What with many a General being preoccupied with bribes, commissions and Blue Label Scotch whisky, this might not be the best of times to talk about the valour of the armed forces. But Yogendra Yadav, the youngest Indian soldier to win a Param Vir Chakra, has a compelling story to tell—about the 18 bullets he took in the battle for Tiger Hill during the Kargil war two years ago.
Yogendra Yadav has a feel-good manner about him—whisper soft when he speaks, a smile that is a fixture on his boyish face, and courteousness that goes beyond the call of duty. He is travelling around the country with Amir Raza Husain’s stage play The 50 Day War, as part of a PR exercise by the Indian army. He is very much the subject of adulation and autographs the moment he is asked to come on stage. But in a big city like Mumbai he looks lost and bemused, very much the small town boy he is. Under the genial charm however lurks the heart of a lion. When Hawaldar Yogendra Singh Yadav won the Param Vir Chakra, he was only 18, the youngest soldier ever to win the nation’s highest award for bravery, and among the few that lived to tell his tale.
In the famous battle for the recapture of Tiger Hill, he was the only soldier from his company to survive. The survival itself, after being pumped with 18 bullets has a Deewaresque twist to it—a few coins in his shirt pocket deflected the bullets from hitting his heart. And this is the only segment of his story where luck seemed to have played a crucial role. The rest of it is about pure valour and balls of brass.
Yadav’s story is pretty nondescript: born in Bulandshahar, a town in Uttar Pradesh, in the a family of a soldier turned farmer who survived on the monsoon, sugarcane and corn. Childhood was spent chasing older kids, and trooping around with toy guns. Education was never a big interest. While other kids used to hunch over slates and memorise the alphabet, he claims, he was happier picking fights. When his brother suggested that he enlist in the army, the will to fight came handy. Jitendra Yadav, his elder brother, and an engineer in the army took him to an army enlisting camp, and at 16, Yogendra Yadav signed up as a sepoy. This attracted severe chiding from his mother, but Ram Kishore Yadav, war veteran of the ‘65 and ‘71 wars gave his son the nod of approval.
“My mother never wanted me to join the army. In fact even I would like to have studied further. But the state of the country is such that even the educated need to shell out large bribes to land a job. Coming from a lower middle-class family, the army was the only way out,” Yadav says sitting in a Mumbai restaurant, slouched forward, his eyes flickering every once in a while from their constant gaze on the floor. He seems amused by the attention he is getting, but is too shy to even gaze firmly at the people walking past. When asked about his childhood and school he constantly stutters and stammers, groping for the right phrase.
The mention of Tiger Hill makes him come alive and much more articulate. Having told the story so many times, his narrative seems almost rehearsed, nevertheless compelling. “Heroism has nothing to do with my exploits on Tiger Hill,” he says, “I definitely wasn’t responsible for what happened then. I was only responding to the call of duty with an attitude that lives in every soldier.”
“Kargil made me realize that all the teachings of the Gurus and teachers are absolutely true. When a man wants something badly enough, and believes in God to guide him to it, the Almighty never disappoints him. When I was fighting on Tiger Hill, I knew I would survive. God had told me so.”
Yadav attributes much of his good fortune to his wife Reena who he married just two weeks before the war broke out. “She is indeed very lucky for me.” Two days after their wedding on May 5, 1999, Yadav says he had a dream. “In my sleep I saw the Tricolour fluttering on our peaks when suddenly it was snatched away by someone. I knew the time had come to go to war for my motherland.” Sure enough, the call of duty came a few days later. As he left his mother tried her best to convince him to stay. “I have never disregarded my mother’s opinion, but here it was her self-interest at play.”
By the time Yadav reached his camp in Drass, his battalion the 18th Grenadiers was already on the move forward. Pakistanis had been sighted along the peaks from the national highway, and an aerial survey confirmed that they had infiltrated the Drass and Kargil sectors. As the army top brass huddled together to strategise on the course of action, Major Rajesh Adhikari of the 18th Grenadiers (later awarded the Mahavir Chakra posthumously) was shot down in his helicopter. After another aircraft fell out of the sky the army realized that these weren’t just ordinary intruders. Operation Vijay was launched on May 26. Yadav was one of the thousands of soldiers who fought on that difficult terrain. Here is his story in his own words.
