It was quiet, too quiet! The eerie silence hung heavy in the air on a very hot and humid afternoon in Sri Lanka. Not a single leaf stirred. Unseen eyes watched as the Gorkha patrol moved slowly, bound by bound, along the jungle track. Rifleman Neerbahadur Thapa, who had been detailed as the forward scout, moved ahead slowly, taking cover in the bushes and trees on the left of the track leading to the jungle. His sharp eyes scanned the area ahead of him, from left to right and from right to left, just as he had been taught during his recruit training at the regimental centre in Shillong. There was no movement, no bird calls and even the insects were silent.
This part of Sri Lanka seemed to be holding its breath in anticipation of the drama that was about to unfold. Neerbahadur could read the jungle like a book. He knew that the absence of sound and movement spelt danger. He knew intuitively that there was a problem ahead. Gorkhas are essentially hunters, and silence is crucial when operating in the jungle, for both the hunter and the hunted. He had to be invisible to succeed, but how could he become invisible when he was required to move in an area with limited cover, and that too in enemy-held territory?
A battalion of the Madras Regiment had been encircled by the Tamil Tigers. The Gorkhas, who had just landed at Palel airfield, had been tasked to link up with the battalion before nightfall. The Tamil Tigers anticipated such a move and laid a clever ambush. Neerbahadur’s keen eyes detected a slight movement in the jungle to his right. The Tamil Tigers watched Neerbahadur indicate by hand signals to the Gorkha troops that were following that there was danger ahead. Neerbahadur was undecided.
On the one hand, he had been told to move fast so that the beleaguered battalion could be linked up before nightfall. On the other hand, he sensed there was danger ahead and that he was on exposed ground. The Tamil Tigers had held their fire as they were looking for a bigger target. However, if their presence was discovered, they would be in danger of being cut off should the Gorkhas move a force behind them. Neerbahadur decided that he needed to run forward towards the jungle up ahead, which offered cover. He got up from his position and started to run. The Tamil Tiger manning the heavy machine gun waited until Neerbahadur came to an open piece of ground and started firing when he ran across the open patch. The fusillade caught Neerbahadur on the run. The force of the bullets and the momentum of his run threw him up into the air, and he somersaulted and fell spreadeagled on the ground. Neerbahadur got hold of his weapon and fired back at his assailants, but being wounded and without cover, he caught the brunt of the enemy fire as more bullets pumped into his exposed body, killing him on the spot.
Neerbahadur’s section responded immediately by firing a heavy fusillade at the ambush party, while the remainder of his company moved quickly from behind to cut off the enemy from the rear. The Tamil Tigers noticed the movement and commenced their withdrawal from the ambush site. The Gorkhas managed to intercept some of the escaping enemy, killing three and wounding many more. The firefight lasted another sixty minutes as the enemy endeavoured to take away their dead and wounded. The battalion reorganized, resumed its advance, successfully completed its mission and returned to base, where Neerbahadur was cremated with full military honours.
Rifleman Neerbahadur Thapa, killed in that ambush by the Tamil Tigers, was a third-generation soldier of the battalion. Gorkha soldiers are tough. Living in the hills makes them strong and resilient, and they are able to withstand the vicissitudes of war, climate and terrain better than most. They are cheerful in disposition, and nothing can disturb their equanimity. They are loyal to the core and fearless in battle. All these qualities place them among the best soldiers in the world, and they are much sought after. Soldiering is a natural profession for them, and the battalion has men from the same family who are fifth-generation soldiers, all of whom have served or continue to serve in the unit.
Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, who was from this regiment, once said, “If anyone says that he is not afraid of dying, he is either a liar or a Gorkha.”
The battalion has some excellent customs and traditions. One of them is that when an officer is commissioned into the battalion, he spends his first leave in Nepal instead of going home. The young officer is normally accompanied by a soldier due to proceed on leave, who takes him to his own home and then hands him over to the next family to be visited; thereafter, the officer is handed over from one family to another, until all the families are visited and it is time for him to return to the battalion. In this manner, the young officer gets to know the families of his men, their language, dialects, customs and traditions, culture, songs and dances, and the difficulties that they face in the mountainous areas of Nepal, where most of the travelling is done on foot.
He meets the fathers, mothers, children and grandparents of his men and is thus initiated into their culture and traditions. The fathers and grandfathers tell him tales of battles fought in faraway lands, and the history of the battalion comes alive. When he returns to the battalion, he will have come to know every member of his men’s families, and a strong bond is formed between the officer and the men he commands. The men’s families associate so closely with the unit that family honour and the honour of the battalion become synonymous.
Excerpted with permission from Beyond Fear: True Stories on Life in the Indian Armed Forces, Ian Cardozo, Penguin India.