As lakhs gathered around television sets on Thursday, to watch the Republic day parade that showcased the might of our armed forces, in Kashmir, some soldiers were fighting their last battle, this time against nature.
Since Wednesday, 14 soldiers have been martyred after snow avalanches hit an Army post and patrol party in Gurez sector, near the LoC in North Kashmir's Bandipora District. Among them were two young men from Tamil Nadu.
The family of Sepoy Sundara Pandian (27), had been eagerly waiting for him to arrive in his village near Tirumangalam in Madurai district in July. His 19-year-old wife Shivapriya who is 9 months pregnant, had wanted her husband to arrive even earlier and to be there when she had their first child. But on Thursday, a phone call from the army shocked the entire family into silence. The entire village, according to the late soldier's relatives, is in mourning.
"He was an inspiration to all of us and encouraged us all to fight for the nation,"says 24 year Suresh Kumar, the martyr's cousin.
"Whenever he came down for the holidays, he would train 10 youngsters here who were looking for a career in the army. Five of them have already joined the armed services." The other five, according to Suresh, were on their way to write the armed services exam as he spoke to TNM.
"They now want to fight and die for the nation as Sepoy Sundara Pandian did. Our entire village is proud of him"
The Madurai martyr did his schooling in his hometown and then went on to get a B.Com degree before he joined the army in 2010. He hailed from an agricultural family and was determined to work his way up the economic ladder.
"He told his parents and wife that they need not work. Anna (elder brother) said 'I will work hard enough to keep us all comfortable'."
According to his relatives, the sepoy had gone to a higher altitude with a team of soldiers to rescue those already trapped in the avalanche. "Even in the end,"says Suresh, "he was off to help someone else." The family is now waiting for news from the army on final rites, after officers informed them that the soldier's body was still trapped in snow.
195 kilometers from Madurai, another family waits quietly to know when their son's mortal remains will be sent to them. 27-year-old Ilavarasan from Keezhayur in Thanjavur District had joined the army in 2012 and served in the 51 Rashtriya Rifles in Kashmir.
He had called his family during Pongal to tell them that he will be arriving later than anticipated because the dense fog didn't allow him to descend from his station.
"He is one the kindest people you will ever meet. He has always wanted to serve the nation and its people. Despite getting a degree in economics, he still chose to apply for the armed forces," says his 33 year old cousin Elayaraja, who lives next door to the family. "When he called during Pongal, he said his leave was sanctioned but his trip was delayed due to the weather conditions."
Martyr Ilavarasan has left behind his aging parents, a married elder sister and his younger brother. "His younger brother is looking for a job and we hope that the Government will be able to help him."
Both families, struggling with the grief following the loss of a loved one but making it clear that for these soldiers nation was always the first priority and those who knew them couldn't be any prouder of the sacrifice they have made for the country.