These are the times that try men’s souls…”
“Fighting in Kargil is very difficult, for you are pitted not only against the enemy but also against nature and yourself. It takes great character to survive the icy winds that tear at your skin, making your fingers bleed till you can barely hold the trigger. It gets difficult to recognize one person from another. Combined with this is the pressure of being in war, knowing that any moment a bomb could kill you. There is the constant noise of war, the guns, orders being shouted, the wounded being carried back to the barracks. Seeing your comrades die in war makes your blood boil. The Pakistanis behaved like losers, hiding in bunkers and shooting at us. I wanted to get into their country and kill them in their own homes; only that would avenge the death of my comrades.
“…Let us die here rather than retreat.”
Alexander Hamilton at the Battle of Monmouth
“In the first real theatre of the Kargil war, at Tololing—the Pakistanis were swarming the peak, hiding in their bunkers. On the second of June, we assaulted Tololing, and lost 16 men in battle. The Pakistanis were larger in number, and a win seemed difficult. Our men were dying and due to the incessant Pakistani shelling we couldn’t even get close enough to retrieve the dead bodies. We got orders to retreat back to base, but by then we were so incensed that we were only going to kill or come down dead. We had a very gutsy commanding officer in Major Khushal Thakur who decided that there was no way we were going to retreat. On the 10th of June we were reinforced with men from the 2nd Rajputana Rifles and on the 12th we stormed Tololing and killed every Pakistani soldier to take control of the peak.
“After this assault, my battalion began to be referred to as The Tigers. It was almost ironic that we were chosen to recapture Tiger Hill. It was nearing the end of June and the war had been on for a long time, and we had suffered major losses. Tiger Hill had been completely captured by the Pakistanis from all the sides and it would require more than just raw guts to regain the peak.
“I have always maintained that God has always kept a watch on me from the heavens, guiding me through my trying times. Many people think of God as a parent, as a brother, as a friend. On my part, I see him very closely. Two days before the assault on Tiger Hill, I had a vision in my dream. At that point we had received no orders about the impending assault, yet I saw a very vivid dream. God showed me an image of myself, surrounded by Pakistanis, wounded severely, yet fighting desperately to save the peak. Instinctively, I knew it was Tiger Hill, and that God was going with me into battle—there was no way I could lose.
“You talk of food? I have no taste for food. What I really crave is slaughter and blood, and the choking groans of men.”
Homer, The Iliad, 19: 254-256
“When headquarters instructed us to storm Tiger Hill, there was an immediate din in the camp, as everybody wanted to be a part of what was sure to be a crucial assault. The commanding officer chose five men each from the five companies in our battalion, and we were given a simple missive—recapture the peak. We began our ascent in the dead of the night on the second of July. Between each section, which is seven men, we had 3 light machine guns, one medium machine gun, and a rocket launcher. In addition to this each of us carried a great quantity of ammunition and an AK-47.
“We climbed continuously for four nights, and lay dead still in the daytime. The days were trying, as the slightest noise would alert the Pakistanis about our whereabouts, and from their posts above us, we would be sitting ducks for their bullets. We spent our time checking and re-checking our weapons for any sign of damage the rocky ascent may have caused. Those long hours of waiting for the cover of dark made one long for home, and we kept ourselves busy by writing letters home, many of which were never destined to reach the families. As night fell around us, we would rise slowly, all twenty-five of us bunched together, and negotiate the rocky terrain till the break of day.
“The whole art of war consists in getting at what is on the other side of the hill.”
Duke of Wellington
“On the morning of the fifth, at about five in the morning, we reached a vertical face cliff that put us in a quandary. It was at a height of 16,500 feet, and in the cold morning air, even breathing normally was difficult. This coupled with Pakistani soldiers on the ridges close-by made for a very daunting task. The cliff was susceptible to firing, yet we had to get to the top if we were to have a realistic chance of regaining the peak. Our leader, Lt. Balwan Singh (later a Mahavir Chakra awardee) decided to split the group. Seven of us would climb the cliff and take up positions at the peak while the others would cover us as we advanced. I was in the seven along with another sepoy who shared my name, Yogendra Yadav, also from my company and a friend of mine. This co-incidence would be the cause of a great deal of confusion later.
