Indian Army (Retd.)
Major AVD Pillay was a soldier’s soldier. His father had served in the army. And he expected his son, Divakaran, to be no less. His family had a cherished tradition of bearing arms, now for the Indian Army, and in centuries past, for the kingdom of Travancore. His family had shed blood for the motherland. The Pillays were Nairs, a fighting clan, and were expected to do no less.
In a school play, 12-year-old son Divakaran was given the part of a primeval Naga warrior. When young Pillay entered the stage, he did not look the part. A Naga going to war is a fearsome thing to behold. He roars like a lion. Major Pillay’s son squeaked. He neither looked Naga, nor Nair.
In a family tradition where young adolescent boys were expected to bear arms and fight the enemy, Major AVD Pillay’s son fell woefully short.
And so, young Divakaran was packed off to spend an entire night at a graveyard.
As we sit in his office in New Delhi, Col. Divakaran Padma Kumar Pillay speaks about the fear and sheer trepidation of that night. The loneliness, the sounds, the howling wind, the haunting expectation of graves creaking open at night and corpses crawling out would have seen grown men run away in sheer terror.
“Gaurav, I almost died out of sheer fear that night. But I did not quit”, says Col. Pillay.
When Major Pillay came in the morning to take young Divakaran home, something had irrevocably changed in the boy. He stopped shuffling and he looked into people’s eyes when he spoke.
It was in 1994 that Manipur, and with it the rest of the North East, descended into violent chaos. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland, an extremist Naga outfit, controlled much of the regions bordering Manipur and Nagaland, collecting taxes and defying the Indian state. Efforts at peace had failed, with an increasingly belligerent and intransigent NSCN quickly increasing the levels of violence. They used a complex mix of perceived wrong, tribal loyalties and fear to keep the people in line.
India was forced to use its final argument. It sent the Indian Army to the North East to establish the writ of the state.
Capt. Divakaran Pillay had specific intelligence that insurgents were planning to blow up a bridge, to hamper the movement of security forces. His orders were clear – locate, engage and neutralize. For four days he led his platoon through sweltering jungle, a fruitless and frustrating search that yielded nothing.
On the morning of the fifth day, he had contact.
As the platoon approached a nondescript village called Longdipabram in the Tamenglong District, insurgents opened up with murderous fire. Capt. Pillay responded. The militants had the upper hand; they could fire where they wished, unmindful of collateral damage.
In counter insurgency, sometimes avoiding collateral damage and civilian casualties means taking a bullet to your chest. It’s a Catch 22 situation.
Capt. Pillay approached a hut in which the militants had found safe haven. As he kicked open the door, a three-round burst from an AK 47 caught him in the elbow and arm. Another single shot slammed into his chest. The militant’s AK jammed. He threw a grenade at Capt. Pillay. Weak with shock and loss of blood, Capt. Pillay kicked the grenade milliseconds before it exploded. The explosion took away a piece of flesh from his leg. Miraculously, the thick door had absorbed the shrapnel.
Another militant hit him on the shoulder and then on the spine. Both shoulder and spine were fractured. As Capt. Pillay lay bleeding, close to death, the encounter raged around him. Many militants were killed. In the cross fire, two children were seriously injured.
His platoon radioed for CASEVAC (Casualty Evacuation) by helicopter. The army responded quickly and the helicopter landed, to evacuate the wounded officer. Capt. Divakaran Pillay has always been different, sometimes a little stubborn to straightjacketed army men. He was known to speak his mind with brutal honesty.
When the pilot came forward to help him into the helicopter, Capt. Pillay did two things, which only those who knew him intimately could have expected.
One, he told the pilot that he still had some strength in him and could cling on to life a little longer and that the children should be evacuated in his place. Two, he ordered his men that if he died, they would carry out no reprisals. The village was under the protection of Capt. DPK Pillay of 8 Battalion, The Brigade of the Guards.
Before fainting from shock and loss of blood, Capt. Pillay heard wails of gratitude from the women and the old men of the village who rushed out and fell at his feet.
For this unique and heroic deed, Capt. Divakaran Pillay was conferred the Shaurya Chakra by a grateful nation.
In 2010, the local Brigade Commander, a friend of the now Colonel Pillay sent a patrol to find out about the village in which this famous encounter had taken place. It was through this army patrol that the villagers found out that their savior was still alive. They immediately requested for a reunion. So, Col. Pillay went to meet the villagers in that small village in Manipur.
He was accorded not just a hero’s welcome. He was welcomed like a village elder. Through his remarkable heroism and generosity, a Keralite had found family in Manipur. The little girl who was shot in the stomach and whose life he had saved by getting her airlifted, was now married and a mother of two. The young boy was a strapping young man.
During the reunion, Col. Pillay saw a familiar looking man in the crowd. That man was amongst the few who had attacked him, almost killing him on that fateful day. Col. Pillay called out to the man and hugged him. In that instant, all was forgiven. All was forgotten.
As the story of his visit to the village spread, the national media made Col. Pillay a celebrity. And, so true to his character, Col. Pillay used this fame to devastating effect. He was now in touch with ministers and senior bureaucrats. So, he used his influence with the Minister of State for Defence for a 23 km long black top road that would connect Longdipabram to District Headquarters at Tamenglong. The Border Roads Organization would construct this road. But Col. Pillay was not done yet. He realized that the road would fall into disrepair after a few years because the BRO did not have the mandate to maintain roads that were not on the border.
Col. Pillay went on a liaison overdrive and a charm offensive. He called and met the high and mighty of Lutyens Delhi. Everyone had heard stories of the young Captain who had courted certain death to save two innocent children. Many people shut doors to his face. But good things happen to good people. Or at least they happen to people who are both good and terribly stubborn.
On 7 October 2016 I received a phone call from Col. Pillay.
“Gaurav, Mr. Nitin Gadkari has approved a 100 km long National Highway, connecting Tamenglong to Peren in Nagaland. And Longdipabram will be a reference point in the NH,” he said excitedly.
70 years after independence, a non-descript village in some remote corner of the North East that no one had heard of suddenly found itself right on a National Highway.
I recently met Col. Pillay in his office again. His three sons were there, all school going fine young lads. Over Dunkin Donut burgers, they introduced themselves – Vikramaditya, Siddharth and Harshvardhan. They told me that their father teaches them Kalaripayattu, the ancient Kerala martial art.
Little Harshvardhan knows what to do in case terrorists attack his house. He knows what he can use as a weapon in case of an emergency.
They boys are shaping up just fine. They have an illustrious father to look up to; a father who understands what it is to wield power with kindness, and who understands that in forgiveness there is courage.
Capt. Divakaran Pillay was willing to die to save two children he did not even know. He forbade vengeance on non-combatants. He used his fame for helping people who were strangers. He embraced a man who tried to kill him. This is not just the story of Capt. Divakaran Pillay.
This is the story of the Indian Army.