gone into the clutches of the intruders. While I was idly watching the TV, the intruders were working on Ajay’s legs. While I rested, his tormentors were deciding on the degree of pain to be inflicted. While I was endeavouring to catch up with sleep, he had been put to sleep with two shots fired through his ears. And when I was fast asleep, he had already entered into the last slumber from injuries inflicted upon him. What could have been his last word for me and Ankur, as he realised that he would not survive the torture? The CO told me that while being ejected from the plane he had communicated his ground position to them. Did he also leave a message for us along with it? Howsoever, I might try to convince myself that I personally could not have done anything, I cannot help feeling that I failed him when he needed me the most!

As this was not enough, I learnt that Pak authorities were reluctant to hand over the body. After much persuasion from Indian authorities, the Pak army agreed to hand over the body on May 29 at Srinagar.

May 30, 1999.

Today was the homecoming day. The prodigal son who did not think twice while staking his life for his motherland, was coming home of course, on his way to the final journey. In keeping with his profligate ways, he flew home in a special IAF Flight to Bathinda. When the coffin, clad in the Tricolour and decked with flowers, came down there was more anguish in Bharat Mata’s eyes than grief. This is how sleep the brave. That Ankur and me could not even have a last darshan did rankle.

The last rites were performed with full military honours. When the last posts O soldier, your work is done sounded, I choked. How true it was! Ajay had done his duty, both by the country and also by his family. It was I who was amiss. The thought of the marriage vows that I had taken of always standing by him through thick and thin, struck as a slap in the face. Ajay had been so dependable whenever I felt low. But I was not by his side, when he needed me the most. I cannot even hope to make amends. The game is over half-way through. Life for us in the Air Force is different. It literally hangs by a thread. In one breath you are up in the sky — proud and commanding — and in very the next you are down in the dust. They say God dwells in the sky. Could it be that IAF pilots who always roam in the skies are much nearer and dearer to him?

As I stood in one corner watching little Ankur lighting the pyre of his father, I realised the difference between war and peace. In peace, the son lights the pyre and in war it is the father. But today a little son was performing the last rites without knowing what he was doing. The flame soon rose up in the skies. The sun also shone at its worst. The raging fire reminded me of the agni that was present at the zenith of my bliss (my marriage to Ajay) and today at the nadir of sorrow. After some time we returned home.

During the last year, I have received a shower of love, a veritable downpour, from all over the country. How can Iever hope to repay it? Will it suffice if I were to sent a million Thank- yous? Certainly not . Everyone in the Air Force helped me. I want to do something for this country, society and especially for Kargil victims. Life has to be like the Ganga. Quiet flows the holy river through the ages , unmindful of all the upheavals and blood-shed on its banks. The mighty Himalayas have been standing like a sthitpragya amidst a lot of storms, big and small. Even a small sparrow whose nest is scattered in the storm starts rebuilding it as soon as the storm subsides.

Today one year has elapsed since war broke out. Nature’s cycle has turned full circle. It is again hot summer. The gulmohar is in full bloom. The scent of white mogra is pervading the atmosphere. Schools are on vacations and children are playing. As I stand in the balcony of my house , watching the sun setting behind Yamuna, reminding me of the fateful day. I see a sparrow on the tree opposite, trying to rebuild her nest destroyed in the storm. Does it not give us a message of hope?