On February 14 in Jammu and Kashmir's Pulwama district, 20 km away from Srinagar, a CRPF convoy came under attack. An explosive-laden vehicle hit one of the buses in the convoy of 2,500 personnel and within minutes, 40 soldiers were killed in what became the worst terror attack in the state in the last few decades, and the deadliest against security forces in India.
Despite the horrific terror attack, the CRPF men are back to doing what they do the best - protecting thousands everyday in one of the most violent parts of India.
NDTV visted CRPF's 118 batallion in Gund, about 70 km from Srinagar, to gain an insight into the lives of CRPF soldiers deployed in Jammu and Kashmir.
The snow-covered mountains, where temperature dip in winters to as low as -30 degrees Celsius, would make a common man breathless but for the brave soldiers of CRPF, survival here has become a way of life.
The CRPF men wake up at 6 am and it is so cold that they can't take a bath for weeks. They have at least five pairs of uniforms because clothes just don't dry.
Physical strength is the key for these soldiers who undergo an hour of training everyday, which includes running and gym sessions. All meals of the day, including the breakfast, are planned by a nutritionist to ensure the perfect diet.
An hour-long weapon training session follows where the soldiers come in batches of four and dismantle and assemble the AK-47 guns in less than 60 seconds.
Describing the session, Head Constable Ratan Singh Meena says, "Anything can happen in a battle with the gun and the men should be able to immediately rectify it."
Some soldiers have reached the level of such precision that they can finish the exercise in 60 seconds with blindfolds on. This helps them in situations where they may have to deal with a fault in the gun in the middle of the night.
The soldiers then head for river patrolling right next to the Sindh river. Across the river are the Mahadev mountains from where infiltration can take place.
Areas of North Kashmir, such as Kupwara, are on the other side of the mountains and are considered the resting places of terrorists. The soldiers have to walk for more than a kilometre through several feet of snow to carry out river patrolling.
For the CRPF soldiers on the streets, stone throwers also pose a challenge. On an average, the CRPF faces more than 500 incidents of stone-throwing each year.
The jawans are equipped with body protectors, helmets, wooden sticks to deal with such situations. Recently, a special unit of 500 women commandos was inducted to deal with the surge in female stone throwers.
In a climate as harsh as this, one of the biggest concerns is ensuring soldiers stay medically fit. In November 2018, a 50-year-old soldier from this battalion died of a heart attack.
Dr Rohit Lakhnotra, Medical Officer at the battalion, says: "As soon as somebody comes here, due to the high altitude and low oxygen level, the blood pressure shoots up and there are higher chances of a heart attack. If a patient complains of chest pain, we do a thorough check-up and give them medicines. Gund is remote area. We can only give initial treatment here. For any major surgery, we have to send the patient in an ambulance to Srinagar which is 70 km away."
Post-lunch, the soldiers go for an area domination exercise to keep an eye on unexpected visitors around the battalion's complex.
But the soldiers also get to enjoy some moments of leisure. In the evening, they are seen playing basketball.
Upendra Upadhyay, Assistant Sub-Inspector, says, "We form two teams. We all wear the same uniform so in order to distinguish one team plays with caps on their heads while the other team wears headbands."
"We also play volleyball and cricket on this court. Since morning, we are constantly busy with our duty and games like these give us energy and refresh our mood," he explains.
Interestingly, the court also serves as a a helipad for rescue operations in times of emergencies.
For the soldiers, a tiring day comes to a close with a prayer session.
And after dinner, they watch a movie in the recreation room. Patriotic movies - Uri- The Surgical Strike, being the latest in the list - are played here once or twice a week.
But in the world cup season, the men enjoy matches in the recreation room.
Behind the cheerful faces, however, these soldiers hide a lot of pain and grief- whether it is missing their families or the loss of colleagues and friends who died in the Pulwama terror attack. The battalion lost two of its soldiers in the Pulwama attack- Mahesh Kumar from Allahabad and Narayan Gurjar from Rajasthan.
Senior Commandant PK Sahu says: "Our training is such that a civilian transforms completely into a member of the forces within 55 weeks (1 year and 1 month) of training. Tragedies do affect us and cause pain but nation comes first and that is why we set our pain aside and move ahead to get back on our toes immediately."
Keeping families reassured in such tough conditions is another challenge. Sachin Kumar, a soldier, says, "Whenever they call us, we never tell them how we live here. We just ask about our kids and our old parents. Network issues here are another challenge. Sometimes, for two-three days, we can't even make calls. We have told them that snowfall affects the tower signals so that they don't worry."
CRPF has 50,000 personnel posted across the Kashmir valley and for them irrespective of whether a terror attack has happened or not and how harsh the weather is, this is what life looks like - staying on their toes round the clock.
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