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‘My father is a hero’: Story of a son named Kargil, born in 1999 after dad died in the war

22-year-old Suman Suresh Kargil Chhetri was born 4 months after his father, Suresh, a sepoy in the 2 Naga Regiment, died fighting Pakistani infiltrators in the Kargil War in 1999.

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Siliguri:Ghar mai awnos na parkhi rayechu (Please come home, I am waiting for you),” said Suman Suresh Kargil Chhetri, speaking in Nepali over the phone, last Sunday. About 30 minutes later, he received us outside his house in Bagdogra, about 10 kilometres from Siliguri town.

The 22-year-old would soon leave for the airport, to catch a flight back to Delhi where he is a second-year MBBS student at the Maulana Azad Medical College. He had been home to perform the annual shradh ceremony for his father, Suresh Chhetri, who had died fighting Pakistani infiltrators in the treacherous Mushkoh Valley of Dras sector, during the Kargil War in 1999 — Wednesday, 7 July marked 22 years of his death.

Suresh, a sepoy of the 2 Naga Regiment was only 26 when he died. He had promised his then-pregnant wife, Manju, that he would be home for the childbirth. He returned sooner, though, but as a corpse wrapped in the Indian tricolour.

“I never saw my father. But my family was thoughtful to give me my two middle names ‘Suresh Kargil’. Wherever I go, people ask me why I have ‘Kargil’ in my name. It gives me a reason to talk about my father,” says Suman, with obvious pride.


Also read: How Modi helped pressure US to sanction Pakistan during Kargil — new book on Vajpayee reveals


A martyr father & role model

Almost four months after her husband’s death, Manju delivered a son on 4 November 1999. The family decided to name him Suman Suresh Kargil Chhetri — the baby’s middle names a reminder of the braveheart they had lost.

Though Suman never saw his father, his name, the stories he heard of Suresh from his family, and the old newspaper clippings narrating the martyr’s valour, have helped him forge a deep bond with his dead parent.

“There were times when, as a child, I missed not having my father around. But the support from my mother, and living in a big joint family, compensated for that loss,” says Suman.

In a subsequent meeting with ThePrint in Delhi, he gives an example of the times when he would miss his father. “When I was young, I would see the other students attending parent-teacher meetings with both their parents. So I asked my mother ‘Where is my father? Why are we going alone?’ My mother said she will tell me about him once I grow up.”

Chhetri has never seen his father, but for him the Kargil martyr is a "hero" and his "role model" | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
Chhetri has never seen his father, but for him the Kargil martyr is a “hero” and his “role model” | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

The living room of the Chhetri house is decorated with photos of the fallen soldier and certificates of honour that he received posthumously. If these were not enough to inspire the young Suman, to follow in his father’s footsteps when he grew up, he had three other examples in his uncles — Dinesh, Sudesh and Naresh Chhetri.

While Dinesh and Sudesh served in the 2 Naga Regiment, like their martyred brother, Naresh was a soldier in the Kumaon Regiment. Sudesh too had been a part of the Kargil War and is still serving in the defence security corps. The others are now retired.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Suman — who considers his father his role model — says he “wants to join the Army Medical Corps, after receiving my medical degree”.


Also read: The lesser-known events in India and Pakistan leading up to the Kargil war of 1999


‘It was the toughest phase of my life’

In 1996, 21-year-old Manju got married to Suresh, a soldier in the Indian Army, and left her family and home in Jhapa, Nepal, to settle down in his hometown of Tarabari. Her time with Suresh was short-lived, however, and three years after their wedding, while Manju was pregnant with their first child, Suresh died in the line of duty.

The young widow — just 24 — had to push aside her own grief to care for the baby, who was born soon after.

“It was the toughest phase of my life, to raise a child as a single mother and bear my own personal loss. But my husband’s family stood by me and helped me at every step,” she said. “Whenever I think of my past, however, I can’t control my tears,” said Manju, wiping her eyes.

She didn’t allow the pain to break her, however. Now 47, Manju is a successful businesswoman, who owns six cooking gas distribution agencies across Bagdogra and Naxalbari.

“As a war widow, I received an ex gratia sum of Rs 7.5 lakh from the Central government and three career options to help support myself and my family. I could either take up a government job, start a petrol pump or run a gas distribution agency. I chose the last,” says Manju, who has a graduation degree from a college in Mechi, Nepal.

“I started with one gas booking agency, but gradually my hard work paid off and I opened five more branches. Today, more than 300 people work for me,” she said.

The family’s hopes are now pinned on Suman, and his grandparents hope he will achieve great heights.

Tilak Bahadur (91) and Manmaya Chhetri (80) — Suresh’s parents — live in their ancestral village in Tarabari, the last Indian hamlet near the India-Nepal border, with their three surviving sons and their families. Manju now stays in Bagdogra to manage her business.

Too aged and frail for any lengthy conversation, the grandparents still speak passionately about Suman. When asked if they were happy with their grandson’s decision to become a doctor, the brave grandmother said: “Medical profession is good, but I would have loved it if Suman had followed in his father’s footsteps and opted for the Army.”


Also read: Vajpayee took journalists, analysts to Kargil frontlines. In 2020, Modi can’t even say ‘China’


Local hero

The family’s pride in Suresh is shared by the people of Tarabari, for whom the Kargil martyr is a local hero. The village chowk has a Shaheed Smarak with Suresh’s statue. A primary school in the village has also been named after the fallen soldier.

Every year, Kargil Diwas is celebrated with much fanfare on 26 July, in memory of India’s victory that day over Pakistan. The high-tension battle between the two countries saw India launch Operation Vijay to clear the posts in the high-altitude Kargil sector that had been occupied by Pakistani soldiers and infiltrators on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC).

It took about three months — between May and July — for the Indian forces to recapture the posts. The country lost 527 of its soldiers.

This year, as India celebrates 22 years of that iconic victory, Tarabari will also remember its hero, Suresh, fondly and with pride, as they do every year.

“My husband became immortal in the region as a Kargil War hero. But the family always misses him,” said Manju.

And even though Suman wants to join the Army Medical Corps himself and  takes pride in the fact that his father “is a hero. He is not just a hero for me, but for the whole nation”, he also believes that “war is not a solution, neither an option. There is no victory anywhere, there is just loss”.

Back in Delhi, where is a student, he asks the visiting ThePrint team a day before Kargil Diwas: “What is the use of such a victory, if we don’t have our family to celebrate that victory with?”

Diwash Gahatraj is an independent journalist based in Siliguri.

(With inputs from Urjita Bhardwaj in Delhi)


Also read: Kargil hero Col Wangchuk says need strong political will to strengthen India’s borders


 

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