‘I woke up at the sound of a long siren. I had fallen asleep as I had to wait for an hour at the airport lounge until the PAD was called off. The scene was like another war zone where soldiers came, saw and conquered the world. I felt another Kargil to be occurring there while I was in the midst of one of India’s toughest battle terrains with Pakistan.’
There are thick jungles along with heavy rainfall making the vast topography inhospitable. To the stranger, this land may resemble another battleground with poisonous insects, leaches and reptiles. A posting in Northeast India is considered to be a punishment transfer for an outsider. But being a native, I opted for Assam. After the Assam Agitation (1970-1985), insurgents were waging an armed insurgency to fight with the Indian Army. In those days, Assam was declared as a disturbed area. The Army got special powers in the name of AFSPA. Human rights were being violated under that controversial Act right from J&K to Assam and Manipur. Soon after the glorious triumph over the success of Kargil War in 1999, I landed one evening at Guwahati Railway Station. There were incidents of bomb-blasts and conflicts against the Indian Army. The panic radiated and we were forced to pass the night in a transit camp. There was a Assam bandh the following day while soldiers from the Indian Army dropped us at the Airport. We flew on an Antonov.
The flight was scheduled to land after 45 minutes but it experienced airborne delays. The passengers were informed about placing hold of landing by ATC. We were anxiously looking at our fellow travellers. After a few circles over the Wing sky, AN-32 was finally descending, adjusted with airspeed and altitude at the runway. There was PAD (Position Attack Defence) going on. The fighters were flying at an ultimate low level with extreme sonic booms and air flowing aerodynamic noises around us. Those were MIGs and Jaguars that were conquering the eastern sky, where soldiers galloped along the parade ground with boots and jungle uniforms. Also there were noises coming from aircraft systems, cockpit, cabin pressurization and its conditioning systems, auxiliary power units and helicopter hovering mechanisms. I realised that they cause disturbance to Goraimari-Salonibari residents. The localities have a harrowing time from night flights as well. Regular power cuts in the evening caused havoc to the residents. The base seemed racked by war-torn PAD. I witnessed such a scenario which forced me to think, “Oh hell! When will this all end?”
Those days were long past. "Huge Chinese armies have been marching in the northern part of NEFA. We have had reverses at Walong, Se La and today, Bomdila, a small town in NEFA, has also fallen. We shall not rest till the invader goes out of India or is pushed out. I want to make that clear to all of you, and, especially our countrymen in Assam, to whom our heart goes out at this moment." This speech broadcast on All India Radio on November 20, 1962 made people of Assam feel abandoned. It was like the people of Assam were let down by their own government. At a time when even the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru seemed helpless, what was going to be their fate?
It was at Tezpur where Dalai Lama was given a warm welcome after the Tibetan uprising in 1959. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since the Chinese aggression. India will have to revisit the issues of long shadow of this small town during November 1962. Panic spread through Tezpur as the Indian army retreated from the Kameng sector of Arunachal Pradesh and the evacuation of people from Tezpur took place. It was hard to imagine the chaos that descended upon that small town: thousands of people in bullock carts and vehicles crowding the steamer ghat in the chilly winter and setting up campfires in the night to flee to the south bank. The British/Scottish tea planters and administrators had flown out to Calcutta and no one was left in charge.
The Indian Army had to fight alone with mules carrying ammunition over a mountain pass. The supply line was cut off due to the non-availability of a frontier air base and motorable train/road links. The Army’s ammunition stocks were being blown up by the enemy’s explosions. The word had spread that the Chinese had decided to come down to Tezpur. The State Bank’s coins were all dumped in the Padum Pukhuri Lake and all the paper currency was burnt. The gate of the Tezpur Mental Hospital was opened and the inmates were let off on their own to roam around the deserted town. An eerie silence swept across the town with only a few people remaining. After 31 days, China declared a unilateral ceasefire on the midnight of November 21, 1962 but people still continued to flee their homes.
I woke up at the sound of a long siren. I had fallen asleep as I had to wait for an hour at the airport lounge until the PAD was called off. The scene was like another war zone where soldiers came, saw and conquered the world. I felt another Kargil to be occurring there while I was in the midst of one of India’s toughest battle terrains with Pakistan. The Operation Vijay of Indian Army with the help of Air Force recaptured the LOC sector infiltrated by the Pakistani troops and militants. Although I was not fighting in the forefront line, I felt the heat of the war. I had the opportunity to serve at the border of Kutch. There was virtually no habitation in the end of the horizon to the world. The emitting light of Keti Bunder port was seen from the barracks. We were trapped for a 60 days conflict in that endless salt-whiteness. Life was beautiful and lonely there in that inhospitable landscape of Kutch.
A thorny welcome awaited me at Tezpur. The Indian Army put military deployment at the eastern border after the war. There was movement of armed forces and their logistical support infrastructure in the Northeast. The billets were overcrowded; even a place for a charpoy was not available to take rest and I had to shift my bedding every day looking for a bed of night duty personnel. Normally, there was no power supply during the night. Technical areas are somehow brightened by DG Sets. Tezpur base is a restricted area due to its proximity to the China border. There are Intelligence wireless units from the Army, IB, SSB that carry out the task of monitoring military activities of the enemy country. My tradesmen were busy recording on Shortwave HF Receiver. I was sent on detachment the very next day to Army Camp Vartak – Border Roads Organisation.
The huge herd of wild Elephants were entering together for search of food, blocking the runway. Elephant sometimes went berserk, causing crazy damages. Once they ventured onto a Signals Unit and damaged everything, even playing football with crumbling Russian bunkers. The elephants were chasing Team ECT which had been deployed to protect the base. Their efforts went in vain. Elephants have the largest brain of any land animal and are exceptionally smart creatures. They go back to the hills of Arunachal Pradesh in the morning. I was busy converting data between transmission media by tuning modems with computers safely inside soviet bunkers 24x7.
After almost two decades, memories of the rough terrain at the Tezpur base still haunt me to this day. Serving in the Armed Forces is not a job. It’s about love, passion, pride and honour for their country. Soldiers of the Indian Army endure immense struggles so that its citizen can sleep in peace. Tezpur returned to normalcy after quite a long time. They were chills and moments of fear of foreign occupation, torn apart by the Chinese Aggression. Those fearless nights are the wildest of my dreams. I am a soldier; I fought where I was told and I won where I fought. Hovering over copters with the SAR Team was a painful experience as we watched the families of the victims residing at the base in lots of distress. Today I lift the LCD screen mounted on the clamshell of my laptop. At sunset, the wintry breeze swirls by, keying another story to an unknown destination of a soldier. I pulled out my iphone for a mail to my editor tonight. The sunrise is still a couple of hours away. I choose to sip a cup of coffee before I go to sleep tonight.