For Dehradun, the brave men, their families and the armed forces, come first. For the brave men who returned home the last time, the nation always came first.
Uttarakhand takes the sacrifice of soldiers and the armed forces on its heart and chin. Growing up in Dehradun isn’t always enough, to understand the hurt, pride, respect and grief, with which its people open their heart and path to embrace the emotion, whenever a soldier comes home for his last journey, here or anywhere else in Uttarakhand.
The weight of every soldier’s last journey, whether from Kargil in 1999, or from Pulwama in 2019, has been felt by people here, who stand firmly by the families of the brave men who protect the nation. For Dehradun, they, their families and the armed forces, come first. For the brave men who returned home the last time, the nation always came first.
Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) Assistant Sub Inspector Mohan Lal Raturi was killed in the dastardly terror act in Pulwama. He was 55 and his wife and kids had wanted him home – for good. He disagreed. He wanted to serve the nation for some more time.
Virendra Rana, a CRPF jawan from a village near Khatima, was the youngest son in the family. He returned for his last journey to his village, after he was killed in the terror attack in Pulwama, just two days after he had left home.
Major Chitresh Bisht, 31, was always in a hurry to be back on duty, whenever he was home on leave. This month, and this time, his family wanted him to leave home only after his wedding festivities concluded. The wedding was scheduled to take place in March. He disagreed. There was so much more he wanted to do for the nation, which, the family members say, only he knew about.
Major V S Dhoundiyal, 34, was killed in an encounter in Pulwama. He loved the nation more, his wife said, standing next to his coffin.
At Dangwal Marg, where Major V S Dhoundhiyal came for his last journey amidst tears, people here, and the nation, heard a soul stirring and moving tribute from his wife Nikita Kaul Dhoundhiyal. Their residence, now, is enveloped in the silent realisation of events that have taken place since the news of his death in Pulwama broke. A day after his last rites were performed, the wreaths were placed carefully on the garden hedge. They stayed on – as reminders of his supreme sacrifice in Pulwama and of the tributes that poured in.
The neighbourhood is quiet. Nikita Dhoundhiyal’s words of love, affection, faith and valour, spoken to her departing beloved, have multiplied the sense of loss for people here, perhaps a bit more than they have for people across the nation. At their residence, Nikita, is coming to terms with what has happened – every passing minute. Every outsider visiting or wanting to visit their home has been restless since, trying hard to get a grip on their own emotion for the soldier’s immensely courageous wife. Some visitors want to simply be able to just pay condolence. However, respecting the family’s space to mourn in peace comes first.
Something powerful strikes at the entrance of retired police inspector S S Bisht’s residence at Dehradun’s Nehru Colony. I notice the banners neatly made out of Major Chitresh Bisht’s photograph kept there. Someone has placed them carefully. It’s hard on the eyes. The spruced up house, new curtains, newly painted walls – part of the numerous preparations for Major Chitresh’s wedding which was to take place in March, thrust a painful backdrop to this massive tragedy facing the Bisht family. Leaving from home during the first week this month, the soldier was scheduled to be home again during the last week – for his wedding.
His brother, who works as a software engineer in England, stares at a piece of paper in his hand in silence, and sister-in-law remembers a brother who was more like a friend. The three of them have been friends since school days. She says, “For Chitresh, the nation always came first and the family came last. We requested him repeatedly to not leave. He was determined. He kept saying that he has to go back and that he would come on leave later on, to spend time with the family after his wedding. He never told us what he was up to."
Everyone in the family knew the family came last for Major Chitresh, he was conveyed the message. But when he was home, he would make up for it. She adds, "There were times I would get upset with him and tell him that he should at least check messages from us and respond. He did not tell us what he was up to. He had performed really well in his course recently. It had instilled in him a lot of belief to achieve more and do more for the nation, but we had not known what he was really working up in that silence.”
Inside their drawing room, Major Chitresh’s father and a flame placed near his uniform always surround his portrait. Major Chitresh’s eyes seem to brighten up against the flame, and in them you see the grit and determination that he was about. He says, “Chitresh said that he wanted to win the Shaurya Chakra. He wanted to serve as a general. He was always in a hurry. Sena medal mil gaya thha...lekin...(he had won the Sena Medal...but).”