“It seemed to take forever to climb that peak. Our movement had to be sure, as a false step would unsettle the rocks that would go crashing down the cliff and alert the Pakistanis to our whereabouts. As we continued this arduous climb, the Pakistanis began to fire wildly. It was dark and they were sure the enemy was around, but they had no clue as to what exactly our co-ordinates were. It was still dark and finding that they couldn’t determine our exact position, they began shooting at will, showering bullets all around.
“Let’s kick their ass and get the Hell out of here.”
General George Armstrong Custer
“We reached the top, and were lucky not to be welcomed with bullets. The night was serving us well, but we could afford to take no chances, and carried out the drill as was taught. We fell to the floor, and scrambled across the terrain, slowly adjusting boulders to form a protective wall all around us. We split into two small groups of four and three, and with a few rocks between us, began negotiating enemy territory. Our surveillance confirmed that the ridges to our right and left were infested with Pakistanis, and right in front was an enemy bunker, fitted with sophisticated machine guns and other weaponry. Behind us was a steep rock face. In effect, there was death lunging at us from all four sides, and we were doing the tandav in the middle of it all.
“We lay there for about four to five hours, exchanging fire. My namesake, the other Yogendra Yadav was the first to be injured, his index finger being sliced by flying shrapnel. This left him incapacitated as far as shooting went—he couldn’t pull the trigger on his gun without his index finger. He spent the rest of the morning loading our guns as we fired away at the enemy. The bombs and shrapnel tore at our skin, and soon all of us had sustained minor injuries, and I had a deep gash from my nose to my ear. It was not until I was back in the camp after the battle that I realised the extent of my injury or that my uniform was torn down the front.
“You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.”
Ho Chi Minh to the French, late 1940s
“Soon our game was up. The Pakistanis realised that we were only a few and couldn’t possibly stand up to their strength in numbers. This is when they began their advance, and baited us. As the frontlines kept us engaged in battle, men from the ridges formed a cordon behind our dugout, and before we knew it they were upon us. We heard a racket and turned around to see about forty to fifty Pakistanis screaming and cussing as they ran towards us brandishing their weapons over their heads in a mad frenzy. Before we had a chance to react, they opened fire on us, and soon there were bullets flying everywhere. I don’t even know how long it went on for, but by the time it was over I had plenty of bullets in my body and all my companions were dead.
“As I saw my comrades writhe as they fell to the ground, life sapping out of them, I decided the best ploy would be to join in and play dead. In this manner, they would at least stop firing and maybe I would have a greater chance of doing damage later. I was seething inside, all those bullets plus the sight of my dead countrymen was doing nothing to help me temper my anger. It took, incredible amount of patience lying there.
“Even Jackals roam the graveyard knocking skulls over, but this is not the way of humans”
“It was then that I saw the most ugly side of humanity. I have always maintained that no soldier is inherently a bad person, even those gun-toting Pakistanis are only victims of the circumstances in their country. They came towards us, and seeing that we were dead, cussed at us, and kicked us in the groin and in the face and spat at us with disgust. A few of them laughed as they knocked us around with their feet and it was an ugly, cold laugh, that only made me want to kill those bastards more.
“After they got bored of playing with the corpses, they sat down at a distance and discussed their strategy. Apparently our force lower down the mountain had increased in size, and we had been re-enforced with more weaponry, which was troubling the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis led by their leader, a small short man, decided on their plan to obliterate our unit down the mountain. He then got up to leave, leaving behind one of his soldiers to collect all our weapons. He was forty, dressed in a yellow Pathan suit and a turban. He slowly picked up all our guns and slung them across his shoulders. What happened next will remain etched in my memory forever. He took out his AK-47 and at a distance of nothing more than a couple of metres began firing at us. His long beard did nothing to conceal the sadistic pleasure he was obviously deriving. Here we were, dead soldiers unable to retaliate, and there was this madman who wanted nothing more in the world than empty all his bullets into us.
