KARGIL WAR HEROES: Captain Vikram Batra, Captain Saurabh Kalia, Captain Vijayant Thapar, Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja and Group Captain Kambampati Nachiketa Rao

As many as 527 Indian defence forces personnel died in the Kargil conflict, losing their lives while evicting Pakistani soldiers and irregulars from India

New Delhi: Captain Vikram Batra, 24, of the Indian Army earned the nickname ‘Sher Shah (lion king) for his brave feats in Kargil. Captain Saurabh Kalia, 22 — who is said to have exposed large-scale infiltration by the Pakistan Army along the Line of Control (LoC) — and five soldiers accompanying him suffered brutal torture after they were captured by the other side. They never made it back home.

Group Captain Kambampati Nachiketa Rao, 26, of the Indian Air Force (IAF) was captured and tortured too, but somehow made it out alive.

This was 20 years ago, during the Kargil conflict, the last ‘war’ India fought. As many as 527 Indian defence forces personnel died in the conflict, losing their lives while evicting Pakistani soldiers and irregulars from the country’s soil.

Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa led the country last week in paying tributes to the war’s fallen air warriors by flying a Missing Man formation of MiG-21s and Mi-17 V5 choppers.

As the country marks two decades since the Indian Army’s ‘Operation Vijay’ and the Indian Air Force’s ‘Operation Safed Sagar’, ThePrint remembers some of the heroes who have come to epitomise the toll of the Kargil conflict for Indians.

Captain Vikram Batra

“Chankya …it’s Sher Shah reporting!! We’ve captured post! Yeh dil maange more!” These were the words of Captain Vikram Batra as he reported to his Commanding Officer through a wireless that Point 5140, Tiger Hill, had been taken back. This was 20 June 1999, about a week before he was killed in action.

He was commissioned into 13 Jammu & Kashmir Rifles and promoted to the rank of Captain during the battle.

On 19 June 1999, as Captain Batra and his Delta Company set out to recapture Point 5140, they faced heavy gunfire from the Pakistani forces. However, they fought on, with Batra alone killing three soldiers in close combat despite being injured.

On 20 June, they captured Point 5140, before scoring other victories at Point 5100, Point 4700, Junction Peak and Three Pimples.

Nearly a week later, while on another dangerous mission to recapture Peak 4875, Batra and his troops were attacked by Pakistan soldiers.

The mission was near conclusion when Batra got out of his bunker to rescue an injured junior officer.

It was then that a bullet hit him. Those who saw him die say that just before he took his last breath, he shouted, “Jai Mata Di”. His team succeeded in capturing 4875.

Batra was posthumously awarded India’s highest gallantry award, the Param Vir Chakra. With multiple photos and videos of him publicly available, Batra has emerged as the most recognisable face of the conflict. He was one of the characters portrayed in J.P. Dutta’s 2003 film LOC Kargil, while a biopic focused on him alone is currently in the works.

Captain Saurabh Kalia

Captain Saurabh Kalia of 4 Jat battalion was 20 days short of his 23rd birthday when he was killed, after spending nearly a month in captivity of the Pakistani forces, who brutalised him and five other Indian soldiers.

In the first two weeks of May 1999, Kalia is said to have reported large-scale intrusion by the Pakistan Army at the Line of Control (LoC) in Kargil.

On 15 May, he was captured alive along with five soldiers — Sepoys Arjun Ram, Bhanwar Lal Bagaria, Bhika Ram, Moola Ram and Naresh Singh of the 4 Jat battalion — while on a routine patrol.

Kalia and his men were held captive for about 22 days, and suffered extreme torture at the hands of Pakistani forces: They were burnt with cigarette butts and their eyes were gouged.

Their mutilated bodies were handed back to the Indian Army on 9 June 1999. It is said that his capture led to the discovery of hundreds of Pakistani soldiers and irregulars who had positioned themselves around peaks on the Indian side of the LoC.

At the time of his capture, Kalia, who had joined the unit as a Lieutenant, had just been promoted to the rank of Captain on the battlefield. It was reported in June last year that his life story will soon be made into a film.

Captain Vijayant Thapar

For Captain Vijayant Thapar, 22, a fourth-generation soldier, it was always a dream to join the Indian Army. In his last letter to his family, he predicted his death and wrote, “…Even if I become a human again… I’ll join the Army and fight for my nation…”

At the start of the Kargil conflict, his battalion was first tasked with capturing the feature Tololing, which proved a crucial victory for Thapar and his team.

On 28 June 1999, 2 Rajputana Rifles was given the task of capturing Three Pimples, Knoll and Lone Hill area: Thapar was killed by a burst of fire while leading his team in Knoll, which was eventually conquered on 29 June 1999.

“By the time you get this letter,” he wrote to his parents in the last letter, penned two hours before the Knoll assault, “I will be observing all of you from the sky and enjoying the hospitality of apsaras.”

He was awarded a Vir Chakra posthumously.

Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja

Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja of the Indian Air Force (IAF) died on 27 May 1999, five days after his 36th birthday, leaving behind his wife and young son.

When the Kargil conflict broke out in May-June 1999, Ahuja had just started commanding the 17 Squadron. He was flying a MiG-21 well within the Indian territory when his plane was shot at by the Pakistani Army with a shoulder-fired FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missile.

Before he ejected, he issued a radio call: “Hercules, something has hit my plane, possibility of missile hit cannot be ruled out, I am ejecting over…(location).” Soon afterwards, the IAF lost track of his aircraft.

He ejected but landed in Pakistani territory. When his body was handed over to India on 29 May, it was found to be severely mutilated. An autopsy revealed multiple puncture wounds over his left and right thighs, rupture of the right lung, injury to his neck, small intestine and liver, suggesting torture. There was a gunshot wound near his ear.

The squadron leader had sustained a fracture in his left knee when he parachuted down, but the gunshot wound proved he had landed alive and was killed later.

He was posthumously awarded a Vir Chakra, the third-highest gallantry honour.

Group Captain Kambampati Nachiketa Rao

Kambampati Nachiketa Rao, then 26, was captured the same day as Ahuja, but just minutes before the Squadron Leader.

On 26 May 1999, Nachiketa was part of an IAF team that took part in a strike on Pakistani posts in the Batalik sector. On the second day of the operations, after he had deployed 80mm rockets and 30mm cannon against the targets, his engine flamed out and he was forced to eject.

“The engine was hit by a Pakistani Stinger missile when he was flying against infiltrator positions during Operation Safed Sagar,” an official who knew him closely told ThePrint.

It is said that he evaded immediate capture, but was taken into custody by a Pakistani Army patrol after spending two to three hours on the run, making him the first Indian prisoner of war of the conflict.

He was brutally tortured in custody but, by his own admission, spared the worst on the intervention of a senior Pakistan Army officer. He was released after spending eight days in Pakistan custody.