Braveheart:: “I Wish Him Paradise; I have lost a Brother”
The Army, Kashmir and the nation have just lost a great son in Col Santosh Mahadik., SM, Kashmir has figured in popular imagination as ‘Jannat’; as paradise since the days of the hugely popular Budshah. Also called Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin (1420-1470), his rule for 50 golden years is wistfully recalled 600 years later…The closest Kashmir has ever been to paradise.
Though at a small level, Santosh had done enough to indicate the possibility of reclaiming ‘Paradise Lost’ (as in Poet-Laureate Milton’s classic elegy.) in his area of operations in Lolab Valley … His daring, innovative dream was followed by many young Kashmiris across gender who believed that their beloved ‘Uncle Santo’ was showing them the way to paradise. It was followed by other believers too; SSP Kupwara Aijaz Bhat among them…
Read the story of Col S Mahadik, 41 RR; a brave, exceptionally gifted officer who made a valiant, focused effort to rediscover the Kashmiri dream in the remote, beauteous but deadly Lolab Valley - till destiny and fate colluded to defer the search for El Dorado for another time, another day …
A Sad Recall…
As I sit back in sadness, tinged with a veneer of soldierly pride, I recall my several visits to Kupwara in years gone by…visits on operations to breathtaking but claustrophobic, Lolab Valley where Col Santosh Mahadik was deployed, operated and died. My mind wanders to the near impenetrable forests above Kupwara on the steep Shamshabari spurs that rise above the town…to merge into the LoC. I recall the sudden vertical drops… Cloaked in mist and fog, these unpredictable, dense fastnesses were rife with the possibility of sudden encounters; death, victory or shock when hunter or hunted came ru-ba-roo with fate.
In this recall, the image of dying, deathless bravery of a CO, a warm hearted, compassionate, adventure and learning driven CO who loved both profession and humanity haunts me. He fell down still firing as the LeT terrorists, completely surprised, fired blindly at Santosh and his men as they frantically strove to break contact. Santosh sank dying on the thick, leaf strewn humus; his finger easing its pressure on the trigger…His bells had tolled and he knew they had.
Not unsurprisingly, as the news radiated from the forbidding Haji Naka forest, soldiers bowed in stoic silence and, unsurprisingly, much of the awaam and certainly its young who loved “Santo” Uncle unabashedly wept…They had loved and lost a man who loved them…Encouraged them to dream impossible dreams; made them feel potentially world-class…Santosh was special and no one knew this better than his soldiers and the unsettled young of Kupwara and Lolab.
An All-rounder despite Humble Beginnings; a Respected Family Man…
IC-58160L Col Santosh Mahadik, SM, was the son of a village tailor. Adopted by his Uncle who was a milk-man, humble Santosh grew up in Pogarwadi; an infectiously cheerful, enthusiastic and ever-smiling child who carried these happy genes into adult life. He joined Sainik School Satara in 1987 in Standard 6 and showed early promise at school and at the Academy as an all-rounder who excelled in Football, Boxing, Riding, Swimming and, much later, in deep-sea diving and sky-diving, para-gliding. He was commissioned in 21 PARA (SF) on 12 Dec 1998. With Maratha Light Infantry origins, 21 Para (SF) is highly regarded. It specialises in jungle warfare and successfully executed the June 2015 trans-border operations in Myanmar against NSCN (K) to revenge the 6 Dogra ambush leaving 18 dead. In 2003, while in this unit, Santosh earned his SM for conduct of anti-terror operations under Op Rhino in the northeast. Married to Swati on 4 July 2003, the couple had daughter Kartiki and Swaraj aged 11 and five. A blue-and-dyed family man, a picture Santosh posted on his face book page says it all…His family meant everything to him it showed in his amazing people-skills.
A Technical Staff College graduate, Santosh took over 41 RR under 68 Mountain Brigade (Trehgam) and had completed two years when destiny intervened.
