ON THE NIGHT OF 4 FEBRUARY 2000, an army post I was commanding in Kashmir was fired upon. The incident was unremarkable at the time—just a few months after the Kargil war—and no one was hurt. The next morning, a patrol went to investigate the site from where the shots were fired. (I was away from my post on another operation.) One of the members of the patrol was Manokaran, a barber by trade, who was in many ways the live wire of the company. He should have been on leave but, a week before, faced with a shortage of personnel, I had ordered him to postpone his departure by two weeks. Manokaran accepted this cheerfully.
At the site, the patrol discovered a backpack containing some clothes and a steel tiffin box. The patrol commander, an experienced Gurkha, ordered that the box not be disturbed, but Manokaran, with characteristic daredevilry, exclaimed, “Maut se kyun dartey ho?” (Why are you afraid of death?) and opened it. This triggered an improvised explosive device that blew out his eyes. Within an hour, I was at the scene shouting into a radio to call for casualty evacuation, and ordering a medic to do more to save Manokaran’s life. I could not get myself to do what I should have done: hold his hand to comfort him. Just before he was put on a helicopter, I finally took his hand, and lied to him that he was going to be OK. He was crying for his mother. Manokaran died before the helicopter landed at Badamibagh cantonment in Srinagar.
Many years later, I gave up my uniform and started a new career as an academic. One afternoon I came upon a section of the Indian Army’s official website titled “Pay Homage to Your Martyrs”. It includes a database listing the name, rank, service number, home state, unit, and regiment of apparently every soldier who has died in all of India’s post-independence wars, as well as the name of the operations in which they died and their dates of death. In a way that other soldiers would understand, I searched out Manokaran’s name, and was happy to find that his death was listed and thereby honoured. But then, as academics do, I started to collate and analyse the army’s information.