Capt (retd) Naveen Nagappa was one of over a thousand soldiers injured in the Kargil War of 1999, which ended on July 26, with a victory for the Indian troops. After 20 years, Capt Nagappa recalls how he lost some of his friends and heroes in the conflict, and how lucky he was to survive. Being commissioned to capture Point 4875 on July 4,120 men from his troops fought valiantly, but ran out of food and ammunition. On July 6, a grenade thrown by the enemy troops exploded near Capt Nagappa’s leg, injuring him critically. He was put on Dangerously Ill List and flown back to New Delhi, putting an end to an Army career that had started just five months earlier. Aksheev Thakur reports
“I wanted to have stars on my shoulders. I believed that two stars on my shoulders were better than a thousand in the sky,” recalls Captain (retd) Naveen Nagappa, who just five months into the service led an attack on Point 4875 during the Kargil War in 1999, which changed his life forever.
Even as a pre-university student, Capt Nagappa was enticed by men in uniform. Unlike his course mates from Bapuji Institute of Technology, who joined multinational companies, After getting his mechanical degree, he applied for the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehradun and in the Service Selection Board (SSB) test, he was one of the two candidates – out of 80, to be selected for training at IMA. “After my selection, I had a get-together with my college mates and they were amazed that I was about to join the Army. ‘It was not lucrative’. I told my friends, ‘and I may not earn much, but will get a thousand salutes every day’,” Capt Nagappa says.
After he was commissioned on December 12, 1998, Capt Nagappa was allotted 13 JAKRIF unit and in January 1999, he moved to Sopore for counter-insurgency (CI) operations.
13 JAKRIF IN THE WAR
Capt Nagappa, who always looked up to his senior officers, recalls Capt Vikram Batra and Major Ajay Singh Jasrotia as his role models. On June 15, Maj Jasrotia lost his life in the heavy artillery shelling from Pakistani troops.
On June 19, 1999, Capt Batra and Captain Sanjeev Singh Jamwal led the attack on Point 5140, and Capt Nagappa was kept in the reserve. It was one of the most successful attacks in the war, and the Indian Army did not suffer any casualties. “After getting the feature, Captain Jamwal sent his victory signal, ‘Oh! Yeah Yeah’. Then as we were waiting for Captain Batra’s signal, his now-famous victory cry came – ‘Yeh Dil Maange More’. I was elated, but somewhere deep within, I was regretting that the opportunity did not come to me,” Capt Nagappa remembers.
The opportunity came soon enough, and 13 JAKRIF was tasked to capture Point 4875. Before heading to the war, soldiers are told to write unposted letters to their families. “The most difficult thing for me was to tell 120 men that they had to write letters which would be posted in case they do not come back. We also had to deposit our identity cards so that our identities are not revealed if we are taken as PoWs. I remember every one of our soldiers opening their wallets and looking at pictures of their families for a long time,” he recalls with nostalgia.
A havan was performed for the success of the operation and the soldiers hugged each other before heading to the warzone. The Commanding Officer, Lt Col Y.K. Joshi, who is now serving as Lieutenant General, told Capt Nagappa that he should take care of his men, and they will take care of him.
“Then Capt Batra said, ‘Galey lagna yaar, jaane kaun si mulaqaat aakhri hogi’. On July 4, we left for the feature, leaving behind all concerns for our families. On July 5, we came across one bunker and two sangars (fortifications) of the enemy. I lobbed grenades and we managed to clear the area,” he explains.
In the battle that continued into the night, Capt Nagappa lost his buddy, Shyam Singh. The next morning, on July 6, Lt Col Joshi called up Capt Nagappa asking about the condition of the troops. The soldiers were famished as they had gone without food for 48 hours straight, and to add to their misery, they had run out of ammunition too. The troops were so wracked by hunger and thirst that they picked up snow that was covered in bloodstains and soot of blasts, removed the top layer and drank from the bottom. Capt Nagappa knew that his troops were hungry, but insisted on ammunition than food.
It was at this moment that Capt Batra joined Capt Nagappa. He still remembers their talk about post-retirement plans. “Batra wanted to have a strawberry farm after retirement and we both had planned to visit Capt Kalia’s house in Palampur. At 16,000 feet, in the midst of the war zone, we were talking about our retirement plans,” Capt Nagappa says with a sigh.
The next morning, a grenade lobbed by the enemy fell next to Capt Nagappa’s feet. “I tried to throw the grenade back, but it hit the boulder and rolled back. Out of 4 seconds within which it explodes, I had lost 3. In the last one second, the picture of my family flashed before my eyes and the only prayer I had on my lips was that the upper part of my body should not be hit, as I did not want my family to see that. The grenade exploded and I could not hear anything except the rattle of my AK-47. Immediately, Batra came to my bunker and said, ‘Anna, tu darna math, main aagaya hoon’. He immediately dragged me out of the bunker,” he says.
He crawled nearly 150 metres before a soldier picked him up and carried him on his shoulders. On the way to the base, the stretcher Capt Nagappa was lying on fell several times and the only thing he had in mind was that if his leg gets chopped off, he would carry it and ask the doctors to stitch it back.
Capt Nagappa was put in the Dangerously Ill List (DIL) and was airlifted from Srinagar to Delhi. As his helicopter was taking off, he saw the Tricolour hoisted at Point 4875. He was elated, but soon sadness enveloped him as he had lost his friend, Capt Batra.
“I saluted the flag from the helicopter. Batra had saved my life, but lost his own. He was my hero,” Capt Nagappa says, choking up, remembering his friend.
He went through eight surgeries and spent 21 months in the hospital before being declared unfit to serve in the army. He was later awarded Sena Medal (Gallantry).
‘It was personal for me, Kalia was my IMA mate’
In the second week of May 1999, Capt Saurabh Kalia, along with five soldiers of the 4 JAT regiment, had gone for a routine patrol in the Kaksar Sector. He ran into Pakistani fire, and after the Indian troops ran out of ammunition, they were encircled by Pakistani soldiers and taken as Prisoners of War (PoWs).
“Immediately, Capt Amit Bhardwaj, who was his senior, volunteered and went in search of Kalia. He too was outnumbered. A valiant Capt Bhardwaj, who wanted to protect his men and ordered them to fallback, too lost his life in the ensuing battle,” Capt Nagappa says.
“This was the time we were asked to move to Kargil Drass Sector. In the first week of June, when the mutilated bodies of Capt Kalia and his men were sent, a feeling of revenge ran through the ranks. For me, it was personal as Saurabh was my mate at the IMA,” he recalls.