(On 71st Army Day today, Onmanorama brings you this inspiring story of Colonel Gaurav, who is at present officer in-charge of the Army Paralympic Sports Node (APSN) based in Pune. His story is that of a go-getter. Within a year after losing a leg, he reported back to duty with the Battalion during Operation Parakram. He assigns his ability to get up and persevere in the face of challenges to the spirit of sportsmanship.)
Bengaluru: His left leg was blown away from ankle after he stepped on to an anti-personnel mine. The head of the tibia bone was missing with the fibula completely exposed. A small sliver of the heel was hanging with the skin, which he cut away with a new shaving blade borrowed from a soldier.
“I was just 32 years old when this incident happened during Operation Rakshak in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kupwara district on the Line of Control (LoC). July 8, 2001 to be precise, the day that changed my life,” Col Gaurav Dutta began his story, ensuring that every bit of detail was intact.
“There was information of terrorist movement in our area. But being a mountainous region criss-crossed with nullahs and jungles, it was impossible to keep it under control. As a result, tactically-sited ambush had to be placed on certain routes of infiltration. I was doing a recce for a best possible place for an ambush,” the Colonel said.
To reach an area that was best-suited for this operation, his team had to go down in a mountain stream for about 75 metres.
“Thereafter we got back on the ground, but I accidentally stepped on the mine. After it exploded, I ordered the rest of the column to halt and return to the bridge from where we had started. I took the support of my rifle and my buddy to cross the 75 metre in the same stream,” he recalls.
Just that the young officer’s trip back the stream was agonising with many parts of his left leg missing or hanging.
The incident had hit his hearing. Evacuation to the base hospital took almost 12 hours, resulting in heavy blood loss and his memory was also affected.
“I couldn’t appear for the Defence Services Staff College exam because I couldn’t remember anything. My commanding officer tried to coach me personally but, it didn’t work. Things have improved since then,” says Col Gaurav.
Today, for Col Gaurav, disability is only what one makes out of it. He says it poses hurdles and changes one’s life, but in no way it makes a person weak.
“Accept it, have faith in your own abilities and overcome it,” he says.
Born in a military family in 1969 to Lt Col M D Sharma (Retd) and Meena, Col Gaurav completed his secondary and higher secondary schooling in Secunderabad. A graduate from Meerut College, he commanded the Uttar Pradesh NCC Directorate Contingent during the Republic Day camp in 1989. The same year he represented the country in a youth exchange programme and travelled to the United Kingdom.
Chasing his dream, Col Gaurav Dutta joined the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun in 1990 and was commissioned a year later into his father’s unit, 7th Bn, The Brigade of the Guards.
He served with his battalion in various counter insurgency operations, including Operation Rakshak 1 in Punjab, Operation Rhino in Assam, Operation Orchid in Nagaland, Operation Rakshak 2 in J& K and Operation Parakram & Operation Vijay.
A keen sportsman since childhood, he participated in Junior National Rowing Championships in 1985 and 86. He had captained his battalion teams in athletics, hockey, football, basketball, handball and swimming. He had also represented the country in the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation World Games in 2009, in golf, and won a bronze medal.
It was his desire to push his limits further that forced him to start running again 13 years after the injury. After doing the 5000m run at Hyderabad in 2014, he tried his hand at triathlon and found himself loving the experience.
“I have so far completed 12 triathlon events which comprise 750- meter swim, 20-km cycle and 5 km run, covering Pune, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Thonnur, Chennai, Delhi and Goa. I swam in pools, lakes and sea and enjoy every time I take on unseen challenges,” says Col Gaurav.
Under his leadership, the para athletes have won nearly 15 international and 35 national medals in the past two years.
He says he was inspired by his father who was a good sportsman. “From day one, I wanted to be an Army officer like him.”
Married to Vandana, a homemaker, their daughter Akanksha is an LLB graduate now preparing for her masters in Intellectual Property Rights. “My wife has been a pillar of support in all my activities,” he adds.
Propelling paralympic sports
Col Gaurav says sports in addition to building team spirit, camaraderie and discipline, also provides for a holistic rehabilitation of officers and soldiers disabled.
“It gives them an opportunity to re-enter the main stream, continue to contribute positively to the organisation and improve their self-esteem. With this as a backdrop, the Army Paralympic Sports Policy was issued on June 23, 2017 and APSN took birth,” he says.
The aim of APSN is not only rehabilitation of disabled officers and soldiers, but also to take the step forward for bringing glory to the country at the highest levels of international competition like Paralympic Games and World Championships. At present para-archery, para-athletics, para-rowing, para-shooting and para swimming are being developed under the node.
Passion for Army
Col Gaurav says if he weren’t an Army officer, he would have been a soldier.
“Since my birth, I have seen the Army around me. We were in Jamnagar during the 1971 Indo-Pak War and I was just three years old. I remember my mother picking me up and running for the trenches when the air raid sirens were sounded. The training area was very near to our house and I would watch the soldiers go through the various training activities. Dad took us to see the sports events at the unit level. I guess the Army got into my DNA,” he says.
He says youngsters should not join Indian Army for fun or for a comfortable life.
“Indian Army is the best possible organisation to serve. Join it for the environment it offers, the challenges it poses. And in life, never give up, whatever it takes. Take the challenges head on. That’s why I love this Hindi song: Ruk jaana nahin tu kahi harke...” he signed off with a smile.
(The writer is an independent aerospace and defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake.)