In Conversation with Col. Sonam Wangchuk

By Reach Ladakh Correspondent Jun 30, 2014

Colonel Sonam Wangchuk is a tall, charismatic and an attractive man, has a bright regimented smile. Being a soldier who has endured heavy disciplinary training, he definitely can restrain his emotions over his sensation. He has pinned down his sensitivity well which is blatant when he shares his war experiences, personal stories, such as loss of his man during the Kargil war.  He demonstrated his learning effectively. Nonetheless, behind all these rigid, definite and intense army looks in his it’s elegant Cheetah or Combat uniform, he is still sensitive and emotive, unlike a soldier’s façade. He says “I am in the army, but I am a sensitive person and I think being sensitive is one of the good human qualities. After all, deep within we are what we are (irrespective of our profession)”. Notwithstanding the fact that he was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra, India's second highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy, for his actions during the Kargil War, all the attention he spawn from media for his heroic act and admirations from people all over India, he still brings about the best of Ladakh's culture of respect and deep-rooted Buddhist values by being modest and humane.

“July 26th will be a day that will remain edged in the memory of a nation for years to come. It was on this day, that India marked the success of Operation Vijay. Today 15 years may have passed since the Kargil War but the memories of the battlefield live on. Today remember the valor and courage of these brave men and women as well as the spirit of our Armed Forces, who bear adverse conditions to ensure we live peacefully.”

Q. Tell us about yourself, your childhood, upbringings, and educations. How it all begins at Indian Army?

I am born in 1962 at Sankar. I never get an opportunity to study at Leh in particular. We were here for just two years before my dad was transferred to Nubra and Changthang. In 1969, when I was around 7 years young, I went to a boarding school at St, Louis at Solan, Himachal Pradesh (HP). I was there for around 4 years and left the school when I was in 4th standard. In 1973 -75 my dad was dispatched to Dharamsala, HP, as a security officer to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. We moved to Dharamsala and had a close interaction with the Dalai Lama then. I studied class 5th and 6th standard at Sacred Heart High School, Yol, which is an army cantonment area. I did my class 7 to 12 at Modern School Delhi when my father was again reassigned to Delhi in year 1975-81. I graduated from Shri Venkateshwara College, Dhaula Kuan.

In 1986, I joined Officers Training Academy (OTA), Chennai for nine months. I started as Second Lieutenant. I was then deployed to Ukrul, northeast India, for 3-4 months, where the entire battalion was based. I was in the position of company commander. We were then moved to Sri Lanka, as a part of the Indian Peacekeeping Forces. We were there till the 1990s. We carried out numbers of operations. One of them is Counter Insurgence against LTTE.
Q.Have you aspire to become a solder since your childhood or are you sort of drifted into this profession by chance?

I never thought of army as a profession for me. I had a cousin, Colonel Wangdus. We get to interact a lot while I was studying in Delhi. I frequently used to visit his home often. He has been a major influence and a motivational factor behind me joining Indian army. Since he knew me well and my sportsmanship as a school athlete, he recommended me to join the army as I was physically fit. Also, I was a not much of an outdoor person, but I do get a lot of opportunities to go out for sports competitions and since I stay recluse, socializing has been a major problem. He advises me that joining army may help me triumph over these downsides as interactions are must within the unit and all. He said the profession will go well with me. His advice strikes me right at my heart then.  As a sportsman, I felt imperativeness of socializing. Moreover, I was doing nothing commendable then, I just drifted by with no inclination towards any professions. I was a dreamer and do nothing. Thinking of joining the army was a turning point in my life.

His suggestion makes me think and I gave it a shot. I was also concerned since I was a loner and I might not be able to adjust. But I cope well. I had to stand up before the men during a lot of occasions and gradually and deliberately I changed myself. That was the transformation I went through. There were lots of social occasions for army wherein I had to participate in the events, attend dinner and parties. I had to network and mingle with officers and their ladies, so that’s where he gets to hone his social skills.

