His grieving parents want to dedicate their lives to set up a Peace Park in the world's highest battlefield.
Lt Nawang Kapadia's death along the India-Pakistan line of control in Kashmir on 11 November would perhaps have been just another statistic in that endless and costly Himalayan war. But two things made it different: Nawang was the son of renowned Bombay-based mountaineer, explorer and writer, Harish Kapadia. And he died while trying to rescue one of the Nepali soldiers under his command, Havaldar Chitra Bahadur Thapa of Besisahar, Lamjung.
Harish Kapadia was in Kathmandu this week to address the First Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival and spoke to a well-attended hall on Monday about, among other things, his pet project: a proposal to turn the world's highest battlefield on the disputed Siachen Glacier into a Peace Park. Despite the shock of his son's death, Harish decided not to cancel the planned talk and came to Kathmandu with this wife, Geeta. "We came in Nawang's memory, and to cherish his love for mountains and his connection to Nepal through his Gorkha regiment."
Nawang belonged to the 4th Battalion of the 3rd Gorkha Rifles, was commissioned only in September this year and had just joined the platoon under his command in Kupwara near the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar two weeks before he was killed. The 4th Battalion had been involved in operations to stop infiltration across the line of control, and had previously taken casualties from the battle-hardened Afghans of the Al Omar Tanzeem group. On 10 November, the battalion received information about a large-scale incursion across the border nearby, and Nawang led his platoon on a search-and-destroy mission. The soldiers came under fire from a dozen or so Afghans hiding in a nearby forest. Chitra Bahadur was advancing towards the gun positions when he was hit in the stomach. Nawang ordered covering fire and went in with his own guns blazing for the rescue. He slung Chitra Bahadur over his shoulder and had started rushing back when he was hit in the face and killed instantly.
The attackers were all killed, and identified as belonging to a mercenary band of Afghans. Chitra Bahadur was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Srinagar, but died on the way. Chitra Bahadur was Nawang's "Guruji", an older Gorkha soldier whose responsibility it is to teach every new Gorkha officer the nuances of being Nepali: customs, cooking, songs and language. Recalls his father, Harish: "When he last called, Nawang told us everything was fine, he was missing fish, but he was enjoying dal-bhat and even practised a few Nepali words."
When Harish and Geeta came to Kathmandu they had planned to proceed onwards to Besisahar to meet the family of Chitra Bahadur. But when they contacted the Indian embassy here and were told it could not be verified if Chitra Bahadur's family had been notified or not, they decided to postpone it for some months as they did not want to be the ones to break the sad news.
The tragic deaths in Kashmir have once more brought home to Nepal the uncomfortable truth that its citizens are fighting in the army of a SAARC nation that is arrayed against that of another SAARC country. There are seven Gorkha regiments in the Indian Army, and another 3,000 Nepali troops serving under the British flag. Another 4,000 more serve in the Sultan of Brunei's guards and in the Singapore Police. In the 1962 India-China war, Indian Gorkha regiments were deployed against the Chinese. In 1989 Nepali soldiers fought Tamil Tiger rebels on behalf of Sri Lanka as part of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force. In last year's Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan, 13 Indian Gorkhas were killed. And today, in an ironic twist, Nepalis are once more killing and getting killed by Afghans-170 years after the British Afghan campaign and the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842.
Harish Kapadia is an accomplished mountaineer who has climbed and explored with Dave Wilkinson, Chris Bonnington and others. "It was very unusual for a Gujarati cloth merchant from Bombay to be interested in mountains, and they thought I was crazy," he says. And a near-fatal crevasse fall in the Himalaya 20 years ago in which he broke his hip confirmed their views. Harish learnt rock-climbing and took the basic course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling in 1964 under famous Sherpa climbers like Tenzing Norgay, Nawang Gombu and Sardar Wangdi.
When their sons were born, the Kapadias named them after famous Sherpas: first Sonam, and then his younger brother Nawang. And it was natural that virtually from the moment they learnt to walk the Kapadia brothers were hiking and trekking with their parents. Nawang was the adventurous one; from a very early age he was reading up on military matters and was especially fascinated by Nepal's Gorkha soldiers who earned a reputation for valour first in the Anglo-Nepal war of 1814-16, and later in the British and Indian armies. Nawang's friends in Bombay say his happiest moments were when he joined the Officers' Training Academy in Madras at the age of 24 and when he passed out to join the 3rd Gorkha Rifles. "His dream was always to serve in a Gorkha regiment," says Harish with a sad smile.
With their son's death, the Kapadias are pursuing the Peace Park proposal with new energy and passion. Since the fighting in Siachen started in 1984, nearly 4,000 people have died and more than 10,000 injured on the Indian side alone. It costs India $2 million a day to keep the fighting going on at altitudes of more than 6,000 metres. For Harish, it is an uphill battle convincing the defence establishments to give up the senseless fighting, but he says there are more and more people who are fed up with the war. He has climbed and explored in the Siachen Glacier (Siachen means "rose" in the Balti language) and says the only face-saving way out for both sides may be to agree to declare it a transboundary Peace Park. He says: "The only solution to save this great wilderness is to stop the war. As a mountaineer and a lover of this glacier I can only pray that the powers that be will listen to the anguish of the glacier and the soldiers serving in it."