Petals and Potshots in the “Pandemic Peace”

Indian Air Force Mi 17 V5 helicopter showering flower petals over hospitals as part of “Armed Forces Salute to Corona Warriors” in New Delhi on Sunday, May 03, 2020.
Photo Courtesy of Indian Defence Ministry PRO.

Anuj Sood was a bright student. He was brought home wrapped in the Indian national flag, a fallen soldier. He was cremated on Tuesday. His soldier-father, a retired Brigadier General of the Indian Army, held up bravely. The son, Major Sood, had married months ago.

A soldier of the 19, Brigade of the Guards regiment of the Indian Army, Sood was on duty with the 21st battalion of the Rashtriya Rifles, which is tasked with internal security, in North Kashmir’s Handwara.

The handsome young Major was sanctioned leave to go home in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh from March 24. By then, the Indian government imposed a nationwide ‘lockdown’. Travelling was forbidden. The officer did not have the option of working from home. He continued to patrol in Kashmir, fatally as it were.

Along with his commanding officer (CO), Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, Sood and three other soldiers, charged into the house of a carpenter in the village after a tip-off that insurgents were hiding there. There are conflicting versions of what happened afterwards. The army said Pakistan-supported terrorists were holding villagers hostage in the carpenter’s house.

The CO, the Major and three others were killed in the firefight.

That was on the evening on May 2, Saturday.

Memory Card: A “friendship scrapbook” left behind by a soldier.

The news broke on Sunday, May 3. It was the day of the “salute to corona warriors”. That day in an expensive imitation of the performances of the US Air Force’s showpiece squadrons, Indian military aircraft showered marigold and rose petals on doctors and health workers.

It was an expensive exercise. Four years back a US audit had shown that it cost about $7100 (Indian Rupees 5.5 lakh) to keep a C-130 Hercules plane flying for an hour. In India, as in its “belligerent” neighbor, Pakistan, there is a huge, up to 40 per cent, cutback in military expenses.

On India’s expressways, a mostly hungry and desperate people – migrants internally displaced by the nationwide lockdown on 1.3 billion people – crawled back home, infants in arms. India’s widest expressway that I can see from my balcony was built by migrant laborers. It has almost no vehicular traffic. But there are helicopters flying to a nearby airport and the workers are marching, a slow, slumbered march, mostly eastwards through the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Ampitheatre of the Absurd: The view from a balcony (red arrow points to the Expressway and multitudes of migrants marching on home). Photo by Sujan Dutta.

This theatre of the absurd is playing out on land and in water. On the flight deck of India’s largest military machine, the INS Vikramaditya aircraft carrier, in the Arabian Sea on the west coast there was a caricature of a green boxing glove punching a red coronavirus.

But this is also a story of a frenzied female of the Feni.

And it is also a story of commandos at Keran in Kashmir’s Kupwara.

It is a cheap shot at alliteration. In the language of a la-la land. Where these tales unfold.

First the frenzied female of the Feni. The Feni is the seasonal river that flows from Sabroom in South Tripura in India’s Northeast. It forms a disputed boundary between India and Bangladesh. I’ve been there. From the Indian side. For a story. Twenty-six years ago.

I flew to Agartala, Tripura’s old royal capital, and drove 80kms to Sabroom. The first batch of Chakmas, the persecuted Buddhist tribal people from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) who had sought refuge in India, were to be repatriated to Bangladesh.

New Delhi and Dacca had reached an agreement.

The Feni, across which the refugees walked back home to Bangladesh, was a dry riverbed that season.

As it is now. Twenty-six years later. And it is in the news again.

On April 13, 2020, The Telegraph’s Tanmoy Chakraborty reported: “A mentally-ill woman has been stranded on a sar (sandbar) on the Feni river, which divides India and Bangladesh in southern Tripura, for the past 11 days, with the Border Security Force (BSF) and Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) allegedly refusing to rescue her claiming she was not a citizen of either country.” The article cites a local resident: “ ‘A group of women from our village had spoken to the woman. It seems she is from Bangladesh because she calls water paani, but Bengalis here say jol. Moreover, she was giving reference of Mirpur,’ Minati (an Indian villager) said.”

I spoke to a friend in Agartala who told me “I don’t know if she was tested for corona. But people, even the BSF and the BGB were shooing her away by not touching her. Patients come here also for treatment. There is a hospital here, you know about it.”

“Shooing her away by not touching her.” The words rang in my ears. I wondered if she was being stoned.

It reminded me of Saadat Hasan Manto’s The Dog of Tithwal.

Was the woman on the Feni riverbed JhunJhun of the story? In the story, JhunJhun is a dog that scampered between the camps of Indian and Pakistani soldiers across what must be the Kishenganga or Neelum River. It did not recognize the ceasefire line sketched hastily after the 1947-48 war in Kashmir that followed Partition.