His Battle-ground and Paradise: Lolab
To comprehend the environment in which Santosh, with his inspirational and far-sighted outlook made such a difference to the Army’s anti-terror strategy and to the awaam, let us examine its physical and operating parameters. At over 5500ft ASL, cast in the lap of the Shamshabari Range and sandwiched between Gurais Valley in the North and Kashmir Valley in the South, the oval Lolab sub-Valley of Lolab lies in Sogam Block of India’s northernmost district, Kupwara. Its main river is the fast-flowing Lahwal.
Lolab is 24X3 km in size, starts from north of Kupwara town and is three road hours away from Srinagar, lying to its northwest. It has bountiful springs, dense forests of pine/fir and an amazing array of wild life including the snow leopard, bears, ibex, markhor, hangul and musk deer. Known as Kashmir’s fruit bowl, it is lush with apple, cherry, peach, apricot and walnut. Lolab also has stunning tourist spots, including the deep caves of Kalaroos (considered to be an entry point to Russia; hence Qil-e-Roos).
Notorious as the “receiving” or “reception area” of terrorists because of its dominating heights being commanded by the LoC, the Lolab area has understandably low tourist footprints and substantial military deployment. This was the challenging area in which Santosh shone like a star…till the black hole of terrorism subsumed him.
For Whom the Bells Toll…
41 RR is deployed in Kalaroos area and is also responsible for the security of Kupwara town. Santosh thus had multi-layered tasking. His relentless, day-night week long anti-LeT operations with two encounters already having take place, were focused around Haji Naka forest deep inside the Manigah Bowl which has a few villages inside dense forest.. He led a handpicked team of men from 41 RR, 160 TA Bn (H&H) who were locals; some J&K Police STF men a crack team of his men. Though just 2 PM, it was dark inside the impenetrable forest when his team suddenly came face-to-face with the surprised terrorists who frantically fired before escaping…Santosh, right in front, was hit on his neck, chest and hand. Even as he was falling, the CO was firing from his AK… Unable to call for help on radio due screening, his team rushed him to Drugmula Field Hospital, the last leg being on helicopter. The neck injury was fatal; Santosh dying from excessive bleeding. The CO who lived the “Follow Me” code had heroically moved on. The Paratrooper Commando who had taught Cricketer MS Dhoni Para-gliding was no more…
Santosh, against normal practice where soldiers funerals are low key and media coverage muted, was unexpectedly honoured in death by the RM visiting his home. The final farewell at Satara was attended by the CM and his cabinet colleagues.
Swati Mahadik Personifies Strong and Visionary Women
While Santosh was special, it is unsurprising that his widow is even more special. Swati received the news of his death with calm demeanour. In so doing, she revealed how strong she is and how well prepared for the dreaded knock on the door signaling death and irreversible loss of a loved one. Post the funeral and maintaining her steely composure, she has said that her daughter will join the Army as a Doctor and her son the Infantry, just like her husband. It may be that in making this announcement Ms Swati Mahadik has done more to motivate the youth to join the regular armed forces that the ongoing prime-time media and print campaign that the MoD is currently airing which disingenuously suggests that the military is a glamorous career which allows one to lead a “Life less Ordinary”. Women are strong and Swati will be strong, bringing up her kids as Mai Baap...That is worth celebrating by all proud and forward looking Indians.
Extend your attention to the children and you find them equally grounded and strong. There are many ways of interpreting this pic of a little girl saying good bye to her Daddy... Purists might want to stick to the old tradition where women and children said goodbye to daddy at home and the men attended the funeral...Today’s generation might feel that children do not wish to be shielded wish to participate in the final ceremonies that signify goodbye…
I would side with this emerging trend but draw a line if children saying goodbye become a photo-op for voyeurs and excitable media to exploit for commercial gain.
Senseless Criticism…Why did Santosh Lead?
