50 years on, veteran revisits 1971 Indo-Pak war that cost him an eye | Mumbai News

Thankfully, retired brigadier Atmaram Shandil has not seen the 1973 Hindi film ‘Hindustan Ki Kasam’. The various flights — and fights — of imagination in this Raj-Kumar-starrer, which opens with the actor taking a vengeful oath by a crew member’s dead body following an air raid, would likely make the 76-year-old army veteran’s good eye bleed. His right eye had bled itself to darkness in a blast during Operation Cactus Lilly, the opening chapter of the 1971 Indo-Pak war, which had inspired the film. The blast had taken place along the Rajasthan border and had split the military vehicle carrying him into two.
On December 14, 2021, exactly 50 years since that day when he had shouted desperate instructions into a radio handset before being heli-lifted to a hospital, the septuagenarian posted his entire experience on the online group of the Nerul complex where he moved after his retirement in 2001. Until then, only around 40 ex-servicemen living in this 500-odd-flat-strong Army Welfare Housing Organisation complex were privy to his biopic-worthy story.
J&K-born Shandil was a 26-year-old bachelor still aching from the loss of his mother, when ‘2 Grenadiers’ — the Bangalore unit in which he was an intelligence officer — joined the 1971 war. His mother, too, had contributed to the war efforts by cooking meals for jawans at the Amritsar border.
His retired-teacher father and two elder brothers, he says, were not apprehensive about his joining the war. “In fact, they saw my posting as a chance to perform my duty to the nation,” says Shandil, who was a 17-year-old former boy-scout-turned-NCC cadet in Punjab during the Indo-China War of 1962 when he had decided to quit studies and “serve the motherland” .
Among the nearly 35 mementos and trophies that he had amassed over a four-decade-long career, is a ‘steel tumbler’ that he was awarded for being the best all-round recruit during his military training in 1963. The tumbler raises a toast to the time he was given out-of-turn promotion as a naik. “Soon, I got my first posting at the headquarters of the Southern Command in Pune, and was even shortlisted for a foreign assignment in Vietnam. But due to my very young age, it was ruled out,” says the veteran, who, in 1969, joined ‘2 Grenadiers’ which boasted war-hardened commanders.
On December 4, 1971, the unit joined a ‘special task force’ that had to ensure the restoration of the road-rail link between Munabao and Khokhropa — a link vital for the movement of guns, ammunition and water trains. The task, says Shandil, was accomplished despite frequent attacks. By December 13, though, the unit had run out of rations. Amid heavy shelling, he got the rations replenished.
He returned the next morning to find the unit itching for the capture of Pakistan-controlled positions, Naya Chor and South of Parbat Ali. When old maps proved unhelpful, it was Shandil’s keen senses that alerted seniors to a few jungle boot imprints on the side of the sandy track leading to the post. On December 14, he found himself sitting between the battery commander and the commanding officer (CO) in an open Jonga, a military vehicle, following the footprints 50 to 60 km inside Pakistan. When Shandil spotted tall bushes swaying near their destination, the CO applied the brakes. A huge explosion followed. The Jonga was flung four feet high. “It was an anti-tank mine blast; this track was heavily mined by Pakistan,” recalls Shandil, whose right shoulder and eye had bled profusely as he took over the radio handset of a colleague to ask to be heli-lifted to Munabao.
Optical illusions haunted him long after his eye was surgically removed. Soon, though, he would resume duty at the same location in Pakistan where he had been injured. Today, it’s the administration’s blind eye that hurts. “The removal of exemption from income tax of the war injury pension had hurt disabled war veterans,” says Shandil. “Thankfully, the decision has been stayed by the Supreme Court so far.”

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