“The object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard die for his”
George S. Patton
“He pumped bullets into me as well, most of them into my left arm, rendering it helpless. It hurt, but even if he had decided to get at my arm with a chainsaw I wouldn’t have flinched. One bullet hit my chest and for an instant I thought that was it. I let out a silent prayer and hoped for my life. Later I was to realize that the wallet that lay in my front pocket, enforced with a generous stock of five rupee coins deflected the bullets from hitting my heart. Then as my tormentor turned to leave I reached for my grenade and threw it on him. The grenade hit his neck, and as it exploded, I caught his gun and fell to the floor. The other Pakistanis who were at a fair distance were taken aback—they definitely didn’t think that one of us was back from the dead. They panicked, thinking that another company was upon them. As they began to run for cover, I in a completely savage mood shot down a few of them. It was a moment of madness, I was seething with anger and knew I had to kill them or else they would definitely kill me, the lone survivor on the peak. As I fired, I kept rolling from one place to the other, thinking that it would somehow confuse them into believing that there were more of us.
“The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”
Charles de Gaulle
“Once they had all fled or had been killed, I was alone on Tiger Hill, and a deathly silence hung in the air. Only moments ago there had been gunshots, cussing, screaming, shouting. Now, not even the wind moved. I dragged myself towards my colleagues, in the hope of finding someone alive. Unfortunately all six were dead. My position was so helpless, and my body so fatigued that I could not even raise my arms. Anyway my left arm was completely useless, so I tied it to my chest with a belt.
“I badly wanted to lie down in the snow and get a moment of rest but there was a whole unit down the mountain whose life depended on information that I had. I definitely could not walk down there, my right leg and thigh were badly injured. I kept thinking to myself that either the Pakistanis would get me or I would pass out before I got back to the base camp. I decided the only way out was to roll down the hill. And that is what I did, and I left the rest to God. Every once in a while I stopped for breath and to check my course.
“In what is definitely a miracle, I reached the unit with words in my mouth and air in my lungs. The jawans gasped at my condition. It was apparent that I was close to dying. I explained the situation on the peak, and then our officer, Lt. Balwan Singh arranged for me to be carried down. When I got to the base, I was barely able to see. The commanding officer, took me to the safety of the tent, and slowly I began to narrate to him the whole episode of Tiger Hill, giving him information about the enemy position. At first he was quite surprised by what he heard, and I don’t really think he believed me. But subsequently, when the army did storm Tiger Hill, I think he realised what I was saying was true.
“Four days later I was flown to the army hospital in Delhi. Apart from the bullet injuries I had suffered multiple fractures as well. Then, on the 14th of August, I heard on a television news programme that my comrade, Yogendra Yadav was being posthumously decorated with the Param Vir Chakra for his bravery on Tiger Hill. I was thrilled, after all he was my friend.
“The next day as I woke up I was surprised to be greeted by Army Chief V.P. Malik himself. I thought I was being congratulated on behalf of my dead friend. But the general said that there was a mistake and that the PVC was actually meant for me. Apparently the army citations had been made in a hurry, and they had not adequately cross-checked the details before declaring the award. My first reaction was of surprise, and pleasure. But then I was hurt when I realised the plight of my friend Yadav’s family. There was this lady, my bhabhi, whose only memory of her husband was a medal won in war, and I was taking that away…
“Over the next few days I had the time of my life—I almost felt like Karan in the Mahabharata. When Karan was an ordinary warrior, he wasn’t treated with much respect. But when Parshuram taught him the supreme craft of archery, the whole world was at his feet. For almost a month, I had been lying on my cot, huddled away in the corner, and no one even acknowledged me. But along with the PVC announcement came the media in full force.”
That was over 18 months ago. Yadav spent the next 14 months in the army hospital, and was discharged on 14th of October last year. He says he is being treated with regard and respect in the army; they have let him have a free rein in most matters. His promotion has been incidental, he is now a Havaldar, and the army will pay him an extra Rs 1,500 every month with his salary. On special army duty, he is now spending time on the sets of The Fifty Day war, and shuttling between different army training schools—talking to fresh cadets and jawans about his experiences. Life has been great to him, he says. He made one request to the army, which could not be fulfilled. He wanted to re-visit the peak that made him a hero. Since that lies in the war zone, the army has done the next best thing. The peaks he fought on are now named after him. Tiger Hill is now called Yogendra Top after this daredevil sepoy—who went up a hill, and came down a mountain.
This article was first published in the May 2001 issue