In Tithwal, Indian and Pakistani army camps face each other.

I’ve been to Tithwal too. In 2005.

On the morning of October 8 that year, an earthquake rocked Delhi. It ripped through Kashmir. Making for the Indian Air Force base in Srinagar after permissions, a Mi-17 helicopter on a casevac (casualty evacuation) sortie flew me to Tangdhar, a “bowl” near the Line of Control (LoC). There was no guarantee of return. Casualties would be given priority. I stayed overnight.

An excerpt from my dispatch from that day:

…. Shouts of saathi, friend, comrade, colleague, fly back and forth across this disputed boundary between soldiers of Indian and Pakistani armies. Armies that have been eyeball-to-eyeball for over five decades are striking a strange fellowship founded on grief and concern.

Troops of the Indian army’s Shakti Vijay Brigade and Pakistan’s 54 Brigade have not waited for orders or permission from commanding officers to alert each other.

Abdur Rouf, a soldier of the Indian Army’s 12 Field Regiment from Basirhat, north of Calcutta. . ..was in a detachment manning the Rani Post, 25 metres from two Pakistani army posts…. He saw a Pakistani soldier slip and fall down a hillside. The soldier could be seen by the Indians, but not by the Pakistanis.

The quake has loosened rocks and boulders all over these hills. Several bodies are trapped under them, invisible from aerial recces.

“Saathi,” Rouf hollered. They could not hear. “Saathi, saathi,” his mates joined him in a chorus. This time they heard. “Aapka banda wahan gir gaya hain (Your chap has fallen there.) Pick him up, we won’t fire.”

The Pakistani soldier was saved.

The officers know, and have even encouraged this fellowship. Helicopters that were forbidden from flying within less than a km from the LoC now fly to Tithwal and Bajarkot and Simara and Tarh, villages perched almost on the line. The line here is the Kishanganga River, called Neelum on the Pakistani side.

The Pakistan army’s mujahid battalions across have responded in kind. An Indian soldier on patrol who strayed across the LoC during the quake was returned.

(from Enemy soldier to saathi, The Telegraph. October 11, 2005)

In times of great adversity, armies have been known to pause. The “Beating of The Retreat” ceremony held on January 29 every year in the national capital has a tradition of going back to such a pause. When soldiers sheathed weapons to pick up the dead and wounded from the battlefield. In 1914, the first year of the First World War, British and German soldiers famously stepped out of trenches to mark a Christmas truce. As recently as 1999, Indians paused firing to return bodies to the Pakistanis near Point 13000 in Kargil. But that war was also marked by tales of torture and the mutilation of bodies of soldiers.

In wars, violence and torture are normalized. Incidents of peace breaking out become the unusual, the odd moments out, in the midst of constant armed conflict.

That is so with India and Pakistan even as both countries mark the onset of Ramzan. In Tangdhar and Tithwal the bonhomie of the 2005 catastrophe has all but evaporated. It is now haunted by the spectre of a new natural enemy beyond human control: a virus. Will that spirit of cooperation be reprised this time? It is unclear.

Kilometres to the northeast of the Tithwal Salient, along the LoC and the Neelum, is Keran, in Kashmir’s Kupwara district. On the morning of April 6, 2020 a fourteen paragraph message bounced around fauji social network groups, describing an operation by the 4 Para (Special Forces), an operation that ended in tragedy on a snowy cliff. The author headlined his message: Just Like That – They Are Gone and gave a poignant account of the men’s dazzling bravery, skill, camaraderie, and sacrifice.

He observed:

“There were no last letters for ‘just in case’…No last calls ‘to tell one more time’…No recorded videos for posterity…No last wishes on radio, when they lay bleeding with their guts spilled but still fighting. But they never came back . . .

“As the world lay quarantined, made prisoners in their own home by a virus…the buddies fought on, nonchalantly …fearlessly…confidently with purpose. The squad moved as one. . . .

“The area was lit up. The three were taking fire…the fourth got an opportunity to pump a few magazines out before they got the tap for eternal silence. The fifth ran to meet his end with the stops. All five lay dead. . . .

“They launched…but they never returned”.

The message was from a soldier who was involved in ferrying the bodies of the commandos of Keran in Kashmir’s Kupwara.

Since that event, even as India and most of the world went into lockdown, the Line of Control is what it was till 2003. Cannon opened up. India launched a “punitive fire assault”. The Pakistanis targeted Indian villages close to the Line.

 Armed Forces Salute Corona Warriors: Representatives of Tri-Services paying homage to martyrs at National Police Memorial in New Delhi on Sunday, May 3, 2020. Photo Courtesy of Indian Defence Ministry PRO.

Photographs from Poonch and Kupwara harked back to the days before the October 2002 ceasefire. That year on Id/Diwali, India and Pakistan decided to stop shooting. In India there was a BJP-led NDA government with Prime Minister Vajpayee at the helm. The LoC calmed down.

