In 1999, the Kargil War between India and Pakistan left indelible scars on the collective memory of both nations. Twenty-four years later, an unlikely platform emerged to bring together battle-hardened military veterans from both sides.
This heartwarming story unfolds within the virtual confines of "Langar Gup," a Facebook group founded by Major Zuha Saeed in 2020. The group's mission: to challenge stereotypes and hostilities that have long plagued relations between the armed forces of these neighboring countries.
For the uninitiated, Langar Gup refers to the unofficial tradition of conversation between soldiers and officers in the army.
"Langar Gup was created to foster a shared appreciation of our military history and nostalgia for our esteemed military traditions,” Zuha told Decode. For him, it’s about recognising that the veterans are interconnected through their shared lives that are greater than the borders dividing them.
“As veterans, decades removed from our uniforms, we have the potential to become torchbearers for peace in the region, paving the way for a brighter future for our children," Zuha said.
The group is celebrating its third anniversary and has a membership of approximately 4,000 veterans from the Armed Forces of Pakistan, India, and even Bangladesh.
When a veteran of the Pakistan Army, Amjad Hussain penned a touching tribute to a soldier named Taimur Malik, describing how he had made the ultimate sacrifice for his country on June 27, 1999 during the Kargil War in the Shyok sub-sector, a comment stood out.
The comment by an Indian Army veteran Colonel Brij Raj Singh Dahiya, read, "Rest in peace, Braveheart."
On another day, Col. Brij Singh Dahiya posted a message in the group "The Kargil Conflict - A Wife's Perspective." In this poignant reflection, Jennifer Rocque, wife of an Indian Army officer, recounted her experiences during the Kargil Conflict in 1999. She vividly described the sudden disruption in her life when her husband was deployed to the conflict zone without disclosing the gravity of the situation.
The post highlighted the emotional rollercoaster of living through those anxious days with live television broadcasts and limited communication.
Among those who appreciated the bravery were veterans of the Pakistani Army; one of them wrote, "A great depiction of the pangs of war and its aftermath. Stay safe and happy."
On the 14th and 15th of August, as Pakistan and India celebrated their Independence, online platforms buzzed with discussions and debates around the partition of erstwhile undivided India. On this Facebok group, military veterans group were exchanging wishes and congratulating each other.
The discussion on Langar Gup encompasses a broad spectrum of topics and is not limited to war anniversaries and independence days. Members here share nostalgic reminiscences about their military experiences to anecdotes from their days at institutions like the National Defence Academy, Indian Military Academy, and Pakistan Military Academy.
In one of the posts on the group, a Pakistani officer fondly reflects on his early days as an army officer characterised by rich traditions and meticulous attention to detail. He vividly describes daily rituals of inspecting and maintaining his Khaki uniform complimented with solid brass badges and polished leather boots. He recalls how his daily routine was accompanied by the distinct scents of Brasso and Cherry Blossom boot polish. These sensory recollections evoke a profound sense of nostalgia for a youth marked by camaraderie, pride, and the shared experiences of military service.
These sentiments and nostalgia for Cherry Blossom and Brasso were also shared by veteran Indian officers. Manish Dewan wrote, "They were an essential part of our survival, from Cadet College to retirement from the Army. I can still vividly recall the tangy scent of Brasso!" Another Indian veteran, Brij Raj Singh Dahiya, remarked, "They were a soldier's lifelong companions. Even after hanging up my boots in 2001, I still possess these cherished items, although both have dried up since, marking the absence of our dear 'Batman Sahayak' as we call them now."
The group not only fosters camaraderie but also serves as an information-sharing platform for veteran officers, allowing them to gain insights into each other's military traditions, which sometimes include unique practices specific to each country but are no military secrets.
For instance, many of the Pakistani army veterans did not know that October 27 is celebrated as Infantry Day by Indians.
"While we celebrate Infantry today in India, I won't delve into its history to avoid any potential contentions in this esteemed group. Instead, I would like to express my profound respect as a Tanker for the infantry. I have had the privilege of participating in infantry operations with a Dogra battalion on the LoC, serving with Ladakh Scouts on the Siachen glacier, and tenure in the Rashtriya Rifles in J&K. My hats off to you guys; your life is undeniably challenging," Colonel Ajay Tripathi, an Indian Army veteran wrote.
This message prompted a response from Pakistani Army veteran Arshad Nazir, who wrote, "I was not previously aware of Infantry Day. I'm grateful to Ajay Tripathy for introducing it to us." Ajay Tripathy, then clarified that it was specific to the Indian Army.
