IN June 1972, posted on the staff of the strike corps which had captured a vast territory in the Shakargarh bulge, the Chief of Staff tasked me with taking photographs of the entire area. Not that I was an established lensman, but such an expert was not available near Sambha (J&K) where the corps HQ was then located. It was the job of the Intelligence Branch, meant to collect, collate and disseminate information that in times to come would be useful to plan and execute operations.
Off with a camera, binoculars, compass, maps and haversack meals, I was to pick up officers from the units deployed there to guide me through the safe passages as at many places mines which were laid during the war were still active. The Engineers had constructed a vast network of roads, tracks and laterals, calling these Sappers Highways. There were two axes — the eastern-southern and the western-southern — along which the two divisions of the strike corps had advanced and launched successful operations one after the other, striking deep into the hinterland of Pakistan.
As I crossed the Sambha railway station, I was welcomed by a board, ‘Bash on regardless, you are entering the captured territory of Pakistan, kind courtesy Golden Hawk/Bison (insignia of 36 and 54 Infantry Divisions, respectively)’. My chest puffed up, after all I was a victor driving through the land which my ancestors once called home since I was born at Lyallpur. Moreover, this was the area where in 1965, a Param Vir Chakra was won by Lt Col Tarapore and in 1971 by Major Hoshiar Singh and 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal.
The land appeared similar but barren as the trees had been cut. There were crops of wheat and sugarcane, some mowed down by assaulting infantry, some still standing and elsewhere burnt due to shelling by artillery and armour. The scent in the air, the chirping of the birds, the abandoned cattle grazing here and there, the flowing waters of Basantar, Devak and Oojh rivers too appeared similar — for it was the granary of combined Punjab.
The villages were deserted though, houses and shops locked, schools and masjids shut. All over, there was devastation — it was a pathetic scene. The villagers were yet to return as military experts were negotiating modalities of a pullback and restoration of each other’s gains and losses at Suchetgarh.
Not to be nostalgic, my mandate was to record and take photographs of areas that were tactically important — the profile of the terrain, weather, marshes, wild growth, natural obstacles, crossing places and bridges across the rivers and nullahs, the flood-prone spots and the anti-flood bundhs, built-up areas, etc. Over one week or so after walking through such tracts day and night, we were able to make many a mosaic and submitted it to the Chief of Staff.
Fifty years later, as I look back, the panorama appears different. Surely Pakistan would have built roads over the brick-lined ones made by our Engineers, drunk water from the wells, prayed at the masjids, studied at the schools and lived in houses renovated by our troops.
But the enemy in Pakistan, while not acknowledging the benevolence, continues to invest in a dangerous strategy, that too at its own peril — be it the Kargil misadventure, terror influx in the Valley, Mumbai siege, attacking the Pathankot airfield; and not even learning from the strike at Balakot.
May sense prevail, and though it could be wishful thinking, as the pandemic teaches us new lessons of survival as also how fickle human life can be, one can only hope that the two neighbours embark on a path of harmony and co-existence.
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