No one, not even deathless brave hearts are above criticism; often by arm-chair critics and such was the case with Santosh too. The choice of leading men to war is always that of the military leader. Some do it through remote control (from the hospital bed, by Gen Bijji Kaul, 1962)...Some do so from their HQ (Brig Bogey Sen, Cdr 161 Inf Bde, Uri, 1947-48 War.) Some were “hands on” in the same war (Col/Brig Harbakhsh Singh, VrC, later Lt Gen)...So were others like Alexander, Caesar, Shivaji, Rana Sanga, Rana Pratap, Patton, Maj Shaitan Singh, PVC…and Col Santosh Mahadik, SM.
He chose right. He chose to lead his men into battle and lost out. So what? Death will come when it will and fear of injury or death cannot run a CO’s choices. In this context, the social media driven criticism of Santosh for leading where young officers could have done so is heartless and brutal. So is the subsequent, convoluted justification of his act of leading by senior officers. His bravery needed no long-winded explanation and misses the point that inspirational leadership demands a prize which the Army has always cheerfully paid.
His Overall Contribution
Peers across uniforms, seniors, subordinates and awaam describe the hands-on, dynamic 39 year old Santosh as forward looking; professional, supremely fit, mentally resilient and humane. A driven man, he was as much at home operating in steep mountains, jungles; soaring in the skies as he was with people. “He was fearless but kindly; had big plans for developing Pogarwadi and encouraged the spirit of self-sacrifice in youth by urging, training them to join the Army,” recalls Jaiwant, his proud milkman brother.
An Kashmiri NGO well-wisher says with pride and sadness that in a precedent setting manner, Kupwara town long considered an extremist support base is silent today unlike its formatted response of celebrations breaking out when casualties occur … Using his formidable people-connect, Santosh had sent Kashmiri teachers for advanced courses to Pune to develop the skills to empower Kupwara’s Generation X. He organised matches/seminars/adventure camps/meals to involve unsettled youth; empowered them to dream big; work with synergy…” He wanted to make Kupwara first in India, not just geographically but developmentally as well. For the young, he says, “Uncle Santo” was a soldier; academic, mentor; Loved and admired by all; he was equally feared by terrorists.
He loved life and people...He was convinced that young Kashmiris needed befriending and nurture, mentoring and hope and was spot on. He saw Kupwara as an area of immense unexplored beauty teeming with forests, water ways, wild life, mountains, caves and, most importantly, people gifted with soorat and seerat...He wanted its young to bloom and flower...This manifested in his Operation Tulip, when he asked for cuttings of this symbol of beauty and global bench-marking to bloom in Kupwara...The young heard him, observed him; warmed up to him... He reached out to ex-militants too; giving them hope and succour and training for jobs.
In an evocative article, Shirley Thomas Bajaj who runs an adventure club in Kashmir recalls her surprise when Santosh contacted her to seek high-risk adventure training for his “Kashmiri boys”. His commitment and passion left a mark on her and her training camp on the Garhwal Himalayas model was wildly successful. It proved that Kupwara’s beauty and setting could be commercially exploited by its young to earn money; get respectable jobs. His was a “velvet fist in an iron glove” she correctly surmised as she expressed her grief at his death. His Goodwill School students; a school he ran with help from 160 TA Bn (H&H) Jak Rif, went on tours across Incredible India as did Kupwara’s intellectuals, activists and others.
The Final Word… “I wish him Paradise; I have lost a Brother…”
Perhaps the best and most significant compliment to Santosh comes from SSP Aijaz Bhat of Kupwara. In a rare, remarkable tribute on face book, Aijaz says Santosh brainstormed with troops and youth on current issues; made a documentary on Kupwara and its offerings, set high standards of deportment…He conducted operations with great skill, determination and resolve. He was transformative in his outlook. A mesmerizing visionary, he had a remarkable persona. “I wish him paradise; I have lost a brother” Aijaz writes and we agree.
Santosh was special..