First published in April 2016

Ayappa was running for his life. He needed to come first. Shyam Sunder was ahead of him. Ayappa stepped up the effort, putting his everything and began closing the gap. It was a close finish, Shyam Sunder missed by a second. Ayappa had won. It was a fabulous effort by both.

Shyam Sunder and Ayappa were recruits training for their basic soldiering at the Regimental Centre. They were participating in the Annual Sports Meet of the Centre. This was their final term of training.

Shyam Sunder Singh was a Rajput from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. A man proud of his lineage, for both his father and grandfather before him had been soldiers. He was a third generation soldier, fulfilling the duties of his mythical warrior clan.

Ayappa Lingaraj belonged to a humble lower middle class family from a remote village of Ayappan in Tamil Nadu. His father and grandfather were farmers. He was the first man from his family to have joined the Indian Army. There were times when his family of eight were solely dependent on him and his pay from the Army for their livelihood.

Their rivalry at the Centre was the stuff of which legends are made off. Any event in the centre; the winner and runners up would be either of the two. At the end of their training both shared the top honours for shooting, sports, academics and military training. They were posted to the same 18th Battalion of 771 Regiment.

Shyam Sunder was posted to ‘A’ or ‘Alpha’ Company and Ayappa was posted to ‘D’ or ‘Delta’ Company of the 18th Battalion (Battalions are further divided into Companies which have strength of around 200 soldiers). The story of their classic rivalry continued in the 18th Battalion. In all competitions, these were the two always competing with each other.

In the summer of 1999, Indian borders had been violated; enemy soldiers in the guise of terrorists had intruded the borders of the country. The Indian Army was mobilised and tasked to throw these terrorists out of the Indian Territory. The 18th Battalion was one of the first units to be inducted into the area.

The battalion was tasked to capture the twin peaks of point 2540 & 2542 in the Batalik sector.  A reconnaissance party under Captain Arman Varma was sent with both Ayappa and Shyam Sunder a part of the party. The party set out to their tasks as the rays of the sun shone for the last time before bidding goodbye. Darkness is the greatest friend of the soldier. During training the soldier’s skills are honed so that he can see and hear in the darkness. A soldier can see what a normal person will never discern in the dark.

The party moved up on the mountains with the stealth of a snow leopard, making no noise and speaking only in sign language or at the most in whispers. Stealth was their strength and darkness their friend. They carried with them high resolution optical devices which could record even the slightest movement in the dark accurately. The team anchored themselves at a vantage point and began their surveillance. Parties in groups of two reconnoitred the area for signs of the enemy. The reconnaissance party was able to pinpoint the exact location of the enemy and the attack to dislodge them was planned for the following night.

At 1100 Hours that is 11:00AM the Artillery started bombing the targets. The artillery is the big guns; the canons like Bofors that are used to destroy the defensive fortifications of the enemy. These massive guns kept on booming till midnight when the actual attack was launched.

The attack, led by Captain Arman Varma, was a disaster. The enemy was sitting at heights in well-fortified bunkers and they brought down heavy fire on the Indian Army. Captain Arman Varma refused to retreat. The soldiers dug in at the point where they had reached and retaliated. More Artillery fire power was called and directed on the enemy.

The pinpoint and accurate artillery fire started having the desired effect. Within two hours most of the heavy weapons of the enemy were destroyed except one machine gun which was relentlessly firing and inflicting casualties.

Shyam Sunder saw a small pathway, totally invisible leading to that machine gun post. He stealthily crept forward, cat like, towards the post. He moved slowly to attack the post from the flank. Suddenly 10 metres ahead of him he saw some movement. He decided to take on that person with his dagger. As he was about to leap he realised that it was Ayappa. In whispers he asked “What are you doing here?”

Ayappa replied “I was going to attack that post from behind, let’s do it together now”. “No” said Shyam Sunder “I will go alone, you cover me”. Ayappa realised that this was not the time to argue and quietly agreed. Stealthily and slowly they moved towards the post until it was clearly visible. At that point Shyam Sunder motioned Ayappa to stop. He would proceed alone from there. He moved ahead with Ayappa aiming his rifle on the post.

Shyam Sunder was spotted by the enemy when he was just 10 metres from the post. He was fired at and was wounded in the leg. He was unable to move.  He was under heavy fire. What has happened to Ayappa, where is he, looks like he has run away, he thought.

Shyam Sunder kept firing at the enemy. His ammunition was about to end. He was now staring death in the face. I will die like a Rajput warrior, he thought. Gathering his willpower he moved towards the enemy in the final assault. The enemy kept firing at him. This time he was hit on his right shoulder. As he fell he saw two enemy shoulders being thrown out of the post, their shrieks echoing in the mountains. The enemy firing had stopped.

Shyam Sunder dragged himself up to the post and saw Ayappa lying with bullet wounds on his chest. He was dying. Ayappa had crept up from behind and charged at the enemy post pulling down the firing machine gun and throwing down the two enemy soldiers.

The post was neutralised. Captain Arman reached the post immediately after and realised what these brave soldiers had done. The twin peaks of point 2540 & 2542 were now under Indian control.

Both Ayappa and Shyam Sunder were evacuated to the nearest army hospital. At the Nation’s hour of need their intense rivalry had turned into cooperation and the two of them together had won the battle for their country.

Word meanings:

  • reconnoitred – went to (a place or area) in order to find out information about a military enemy
  • fortifications – a structure (such as a wall or tower) that is built to protect a place
  • neutralised – stopped (someone or something) from being effective or harmful

Read this in Hindi

The story of two soldiers
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