Surrounding major Chitresh’s father, the flame and the portrait, most of the time, is a serving officer. He is from Dehradun. His eyelids seem heavy with grief, but eyes dry at the moment. For sometime, he sits next to Major Chitresh's distraught brother, Neeraj. Then, he lingers around Major Chitresh's dad. Then, he walks in and out, between the balcony outside and the rooms. Staring at the traffic outside from the balcony, he says, “Twenty five years. I have known Chitresh for 25 years. He was my junior at school, junior during the course, in the same unit, and was a roommate. A good soul.”
Major Chitresh’s father, between crying and pausing, looks at the young officer. He says, “Chitresh’s friend has been like a brave tiger in sorrow. I have been watching him be brave before all of us for three days now.” Inside one of the rooms, the soldier’s mother seems deeply struck by silence, after days of wailing in shock and grief. Bisht ji adds, “Chitresh and I were less like father and son and more like friends, yet he would share more about what he wants to do as a soldier, with his mother.”
At Kanwali Road area, it's uncanny how I meet Shri Ram. Among the few people I seek help for directions to CRPF ASI Mohan Lal Raturi’s residence, is a boy walking back home from a stationery shop. “I know the house. Wo mere papa hain.” He is unaware that his composure hits like a rock. Shri Ram, 15, resists emotion seeing me break into tears as we make our way towards his residence. He unlocks the door, switches the light on, places my bag carefully and sits next to me. I ask him if he has had his meals for the day. He nods 'yes', shyly. There are signs of creativity and dedication to academics marking their small living space.
Ram's sister Ganga, in happier times, would be preparing for the exams scheduled in March. She still would, when she returns from the hills. There is a Saraswati sticker on one of the doors that leads to an open space and loads of sunlight. A series of door hangings made of paper clips, plastic flowers adorning the picture frame of the slain CRPF ASI with his daughter and wife, and a small trigonometry chart, brighten up their living space.
Ram seems to have matured in a couple of days. He says, “I heard about Major Chitresh Bisht’s veergati. I know what his parents must be going through. It is hard on parents to see a son go. My uncles, both priests, say that it is good that my grandparents are no more to see my father get killed this way. They would have been grieving like Major Chitresh's parents today and it would have been so hard on them.” Members of Ram's family, including his sister Ganga, who is in Class XII and will be appearing for CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) exams in March, are currently in Chinyalisaur, Uttarkashi, at their family home for rituals after the last rites of Raturi ji.
ASI Mohan Lal Raturi was not in the bus that was carrying the CRPF men according to Ram. “My brother-in-law and my brother got to know from CRPF that he was outside the bus. He was clearing the way for the buses, when he faced death. The IED went off and he got killed in the blast.”
Ram last spoke to his father at around 11.30 on 14 February. “My father just asked how I am, what I am doing, nothing much happened on the call. There was no word about the day or happenings on his end. In the afternoon, my brother-in-law was informed by CRPF that my father was killed in the attack.” His two uncles serve as priests in Chandigarh and Punjab. “My father was a dedicated CRPF man, he was posted in Jammu and Jharkhand before the calling in Kashmir. He was also a priest, as per the family tradition. He last came home in December, for rituals and prayers connected with barsi, the first death anniversary of my maternal grandmother. He went to Chinyalisaur then.”
The Kashmir picture is a bit hazy in Ram's mind. He adds, "From work, whenever we would be able to talk to him, he would tell us a bit about the conditions in Kashmir and about terrorism. But mostly, he would talk about the snowing and the weather there. He would tell us that by the time it is time for taking meals, his hands become too cold.”
Ram wants to be a soldier. The determination seems in place. "I will opt for physics, chemistry and mathematics," he says. His voice quivers a little when he mentions about his father's last rites. Then, he toughens up a bit. He adjusts his cap, which covers his tonsured head, and straightens his back. He says, “My brother and brother-in-law were told by the CRPF family that we should see the photo of my father’s mortal remains before deciding to see them in real. I did see the kalawa tied on his hand and what was remaining of it. The kalawa remained, like you can see it on my hand right now. Also, I did try to feel one of his legs, on the side.”
He moves his finger under the kalawa tied on the wrist in silence, as he fights back tears. Then, he picks up some work material and prepares to head to his teacher and friends, who are waiting for him at school.
When India loses a soldier, a family loses a man. For the family, this man is irreplaceable. Dehradun, and its villages, like any other corner in India, feel the weight of loss of the irreplaceable. In Dehradun, people take the weight of this loss pretty seriously, a bit more seriously. Growing up here isn’t always enough, alone, to understand the hurt.