Q. Have your parents supported your decision to join the army? What role do you think parents played to their child to make him become a good human being?

Not initially. My father wanted me to be a civil servant. He had given me with the best of education from different schools. He might have seen this caliber in me, but I feel as an average student. I was sort of academically bright till class 7, and then my focus shifted to sports. I became a keen sportsman. And I spare more time on sports and couldn’t do well academically. And my grade went down to dismal. Thank God I am in the army where physical fitness also counts.

I think parents play a tremendous role in a child’s evolution into a good human being. Most of us Ladakhis came from the same background, we have Buddhism as our core religion, value or culture. My parents may not have intellectual knowledge about Buddhism but they are staunch Buddhist at heart. The same is engraved in my heart. Their values, good principles, kindness, compassion have rubbed on me as well being in the same family. These have always stood by me, and help me judge soundly. I studied at different schools. I studied at Christian missionaries schools as well. They follow different values. They cultivate and abide by those values. I appreciate how they stick to their moral principles. I have seen a good side of religion everywhere, for me religion is same as long as core values like compassion and kindness remain, they are all same.

Q. A lot of youth join the army as a last resort because they couldn’t perform well in schools or their family couldn’t afford college fee. Is it the right thing to do? What’s your say about such custom?

I believe a person one decided to join the army; one ought to do it with a purpose. Once you put on the uniform, you have a duty to perform and target to achieve. You have devoted your entire life for the protection of your country. You are the last Sentinel. You are the man. Army duty demands 100% from you, the family takes a back seat. One must have a passion, nationalistic feeling and patriotism to be in the army to excel. This profession is not made to earn money. If you want to do so, there are other professions, but not army. Otherwise, with no purpose, you would lose your way.

It’s also good to have a better half who is considerate, who could comprehend the kind the job you are doing.  Then one can not only thrive as a soldier but also as a good family member.

Q. What did you feel when you were deployed to Kargil?

Of course, there were lots of apprehensions. Pakistan has strong troops and we suffered both in terms of man and ammunition. Indian Army's scenarios were dismal at the beginning. But it's an order. I must set out to the frontier. The blessing that the Dalai Lama has bestowed upon us has helped me muster the courage.

Q. Operation Vijay was successful. Indian Army evicted Pakistani intruder. How does that make you feel? When did you come to know that you have won?

Naturally, elated and ecstatic! My boys were in peril at war zone for long. After resisting and confronting the enemy with all their valor equipped with ammunition, and the war came to an end, consequently, many of them are safe as well. It’s a wonderful feeling. As an army fraternity, we felt great. I feel thankful to the locals and porter who delivered rations, they came to the front line and saw exactly what we saw. Army will always remember there kindness throughout. They too were safe.
I felt proud in such a short time we had dislodged intruders and gained the victory. It gives you optimism.

I was into the operations for about 25-30 day. I didn’t take part in the entire operation. When you take part in the operation for long, your battalion commander will resettle you because they see all physical and mental stress. Once one is resettled, they come back fresh with more energy and carry on the operations. So, I too was sent back to my post, I was a company commander at Sino-Indian border in Phuktse. So I was sent to Kharu. We feel at ease because physically there were no dangers at the post. But mentally my mind continues to run to the battlefield and I get disturbed and emotional. I thought about soldiers at war and pictured what is going on as I am totally related and connected to the war. I was very disturbing.

Media has brought the war to my drawing room. I was with a few other soldiers watching it. When the war ended, it was a tremendous feeling especially when it ends on a good note. It was a great feeling.

Q. What touches you the most while you were on the battlefield and what did you feel when you see your mates deceased?

It's heart-rending and disheartening to see my mates dead. I could still recall those incidences much vividly. I get emotional.

