Barely minutes after she heard that her grandson had been captured by the Pakistan Army, 65-year-old Lilabai suffered a cardiac arrest and died in Jamnagar, Gujarat, where she was visiting her older grandson, who is also in the Army and posted there.
Back in Dhule district’s Borvihir village — where Lilabai and her husband Chinda Dhondu Patil Sonawane had brought up the two boys after they lost their parents — nobody was surprised. “They are our own children,” said Sonawane, 72.
According to an Army official, Sepoy Chandu Babulal Chavan, who was posted with 37 Rashtriya Rifles at Mendhar along the LoC, was captured after he “inadvertently crossed over”. But the circumstances that led to his capture, and the day it happened, remain unclear. Army sources said he was captured on Thursday while villagers in Borvihir said they received news on Wednesday from Chavan’s elder brother Bhushan, who is with the Maratha Light Infantry, that the 22-year-old was missing.
On Friday, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that “all attempts are being made to secure” the release of Chavan. Hours later, while waiting for his wife’s body to be brought home for the funeral, and with no reply yet from the Pakistani side to India’s enquiries on Chavan, Sonawane refused to give up hope.
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“I spoke to Union Minister of State for Defence Dr Subhash Bhamare, who is our local Lok Sabha MP. He has assured me that Chandu will be brought home safely within 2-3 months,” he told The Indian Express.
The grandfather, who spent the evening sitting in silence with visiting politicians as he waited for the hearse carrying his wife’s body to arrive, has also been told that Maharahstra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis was in Delhi and had spoken to the Home Minister about Chavan.
Home Ministry sources said that Singh later spoke to Chavan’s brother, offering condolences on his grandmother’s death and assuring that the government was “doing its best” to secure his brother’s release.
Born in 1994 in Jamner taluka of Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district, Chavan lost his father in 1997 and his mother in 2000. His maternal grandparents brought the boys to Mohadi village, next door to Borvihir. The brothers also have a sister, who is married in Indore and due to deliver a baby any day now.
“Right from when he was a boy, Chandu was keen to join the military. After his brother was recruited in Belgaum, he became more fixated about getting in. He attended multiple recruitment events, one in Belgaum too,” said Sonawane. Chavan was eventually recruited in the Armoured Corps in 2012 and trained in Ahmednagar.
Chavan spoke to his grandfather last on September 19, promising to try and take a quick break around the month-end. “He told me he’s not certain if he will get leave but that if he could he would come before September 30,” said Sonawane.
Friends of the two brothers in Borvihir, where the grandparents shifted after Sonawane retired from the education department of the zilla parishad, say they came to know that Chandu was missing the day before. “Bhushan called and said he’d received a call from superiors that Chandu was missing,” said Dipak Patil, 25, from Mohadi, quickly correcting himself after referring to his friend in the past tense.
“Both villages are in shock. Chandu is as much a Mohadi boy as a Borvihir boy. We are Bhushan’s batchmates but Chandu meets us whenever he’s here. He’s like our little brother, too,” said Patil.
Chandu completed his Class XII, opting for the Science stream, from the local SMPR Vidyalaya in Borvihir. An athlete for many years, he recently improved on his own local record of 1,500 metres in 5 minutes and 20 seconds, said friends.
“He is a boxer, too, in his paltan and had won at a few tournaments,” said Nitin Patil, who was recruited in the Army in 2004 and is home on vacation for two months from the Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (EME) corps.
“I met him during recruitment and we kept in touch. He is a complete one-man show. Even during a break in his village, he goes on a run at 4 am, alone,” said Nitin.
Other youths in Borvihir and Mohadi said that every time Chavan was home, he’d tell them to work hard and get into the Army. “He was very specific that he wanted to be in the Army, not Navy or Air Force,” said Sandip Patil from Mohadi.
Chavan’s grandfather, meanwhile, says the family had been hoping to get him married next year. A prospective bride’s relatives had even come to visit the last time Chavan was here a few months ago, he said.
Around 7.40 pm, Lilabai’s body was brought into Borvihir, accompanied by local politicians and Bhushan, who broke down on seeing his grandfather and friends.
In the village of about 7,000 people, families kept their porch LED lights on for the large crowd to see in the dark. Groups of villagers spoke in hushed whispers, discussing the “war” along the LoC and Lilabai’s demise.
Chavan’s paternal uncles Madhukar and Dinkar Patil as well as other relatives also gathered in Borvihir. “We hope the government will do something to bring him back soon,” said Madhukar, who retired from the State Reserve Police Force.