In the last five years, however, it has gone live again, though not quite to pre-2003 levels. In the weeks since the commandos were killed in Keran, India has gone into “work from home mode” like much of the world. Conferences and meetings are over social media networks and corporate meeting software. Organisers send web links to participants and observers.

The online seminars and conferences have spawned their own jokes. In Madhya Pradesh this week a judge rebuked and called off a hearing because a lawyer faced the camera shirtless. Elsewhere, corporate executives have forgotten to switch off their cameras and revealed colourful underwear to online audiences.

One smart aleck posted on Facebook: “Zindagi ko chahiye ek hoshiyar nar. Lekin zindagi ko mila sirf webinar.” It roughly translates to: “life needs a smart man, but life has only got webinar”; with “webinar” reading as “webby-man” and rhyming with the “smart man” invoked in the first line. The pun works in Hindi.

On Saturday evening though, a webinar with participants from India and Pakistan was deadly serious.

Among them were, from India, Lieutenant General Ata Hasnain, a prolific commentator who retired as military secretary. Before that he had commanded the Chinar (15 corps) in Kashmir. He is now a member of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) with the rank of secretary and a member of the Empowered Committee for Information and Communication set up by the Indian PMO. He moderated the discussion, beginning by saying that this could well mark a resumption of Track II talks. Track II talks, much in vogue since the Vajpayee regime, have involved dialogues between strategic observers. They have given inputs to policy makers that have sometimes been picked up.

Also from India, Ambassador TCA Raghavan, who currently heads the Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA). He was India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan till his retirement in December 2015.

The participants from Pakistan included Lt General Asad Durrani (retired), former chief of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI); Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, who had served as Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India and to the US; Qamar Cheema, an academic and broadcaster; and Reza Syed, policy wonk and TV personality.

Each participant was endowed with access to sensitive ears within their own establishments.

Hosted by a think-tank, the Global Counter Terrorism Council (GCTC), the webinar teetered on the brink of the usual snafu: The Pakistanis wanted Kashmir to be on the agenda. Indians said talks and terror cannot go hand-in-hand.

But that was then, pre-Covid-19. This is now.

Qazi rejected the observation by (an Indian questioner) that “Kashmir is now done and dusted.” Lt General Hasnain said India had taken initiatives since 2015, when the late Sushma Swaraj visited Islamabad, followed by Prime Minister Modi’s “drop-in” at Lahore in December that year. But these initiatives were thwarted by terror attacks in Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota. Just this month, Lt General Deepak Sharma pointed out, the terrorist infiltration and the killing of the commandos at Keran had cast a shadow.

But Covid-19 is already taking a toll on the millitaries. Rajnath Singh, India’s defence minister, has ordered cutbacks in spending.

But it was the first day of Ramzan. There was a cordial exchange and the conversation veered to what it would take for dialogue in a post-Covid-19 future, a future that can’t be foretold as yet, Ambassador Raghavan underlined.

Such was the ambit of the exchange till the language became contemporary and alliterative enough to generate buzz-phrases: “Quarantine Kashmir” means keep it on the agenda without prioritizing it for now. It means waging a “pandemic peace”.

But by then young Major Sood and his commanding officer, the Colonel and their comrades had died. Neither quarantined Kashmir nor pandemic peace could save them.

There is greater need for enforcement of pandemic peace, perhaps. For it to be effective. Effective enforcement of pandemic peace. If death and disease doesn’t do that, be warned.

Daily Bread: “Roti”, the symbol of the poor person’s’ rudimentary rights, lie scattered on the railway tracks, where exhausted migrant workers, reportedly returning to their villages, were crushed to death by a goods train. Photo sourced from ANI’s twitter page.

Postscript: Even as we go to press, news is breaking that a freight train has run over workers on the tracks in Central India. The exhausted migrant workers had walked many kilometres from another state. The details are still emerging. This follows the leak of poisonous gas from a factory in the eastern Indian port town of Visakhapatnam on Thursday. The factory was re-starting production after 40 days.

Getting into the lockdown in India has been simpler because of the fear of disease. Getting out of it, coming to terms with the pandemic, is proving to be tougher. For the poor, living through the pandemic may have been worse than dying of it, like being run-over by a train, not even in super slow-motion. And here is the irony: the train was being used to transport goods to people… save lives.  

Sujan Dutta is a Delhi-based journalist. He has covered wars in Kargil, Iraq and Afghanistan, apart from reporting on armed conflict, insurgencies and elections from across the subcontinent and West Asia for more than 30 years).

Disclaimer: Views expressed in this article are solely that of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of

2 replies »

  1. A very gripping narrative that captures the pulse of this nation during very difficult times. Thanks for sharing, Sujan. More power to your pen. Regards, Kaypius


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