“My brother to my left, my brother to my right. Together we stand, together we fight” read a poster as I walked to the courtroom. It transported me back to the old days when this saying was our impetus chant. We were introduced as the brothers who were destined to defend our motherland and only death could send us back to her abode. In service, we were unaware when we bonded nor were we aware when we parted, but all that we knew was to defend each other until the end.
When I look back, five years ago, the day I arrived at the Officers Training Academy I sat quietly at a bench waiting for my document verification. Although it had only been a few hours since my parents left, I was already feeling homesick. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder and when I looked back, a guy with a lean figure smiled at me and asked me to make space for him. Little did I know that it wasn’t just the space on the bench but a large space in my life as well that Shyam would occupy. Since then, there wasn’t a day that passed by without talking to him.
In the beginning, our family of thirty cadets fought as if there was no tomorrow. We competed in everything and held ranks of hate against each other. In time, with the cross country runs, the morning drills, the afternoon shooting practices, the evening basketball matches along with creative and unforgettable punishments, our trainers turned us into men and we turned from strangers to brothers.
Now, on a cloudy day, I entered the buzzing courtroom followed by two havildars as the accused for whom this court-martial is being held. The court proceedings began with the prosecutor standing up and accusing me of murdering a civilian at the crown of our country where my battalion was posted. Calling me on to the witness stand and after I took the oath, he just asked me one question, “Did you shoot Mr. Sameer Jha?”
I answered without a moment of hesitation, “Yes.”
The prosecutor smirked at my response and moved towards the judge to present the evidence in his hands which confirmed my statement through eyewitness testimonies and forensic reports.
It seemed to be an open and shut case. Within the first 5 minutes of the session, the prosecutor had proved me guilty. Then it was my lawyer’s turn to present an argument that deemed me innocent, which even I wasn’t sure whether or not I was. Since the day of the incident, I had already re-lived it an uncountable number of times in my head and now I was supposed to tell everyone what happened on the night of January 15.
Just like every other day, I was sipping tea with a few of my brothers when the emergency fall-in siren rang. We left our tea and rushed towards the ground where our commanding officer was already present. From the look on his face, it was clear the night was going to be a long one. He addressed us and off we went to collect our gears and ammunition to move. Six terrorists were hiding in a nearby village for the night. We were warned that they might hold a couple of hostages, one of whom intimated us about their presence. Ever since we came to the northern end of the country, such incidents had been quite frequent.
After reaching the location as a part of the covert operation, we moved forward as two teams since they were hiding in two houses. We were informed that the terrorists were loaded with firearms and could even possess explosives. Coordinating together, both the teams entered the silent and dark houses at once and the moment we entered, those cowards started firing their Kalashnikov rifles a.k.a AK-47. After a long while of firing, our team managed to shoot one of them. Shyam took advantage of the situation and tried to turn on the lights. Meanwhile the other team informed us that they had successfully rescued the hostages and captured the three terrorists. For a moment our team felt this operation might not be as difficult as we had presumed.
While we were listening in on the radio, out of nowhere, my brother Shyam got shot to death following which the only bulb in the house was blown too. In a fit of rage, we looked for them navigating using the light from the lamp at the entrance of the home and without any hesitation we shot everyone we could find while minding the hostages. Within a short span of time, two of them were killed but the last coward however hid behind an aged hostage while shouting, “I will shoot him like I shot your dog! Stand down!”
He pulled the old man to the exit standing exactly behind him with his face covered by his victim. In the dark, it was highly unlikely we would catch him if he left through the back exit and the thought that the terrorist who killed our brother could possibly go unpunished was unacceptable. We could either plan to coordinate via radio and have the other team cover the exit or let him go and save the hostage. In my mind, with the time to take the decision slipping away, neither of the plans seemed like a viable option and the worst part was that even my mates had no shot at him. Raising my gun, I shot the hostage on his forehand and just as I had intended, the bullet also killed the coward who stood exactly behind the old man.
Though my teammates knew I had sealed my fate with such a reckless shot, I just turned around to look at Shyam’s body. I feared facing his family, especially his ten-year-old son, rather than standing for the trial. Carrying him back to our base, I sat beside him until it was time for his cremation ceremony.
I knew they would take away my stars and there was a part of me that regretted killing an innocent man. That moment when I made the decision and the bullet left my gun still replays in my head over and over again. But if I was to avenge my brother, I knew the price I had to pay.
Though my lawyer tried to convince the judge that I saved many lives from being lost at the hands of this killer in the future and even threw in the argument that a few of the hostages were in their own way rooting for the terrorists, the humanitarians and smooth talkers who had a significant influence over the judge seemed in no way convinced.
Even after everything I did, I believe I served my country to the best of my ability and at the end, my sacrifice seemed to be worth it. For those who criticize me, I want to ask, do you find it comfortable to just label a person without realising the situation he was in? Do you prefer everything as black and white or can we make some space for grey as well?