Col. N.J. Nair of 16 Maratha Light Infantry is the only Indian to have received the country's two highest awards for bravery, the Kirti Chakra and the Ashok Chakra. He was killed in action in December, 1993, while fighting extremists in Nagaland. Col. Nair was posted in Mal Bazaar in the Dooars in the late 1980s, and at the time he became a close friend of our friend Jose Varghese. Jose was an army officer himself before he became a tea planter. He outlined the story of Col. Nair's life and death to me, and it is obvious that he thinks the colonel was a great man and a great soldier.
What I have to say here is put together from Jose's personal reminiscence, and from a printed record, the 'Tribute to Dear Jayan', published by the Old Boys’ Association of Sainik School, Kazhakootam, Kerala. The material was painstakingly sourced and forwarded to me by my former student who is now an officer in the Indian Army, Capt. Manohar Diyali.
The Colonel was an outstanding student at the Sainik School, Kazhakootam, as the teachers' touching tributes show. They speak of his intelligence, his all-round excellence, his charm of manner and his willingness to take on challenges. They also mention his fierce spirit of independence, his sense of honour, and his discipline. His batchmate, Lt. Col. K.J.Samuel (Retd), recalls the daredevil whom he met three years after they passed out from the Indian Military Academy. It was in Meerut, and 'Jayan' was on a 'ramshackle Jawa motorbike', driving down to Kerala 'with not much more luggage than a toothbrush and toothpaste...and the clothes on his back'.
Jayan married late, adds Lt.Col.Samuel, because he felt he may not be able to give his best as a sodier otherwise. He almost didn't live to see his wedding day.
In 1983, he masterminded a daring operation against insurgents in Mizoram, for which he was awarded the Kirti Chakra. The rebels had been attacking local boatmen and extorting money from them. Col. Nair and a few other soldiers disguised themselves as boatmen and sailed on the river, watching and waiting. When the attackers struck, they were shocked to learn who their 'victims' were. A fierce battle followed, with much exchange of fire, until the rebels were overpowered. Col. Nair was severely wounded in the abdomen. Surgeons had to put in about eighty stitches, and they were worried. He was in a critical condition. 'He lingered on the brink for weeks and then recovered swiftly, surprising the doctors,' says former teacher N.B. Nair. He adds, 'Soon he was in active service declining offers of soft postings and staff appointments...Jayan believed in leading his men to battle always from the front, never goading them from behind.' Col. Nair and Manju were married in Trivandrum soon after the Mizoram operation.
The Ashok Chakra is a posthumous award.
20th December, 1993. Col. Nair - now Colonel and Commanding Officer of 16 Maratha Light Infantry batallion - was heading a convoy along the Mokokchung-Mariani Road in Nagaland, when a group of about a hundred armed extremists ambushed them. Fourteen soldiers, including a JCO, were killed on the spot. The Colonel was severely wounded, but he crawled across the road, and ordered a Lance Naik to climb on his shoulders and throw two hand grenades in the direction of the attackers. That took care of them for a while, and the Colonel quickly organised his forces. He led from the front throughout, killing one of the insurgents. They were defeated, but the Colonel died as a result of his injuries.
I asked Jose whether they had stayed in touch after the Colonel was posted out of Mal Bazaar. They had not. Jose himself was transferred to a garden in Darjeeling, and that was a remote world-in-itself with no proper communications even in the 1990s. On the morning of Republic Day in 1994, Jose's young brother in law in Bangalore was shocked to see Manju on live television, receiving the award from the President of India.
Col.Nair's story is a chapter in one of the textbooks taught in Kerala schools. Among the students who has read about him is his son.