Led from the front - for the last time
In Pakistan’s continuous and concerted efforts to keep Kashmir on the boil, not a week passes without either an attack by Pakistani terrorists from across the Line of Control (LoC) or firing/mortar bombing across the International Boundary (IB). In 2015, till October 31, 80 terrorists have been killed and 10 captured alive.
While the Indian Army’s strict vigil on the border has frustrated many infiltration attempts from Pakistan, the price it continues to pay is heavy, in terms of casualties. The State and Central armed police also suffer their share of casualties. But the Army has lost an exceptionally large number of personnel, including officers-often as senior as colonels- owing to their tradition of leading from the front. After both the 1965 and 1971 wars between India and Pakistan, a comment often heard from Pakistani personnel below officer ranks interacting with their Indian counterparts was, “if your kind of officers were leading us the result of the war would have been very different”.
Having lost three wars, Pakistan’s military dictator from 1978 to 1988 Zia-ul-Haq Islamicised the army and launched a policy of “bleeding India by a million cuts” by raising terrorist groups to wage a long-term proxy war against India. In the late 1990s, Pervez Musharraf further developed the terrorist proxy war. But following the setback of his Kargil misadventure, Musharraf agreed to a ceasefire towards the end of 2003. Despite a ceasefire, the Pakistan army and the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) have gone into overdrive, especially after the Modi government took office, firing mortars along the International Border and the Line of Control.
Many Indian Army personnel, who have laid down their lives or survived protecting India’s borders, deserve to be awarded. Not all who have fought with outstanding gallantry get awarded. There are many who deserve to be publicised. The most recent example is a highly qualified Special Forces (SF) officer, Colonel Santosh Mahadik, Sena Medal, who succumbed to fatal injuries following a fierce gun battle with terrorists on November 17, in Kupwara district of Jammu and Kashmir. Fourteen years ago, in 2001, in the same district, Santosh whose radio call-sign Santo became his nick-name, was awarded the Sena Medal for eliminating four Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists.
Born to a humble family at Pogarwadi in Maharashtra’s Satara district where his father was a dairy farmer, Santosh was adopted by his maternal grandfather, whose surname, Mahadik, was taken by him. In 2003, Santo married Swati, a specialist educator of differently-abled children and shortly later adopted his niece, who after a few years of school joined her parents. Swati’s and Santo’s children are daughter Kartiki, born in 2004 and son, Swaraj, born in 2011.
It was in Sainik School, Satara that Santosh became a good boxer and horse-rider. Following his graduation, he joined the Indian Military Academy. With his temperament, achievements in sports, doggedness, and drive, among other outstanding qualities, it was not surprising that he was commissioned into 21 Para (SF), formerly the 21 Maratha Light Infantry, in December 1998. Apart from being an accomplished paratrooper, Santo added a coveted Special Forces qualification of becoming a clearance diver. Having spent 6 of his almost 18 years of service fighting terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, he had participated in several operations.
In August 2014, Colonel Santosh Mahadik took over as Commanding Officer, 41 Rashtriya Rifles (RR), one of the four RR battalions of Maratha Light Infantry. On November 13, 2015, 41 RR launched an operation to flush out suspected Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists hiding in the dense forest of Haji Naka-Manigah in Kupwara district, near the LoC. Col Mahadik’s team had been in hot pursuit of the terrorists, who had fled deep into the forests. On November 17, 2015, the fourth day of the operation, he was shot and grievously wounded and died later in hospital on the same day. General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Northern Command Lt Gen DS Hooda expressed his condolences. “We owe a deep debt of gratitude to officers like Santosh who lead from the front and are willing to pay the ultimate price in the fight against terrorism,” he said.
Colonel Mahadik’s mortal remains were escorted by officers and ranks of RR/Maratha Light Infantry and brought to Pogarwadi for the last rites. A huge crowd of mourners from villages all around apart from senior serving officers and veterans converged on Pogarwadi to pay their tributes to Col Mahadik. The village is known for having many of its residents serve in the Army. Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar re-adjusted his busy schedule to attend the funeral at Pogarwadi. Chants of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai…Santosh Mahadik Amar Rahe” filled the air as Santo was laid to rest with a 21-gun salute and full military honours at Pogarwadi’s Zilla Parishad school ground.
Every inch of the primary school premises was filled with people wanting to pay their final respects to the slain officer. The two most poignant of moments were when Col Santosh Mahadik’s 11-year-old daughter Kartiki, escorted by an officer and two Maratha Light Infantrymen in ceremonial uniform, went up to the flower-decked coffin and through her tears, proudly saluted her slain father. The second poignant moment came a little later when Swaraj, Col Mahadik’s five-year-old son, similarly escorted, lit his father’s funeral pyre. While for his grandfather, now over 100 years of age, bedridden but mentally alert, Santosh’s death came as a rude shock. Unfortunately, for his mother it was worse, as Colonel Mahadik’s father had died over a year ago. Swati, meanwhile, has expressed her strong desire to join the Army. With her qualifications, she could be a great asset to the institution of Army.
(Views expressed are strictly personal.)