We got into an ambush and we could do absolutely nothing. Our adversaries are sitting on the top of the mountain and dominated us as we were down below them. We were helpless. Enemy’s defense works were good. They are firing from loopholes, even if we fire back, we could not break them. We need support from artillery. At that point, there was no artillery support since I didn’t have any communication. The radio operator was missing, as he was in action at the field. So I was not able to demand my headquarters for back up. They fired back at us which lasted for about 15 to 20 minute. We didn’t have ammunition to protect ourselves. Unfortunately, one of our soldiers got blast on his heart. He laid there in front of us. For around 15 minutes we saw him bleeding and getting weaker. I saw no options but to keep a boy with him. I told him he will be able to help him only when darkness sets in and so that they could evacuate. I had to advance with other boys. So it was very pitiful as I was helpless. It was such a tussle. When you are in the force, your mission takes precedence. I acted accordingly. I later found that he was carried down to post but to reach their dead. So seeing him counting his last little breath in front of me and not being able to do anything was a bad feeling.

Q. After Maha Vir Chakra has been awarded to you for your valor, people started calling you “the hero of Kargil war’’, how does it make you feel?

At a personal level, I didn’t feel much of a difference. The only difference is I have gotten a lot of media attention and it boosted my confidence. I had to the audience many people and organization and I saw myself growing.  Professionally, it’s an achievement and there is an award.

Q. How do people respond to your brave act at Kargil war?

I received a number of letters of appreciation, Demi official letters, from army personnel, regiment officers, commanding officers, other seniors officials, and also from civil strata, people from Maharashtra, Bihar. A number of people have seen me as their brother and son. People I have never heard of have sent letters. It was a wonderful feeling. During the war, a lot of people have brought products and materials to us Jawans at the frontier. It was a tremendous feeling to see that the entire nation is rooting for you.

Q. You are a Buddhist, harming others is not advisable. But then you are also an army where you may have to shoot if given orders. Doesn’t that create conflicts in your mind? How do you manage such conflicts?

At a battlefield, when your life is at stake, your survival instinct comes forth. It's natural to protect yourself first. Buddhist thoughts give you strength and encourage us not to harm but also evaluate your intention. So, when we have a superior intention to protect our nation, I believe it is alright if you have to hurt a person or two on the way. It is the way it works in the army. Buddha had to kill many devils for the good of rest of human beings.

Q. Personally, what changes have come to you after the war?

The realization of the impermanence of life comes forth, value for one's life increases. I believe one becomes wiser. Things tend to be better and sweeter after the war. The kindness and compassions forgot for a while getting a dust-up! Good thoughts arouse again.

Q. During 1999, there were no regional media, especially from Ladakh, families weren't much aware of the happenings at the frontier. Had there been regional media, do you think it would help the jawans any better?

It would have been a great help. Media would help mobilize more people. There are certain pockets of an area, where people were not able to mobilize. Cohesion and integrity between people and soldier would have been better. The soldiers may be able to speak their mind directly as to what is happening to them. There would have been more emotional touch to the stories, not just data. News would be more realistic.

Q. There are locals who think unfavorably of Army. There are lots of misconception about Army impinge on their land. What is your say about it?

Keeping in view what I have heard from local ladakhis, lot many people of Leh think that armies are encroaching their land. But it is also obvious that we are situated at outskirt which is the more barren and uncultivable area. It's just that Ladakh is growing and construction of building increases and a lot of them face issues.
Ladakh is a sensitive area situated at two border areas Pakistan at one hand and China on the other. You require an army here. Your existence is in question now. Army and tourist are the twin pillars of Ladakh. We are here for your well being and your protection. We do help people through programmes like Sadhbhavna. People shall understand us. Harmony shall prevail if we appreciate each other.

Message to Readers

"It’s more important to have an ambition in life. I found our adults very self-contained. Unless you strive fora higher goal and brighter aim, you won’t reach anywhere. So, one should have a goal to make a difference in one’s life and to the people around. Along with ones physical growth, it’s also vital to growing mentally. Holistic growth is important. Intellectual growth can happen only with the help of education. For a society to grow and develop, visionaries are a must. Vision will come only when you reach a certain level when you become aware of things. Education will company you to become a better human being.