On contentious issues between the two sides, the veterans emphasise their commitment to avoiding content that could spark heated debates. Rather, its purpose is to foster commonalities and connections between the two countries and their armies, prioritising unity over disputes. However, they also point out that despite their quest for peace, their respective countries' interests remain paramount to them, and they are not willing to compromise on any of them.
Indian Army veteran Harry Singh told Decode that there are times when he doesn’t fully agree with certain posts in the group, especially when they celebrate individuals considered adversaries by the Indian side. But out of consideration for the group's broader purpose and their valued friendships, he says, he often chooses not to comment. “But if discussions touch on matters that could harm Indian interests, I politely remind others that such topics aren't in the group's best interests,” he said. “And when someone tries to blame India for wars, I simply share two videos featuring Air Marshal Asghar Khan, where he unequivocally states that Pakistan initiated all four wars,” he added.
The Indian army veteran says that the interactions transformed their families and friends too who changed their views towards Pakistan as they witnessed the mutual appreciation. “It's like a chain reaction, and I hope this ripple effect continues to grow,” he said, adding that political leaders on both sides and their military leadership should recognise that mending fences is the only path toward prosperity and peaceful coexistence.
The Pakistani Army Veteran Who Created The Group
Running Langar Gup also comes along with challenges for the founder. There are hot-headed young individuals who dislike the idea of camaraderie between soldiers and officers on both sides, apart from them, there are also times when individuals post contentious posts despite the mandate of the group being against it. Recognising that challenges are inevitable, Zuha Saeed acknowledged that some eyebrows might be raised, especially when engaging with an Indian journalist about peaceful relations between armies. However, he also emphasised that his conscience permits him to do so because he genuinely believes in the principles of peace, dialogue, and mutual coexistence, with his love for his country remaining paramount above all else.
"I didn't face any major challenges or resistance from anyone, despite the heated political atmosphere. However, there are people young and old on both sides who do not understand that Jingoism is not the solution and they take pride in demonising the other, I generally do not allow such posts on the group," Zuha said.
Most of the veterans in the group, he believes, understand the shared perspective. “There's no doubt that my love for my country is paramount, as I expect it is for others on their side,” he said.
However, he says that the group members have moved beyond the notion that one must harbour hatred towards someone else to express love for their own country.
Major Zuha Saeed's quest for peace and preserving military traditions goes beyond the group— he is also an ardent collector of military medals. His collection spans from the period 1843 to 1947 encompassing events like the Punjab war to India's independence. His collecting ethos is inclusive, as he enthusiastically states, "I collect any medal awarded to a local Indian from that era, regardless of their background – whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, hailing from regions like Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other regions of undivided India.”
The Love For One’s Own Country And Rafi
Another Pakistani veteran Army Veteran Waqas Khan, a former Colonel in the Pakistan Army while reiterating his deep affection for his homeland made a compelling point that this love doesn't necessitate animosity towards anyone, not even the soldiers on the other side. In his view, they are all soldiers dedicated to defending their respective motherlands, and this shared commitment should serve as a unifying idea.
Reflecting on the concept of war, Waqas emphasises, "We reside in a world where mutual coexistence stands as a paramount necessity for our survival. When we examine the pages of history, we find that wars have invariably been succeeded by dialogues and negotiations. So, why not initiate dialogues and negotiations from the outset, instead of resorting to bombings and loss of lives?"
The sentiments of the Pakistani veterans also resonate with their Indian counterparts, Colonel Parag Srivastav, an Indian veteran who now works for a corporate house believes that interactions like these between retired officers and soldiers can play a role in bridging the gap between the two countries.
Through the group, he says, he has had the opportunity to connect with many veterans from the other side. “I consider myself fortunate to have forged meaningful friendships with some retired officers from across the border. We share numerous mutual interests and affections, with a shared love for Mohammad Rafi being one of them," Parag said.
Earlier this month, on September 23, a Pakistani veteran shared a poignant image commemorating the ceasefire anniversary of the 1965 war. The picture depicted Major Hira Singh of the Indian armour embracing Major Shafqat Baloch of the 17th Punjab regiment. The accompanying post highlighted Major Shafqat Baloch's bravery and was endorsed by his Indian counterparts, emphasizing unity and shared respect across borders.
Harry Singh, who has been in the Indian Army for over twenty years, has made a lot of friends through the group, who often share stories of their personal lives with him. “One of them even sought advice on remarriage after the passing of his wife in Pakistan," he said.