Lt-Gen VG Patankar
It was autumn of 1997 when I went to Kupwara in J&K to command an infantry division of the Army. Those were challenging times. Heavy exchange of fire across the Line of Control, infiltration attempts by terrorists and counter-terrorist operations in the hinterland were almost a daily affair. The good news was that my officers and men were doing a fine job of dealing with all the three challenges, taking a heavy toll on the enemy, although sometimes paying high costs in terms of losing lives and limbs.
I was then no stranger to the Kashmir valley, having served there twice before. But the Kashmir I knew had changed; the paradise was lost in the daily thunder of artillery and staccato of AK-47 rifles. People appeared aloof and even hostile at times. That had to change, I thought to myself. While we were winning the encounters against the enemies, it was also important to win the battle of ‘hearts and minds’. A confluence of the stream of Kashmiri minds and the national mainstream was necessary to wash away the feeling of alienation — that was how Operation Sangam was conceived.
I felt that the shortest way to people’s hearts was through the minds of children. Falsehood and propaganda that had polluted young minds had to be replaced by national pride and fervour. The Republic Day parade at Delhi encapsulates our history, culture and military pageantry, demonstrating in a few how hours how ‘mahan’ our Bharat truly is. That is what the children of Kashmir should see, I decided.
Detailed planning, coordination and close liaison was all accomplished at a frenetic speed. Hectic preparations followed and the first batch of 25 Kashmiri children between eight and 12 years of age were soon on their way to the Capital to witness the parade. It was a trip on a shoestring budget; just six days in all. Little did we know then that history was about to be made.
Even before the children arrived in Delhi, media picked up the story and flashed across all major newspapers. Soon invitations began pouring in. Appu Ghar invited them as guests to spend a full day; the newly opened PVR at Saket played host; the Army Chief, Gen VP Malik, invited them to high tea; and the crowning glory was when the President asked to meet them at the Rashtrapati Bhavan! They visited the Mahatma’s samadhi at Rajghat and even offered namaz at the Jama Masjid (it was the holy month of Ramzan and they felt as if they had done the Haj!). Wherever they went, people met them with open arms. The young visitors from the Valley became virtual ambassadors of peace from a troubled state and enjoyed the attention they received. More importantly, they knew that they were among their own countrymen. From one week Sangam extended to three!
Operation Sangam became the Army’s pioneering effort, a historic milestone, in winning hearts and minds in J&K. ‘Sangam-2’ to Mumbai followed the next year. Operation Maitree, in which children from distant parts of the country (even from Andaman-Nicobar!) were invited to spend time with their counterparts in J&K, was a resounding success. The excursions from J&K have continued, albeit under various names; all in the cause of national integration. The well known Sadbhavana is an extension of the Sangam initiative.
Achievement of Sangam can be best summed up in the words of two children from among the first batch of 25. In their feedback, one wrote that one day his name would be written in golden letters at the memorial in Udhampur in memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice defending their motherland in J&K. The other said, “I want to be India’s next Gandhiji!”