New Delhi: Colonel Bikkumalla Santosh Babu, the commanding officer (CO) of the Indian Army’s 16 Bihar, last spoke to his wife Santoshi Sunday. He told her he would be busy over the next two days, presumably on account of the de-escalation efforts underway at the tense border with China in Ladakh. In an earlier phone call, he had assured her that the tensions would pass over in two months. Everyone needs to be strong, he said.
On Monday, however, Babu died as soaring border tensions between the two sides erupted in a clash at Galwan Valley that reportedly left many soldiers dead on both sides. While China has yet to release the official fatality figures, the Army has confirmed Babu was one of 20 Indian soldiers killed in battle.
On that very morning, Babu had held de-escalation talks with his Chinese counterpart at Galwan Valley.
Santoshi, who got married to Babu 10 years ago, said she is proud of her brave husband.
“He had recently taken command of the area. We have been discussing for a month that the unit will come back to peace and the tensions would normalise in a few weeks,” Santoshi told ThePrint over the phone from Hyderabad. She was weeping.
“He told me he has to take care of his men in this period and we need to be patient as it is just a matter of two months,” she said.
Clinging to his memories
In their 10 years of marriage, Santoshi and Colonel Babu stayed together for just about five. The couple has two children, a nine-year-old daughter Abhigna and four-year-old son Anirudh.
“In all these years, he never told us explicitly what would keep him busy. When he said that he is going to be busy, it was for us to understand that there is a difficult situation,” she said.
In their last conversation, Santoshi said he repeatedly reminded her to convey his wishes to his sister, saying he was too busy to do so himself.
“I told him that we have spoken on video calls…” she said.
Santoshi has a difficult journey ahead, but she is clinging to her memories with Santosh to make it through.
“When he came back on leave, he went for multiple trips, to temples and other places. When he became a colonel, he gave me a beautiful gift,” she said, adding that she will remember him as a brave person who died fighting for his country.
Brave, with a large heart
An alumnus of Sainik School, Santosh spent his school years in Andhra Pradesh’s Vizianagaram district, before joining the National Defence Academy (NDA) in Pune and, subsequently, the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun. A resident now of Telangana, the state carved out of Andhra Pradesh in 2014, Santosh was commissioned into the 16 Bihar regiment in 2004. His first posting was to Jammu.
His colleagues recall him as a person who was empathetic, yet bold.
“It was a rare combination because people who are bold are usually outspoken too. But he was extremely soft-spoken,” a senior Army officer who served with him during a United Nations assignment in the Congo, told ThePrint.
“He was extremely sincere in what he did and never left a stone unturned in completing his tasks. He was a thorough professional who did exceedingly well in various courses,” he said.
The officer recalled how, as a Major in the Congo, Santosh showed unflinching fearlessness “during a major operation” carried out by a joint team of the Congolese and South African armed forces, helping the soldiers prevent casualties. “There was a rebel commander called Checka and he was notorious for subjecting villagers to extortion and taking back boys to train them as child soldiers,” the officer said.
During the operation, the officer added, Santosh, “with his team, approached from the other side and were able to successfully establish contact with the joint team”.
“He was caught in the crossfire, yet his and his team’s swift and bold action deterred the rebels from inflicting casualties on the joint team,” he said.
But the bravery he displayed was just one side of him. Officers who have worked with him say he was kind and generous, with his troops as well as the residents of areas where he served.
“He interacted closely with the local residents and spoke to them regularly and helped them with medical and other aid,” said an officer, who offered another anecdote from Santosh’s stint in the Congo.
While the 2014 FIFA World Cup was underway, the officer added, the residents of a Congolese village told Santosh they wanted to watch the matches.
“He got his own TV out of his room and placed it at the gate, ensuring that the villagers could gather outside the operating base and watch all the matches,” the officer said.
This is an updated version of the report
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