comrades lay flat to escape snipers. In the 46-degree sun for all of the day, they were dying of thirst and heat stroke and young Robert Prince, a baby but an officer to the core, volunteered to go down and bring water. A sniper in the Temple shot him in the neck. Roperia died three days later.
It was while talking about his sacrifice at the sambhar dinner at 26 Madras that night that I got my finest lesson ever in leadership and a line I have used often since then, even in my farewell note to my colleagues at The Indian Express this Monday: there is a moral dimension to leadership. If there were so many soldiers lying flat on that parapet, why did the youngest, and an officer, have to expose himself to bring water. “Because,” said Panikkar, “there is a moral dimension to leadership.” If the officer is not in front, why would the troops follow him to whatever consequences? Thank you, Lt Col Panikkar, wherever you are. You gave me a lesson no life coach or famous general ever could.
There were also many other mysteries and mythologies. What happened on the first night of fighting, for example in the sarais, from where several Akali leaders were rescued and many militants escaped, while a sudden flurry of grenades and the confusion that followed led to the death of a very large number of people, maybe a couple of hundreds, in the crossfire, many of them innocent devotees? It was later said that the army unit there, from 9 Kumaon Regiment, had lined up the Sikhs and shot them randomly. Frankly, I tried every source possible but could never confirm this. But that there were many deaths, most of them unnecessary, is undeniable. Many Sikh survivors, including some priests, back the deliberate massacre story. But my sources in the army always insist that this was just murderous confusion caused by the militants, some of whom hid in the pilgrims’ rooms in the sarais and cut down the soldiers who tried to clear them. The Kumaonis responded by presuming every room to be terrorist-occupied and fired, also resulting in innocent deaths. Thirty years later, I am still not willing to buy that deliberate massacre story, though so many survivors have repeated it. In so many decades of covering the army’s operations, I have found Indian soldiers to be mostly honourable and the officers, if anything, caring and cautious to the extent of being soft in such situations. I wasn’t in the sarais that night. But everybody knows that the Kumaonis’ company commander Major H.K. Palta was. I cannot say who killed whom and why, but among the lives lost, all Indian, was also Major Palta’s. His family now lives in Noida. If anything, the fiasco at the sarais completed, sadly, the story of those 72 hours.
Postscript: I have many nightmares from those three horrible days, involving the bodies of fellow Indians. One is of a truck parked at the kotwali continued…