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Camouflaged : Forgotten stories from Battlefields

Ten riveting stories from wars  beyond our borders , wars to defend ours  ,insurgencies and  counter terrorism in which the protagonists have to take  decisions , this way or that, with grave implications on either side have been put together in this eminently readable narrative of real-life heroes by Probol Dasgupta , a former infantry officer   and now a  well-known business consultant. We learn that heroes come from amongst us , but what makes them different is tenacity , courage , grit , commitment , but more than anything else, the ability to carry their team along.  While the  text and the context may change over the years, the essential elements do not , and this is the recurrent themes in   ‘Camouflaged : Forgotten stories from  Battlefields’.

Before  the deep dive into the book, let me share a slice of history to place facts in perspective .The  Indian army is among the most  versatile, busiest and inclusive  of all armies in the world with an enviable history of participating in several major wars in the last century – beginning from WW1 to the more recent ones on terrorism. It bears recall  that the India contingent of  fifteen lakh soldiers in the first world war , in which   they fought cheek by jowl with the Brits in the battle fields of France , Belgium and the Middle east was  larger than the combined numbers from England, Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland . Two decades later , twenty-five lakh jawans joined the second world war on the side of the Allied powers in  North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Southeast Asia.

In ‘Indian Soldiers , Foreign wars’, we     start with the  story of two intrepid and fearless pilots – one who was martyred at nineteen – Indra Lal Laddie Roy- whose nephew  Subroto Mookerjee went on to become the air chief , and Hardit Singh Malik who lived to the ripe old age of 91 .  Malik  and Roy were students in England when the war was announced : both wanted to join the AirForce , but it was not easy – the former was first selected  for the French air force  before the Brits relented , and the latter was first rejected  on account of his eye test . Sheer tenacity saw them soar the skies and win laurels for themselves and the RAF.

If the first story was from the skies, the second tale of valour is from the cavalry .

Lance Daffadar Gobind Singh   became the first Indian soldier to receive the Victoria Cross  at an investiture ceremony held at the Buckingham place by the King Emperor himself .  The citation in the London Gazette  read ‘ for most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in thrice volunteering to carry messages  between the regiment and the Brigade headquarters , a distance of one and a half miles over open ground , which was under observation , and heavy fire of the enemy’.

Then we have  the story of  the thrice  miraculous escape of Chanan Singh Dhillon. He always   wanted to be an officer but was enlisted as a sepoy as he was not  proficient in English . Meanwhile his platan was moved to El  Alamein in North Africa , where he received the news that he had been cleared for training as a commissioned officer.  Before he could get back  , Rommel’s divisions moved in , and they were captured in the desert , and thus began the tortuous years as a PoW, first with the Germans  and then the Italians who  made them work like mules . They were about to be shot when the INA recruiting team came, but Chanan could not trust them , and they were sent to the next camp at  Tripoli  from where they were to be shipped in SS Loreto  across the Mediterranean to Naples .This was torpedoed by a British submarine but  Chanan again had a miraculous escape,   only to be sent to a war camp in Udine on the North east coast of Italy.

After a daring escape bid , he was re-arrested , placed in solitary confinement and finally shifted to Stalag 12A where captors and inmates often faced the same fate from the American bombers . Back in India , it took another ten years from 1947 for him to achieve his life’s goal – a commission in the Indian army ! It is a story that awaits a film director !

The next three stories  come under the  sub head ‘Defending the Borders’ . The first of these from the highlands of  Ladakh , where the young Chhewang Rinchen , who always aspired to  the title of Stak ( Tibetan word for tiger)  responded to the call of Major Prithi Chand  to safeguard their land , their chortem, gumpas and culture from the assault of the enemy .   He became the youngest soldier ever to win the Mahavir Chakra  , and went on to win a gallantry award in every successive battle. On his retirement in 1984, he was made the honorary Colonel of  the Ladakh  scouts .

In the rise and fall of 1962, we have the amazing story of the Olympian hockey player Haripal Kaushik who  was taken into the army in sports quota for his exceptional skills  as a centre forward. In 1962, he received the Vir Chakra for  the defended Tongpen La on the NEFA (now Arunachal frontier), but the subsequnrt  events had left  a deep trauma – physically, mentally and emotionally.  Hie new CO, Lt Col Karnail Singh Sidhu however motivated him to resume his hockey career , and in 1964 , the Indian team of which Haripal was  now the Vice captain , beat Pakistan to win the gold, a feat whish was repeated in the Asia cup a Jakarta . Perhaps the only Vir Chakra who also got the Arjuna Award for sports.

Top Guns of  Boyra is   the story of the fearless, yet ethical pilots of the IAF – Wing Commander Sikand, Roy ‘mouse’ Massey, Gana ‘gun’ Ganapathy  and Donal ‘Don’ Lazarus , who engaged the future air chief of Pakistan Parvaz Mehdi Qureshi, who advised Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief from appointing his batchmate Musharaff as the army chief The rest , as we know is history .

The last section has four remarkable stories , of  which two are set in J&K. The first  ‘A Bloodless Pact to Victory’ is the understanding of ground level  battalion commanders on both sides about the futility of war which their seniors are fighting to score brownie points at the expense of their troops. Major Anand from India , and  Captain Sohaib  from Pakistan , and even though there was an exchange of artily fire, and both held to their positions , so many lives were saved , and the two became good friends !

The postscript in the warrior’s code of courage  is a tribute not just to  Brigadier Saurabh Singh Shekhawat and Major Deependra Singh Sengar , who chose a corporate career after his disability , but also to Abu Khalid , the young terrorist  who displayed an unusual calm and civility in the face of death. Dasgupta does not glorify him- but acknowledges his unwavering determination .

Finding Nizamu  is a tale of courage , conviction, love, compassion, justice and hope . major Mohan Sundaresan Kumar spares the life of an ex-terrorist Nizamuddin who gives up arms for the same of his lady love Mehrunissa. In following his instinct rather than his commander’s order , Mohan displays that rare ability of a human being to connect with another . This too is a Bollywood movie waiting  for a House Full sign .

The last story is about 26/11 when  the war came home on TV screens . But for the NSG commandos  led by Lt Col Sundeep ‘Sandy’ Sen, who hastily left Manesar for Mumbai where the terrorists had launched their dastardly attacks on the iconic Taj mahal hotel by the Gateway of India  as well as the Nariman House, it was  an actual matter of life and death. Even more so for their families , who knew that their husbands were in the line of fire. NSG had  been successful in India’s biggest urban  counter terror operation , but at a heavy cost  for bravehearts Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan and Havildar Gajendra Bisht had been martyred in the course of this victory .

I will end this review with the last lines in the Acknowledgements , which are also mentioned in the dedication ‘ for Nisha ( Dasgupta’s wife) and the unsung spouses of those who serve in the line of duty , and shape the many ‘camouflaged ‘ stories from battlefields’.    




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