The Man Who Went Beyond The Call Of His Duty

Colonel (Dr) Divakaran Padma Kumar Pillay was born on 12 August 1967 in Kannur, Kerala, India, to Major and Mrs A.V.D. Pillay. He was educated at Bangalore Military School and graduated from National Defence Academy in 1988. Later he did his Master’s degree from Sikkim Manipal University and was awarded a Ph.D degree by Panjab University, Chandigarh for his doctoral thesis on “Evaluation of Models of Human Security with Special reference to India” He is now a Research Fellow ïn IDSA ( where he joined after taking premature retirement from the Army in May 2017 . Prior to this he worked as a Senior Defence Specialist at National Security Council Secretariat at New Delhi for over seven years. Col Pillay was near fatally wounded in counter insurgency operations in Longdi Pabram village, a hamlet in the remote Tamenglong district of Manipur in India’s northeast in 1994. After nearly two decades, he undertook the journey back to the village where he was wounded in the firefight and subsequently for delivering development and humanitarian activities to the village in the remote district of Tamenglong.

The Kerala Explorer invited the proud son of India to recount his story in his own words.

In January 1994 the Indian Army was inducted into Manipur as large tracts of the state were taken over by an insurgent group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). As a Captain and young platoon commander then, I was tasked to search, locate and capture hardcore insurgents who were planning to blow up a vital bridge and communication tower to hamper the movement of security forces in Manipur.

After 4 days of relentless search in the jungles we tracked down the militant hideout and had a three hour long firefight with the insurgents. At end of the bloody encounter a few militants had been killed and two were apprehended. I was myself shot with two bursts of AK-47 – a bullet in my chest, three on my forearm, a grenade blast over my foot and fracture on my spine with a rifle butt hit. I was grievously injured in the encounter and a few moments away from death due to excessive blood loss. When I was lying there waiting for the cas-evac helicopter, I noticed two young children – a boy and a girl – from the village who had been wounded in the crossfire. I had to make a choice in those few moments – between taking responsibility for my own life and that of the lives of the people we were meant and sent to protect. I felt that if anyone deserved to live in that moment, it was those children in whose courtyard we fought – the children did not know what the fight was all about, nor why they had got shot. I made sure that they were airlifted to safety and medical help, before me and extracted a promise from my men that they would not seek revenge on the village for what had happened to me. I fell unconscious soon after but I heard wails of gratitude as the headman and a few women from the village fell at my feet thanking me for what I had done. I was conferred the nation‘s highest gallantry award, the Shaurya Chakra, in 1995.

The Reunion Though the incident was long over, the entire episode was etched in my memory just as the battle wounds were on my skin and flesh. In March 2010 a friend who was commanding a Brigade in the area sent a patrol to the village, still remote and isolated, to enquire about the whereabouts of the survivors, the children who had been shot. That is how the villagers learnt that I was also alive. They sought a reunion with me, saying that I saved a village from calamity and invited me to visit the village. I returned to meet familiar faces from two decades back in time. The girl who had been shot in the abdomen, and whose life was saved by timely airlift, was now married, with children of her own. The boy had become a strapping young man. One of the militants who had surrendered after that long ago firefight, and had given up militancy, also came to meet me. These people, residents of a land ravaged by violence and once branded anti-national, seemed to be reaching out. In the time since that incident in Tamenglong and the reunion, I had moved from active military postings in the field to work at Army Headquarters, in the Ministry of Defence and then finally to the National Security Council Secretariat in the Prime Minister’s Office 

Actions following the reunion I had never expected to see or visit that village in Tamenglong again. But when I returned there in March 2010, I realized nothing had changed in these two decades. It had become an unforgiving environment – a tangle of tribes, insurgents, army, government, mischievous neighbours and errant geopolitical strategy. Added to that were the tensions between tribes which made entire communities the victims of extended economic blockades enforced by mutually belligerent ethnic groups. Even today, after nearly half-century lost to violence, there seems no end to this story. Amidst this were those people whose lives have been caught in various cross fires – bullets and conflicting loyalties. What they haven’t been able to do is find enough peace to live the life that we are lucky to live in other parts of our country. Be that as it may, real seeds of peace, I feel, were sowed with that reunion. This incident triggered a chain of events that holds a lot of promise for building on the goodwill and peace. Using the good offices of well-meaning dignitaries whom I could attract to the cause, we manage to do a lot of work in Tamenglong some of which I list herewith:-

Connecting the remote village by road: Using the influence of the Minister of State for Defence, we laid the foundation stone for a 23 km black top road to the village (Longdipabram) where the encounter took place to the district headquarters (Tamenglong). It is being constructed by the Defence Ministry and the road is called “For Peace and Friendship“. The road is also now a National Highway sanctioned by the current Government.

A cooperative model livelihood programme for employment in a cash strapped region: The region is well known for its bamboo. With the help of the Mission Director of the National Mission for Bamboo Applications (NMBA) who travelled to Tamenglong with me we started training the villagers in making finished bamboo products to be marketed by the NMBA. NMBA also extends a line of credit to the cooperative society started by the village to play the role of micro financier – payments are made to the village cooperative society, which is responsible for lending money to the villagers. This approach is unique because the villagers as a whole have no lending or borrowing capacity. This works as a micro finance initiative – to help the villagers get liquid cash – the onus is on the society to recover the loaned amount either by way of money or the finished mats or bamboo sticks. 

Realising the agricultural potential: The region is known for its citrus fruits and its bamboo and the potential of these crops has not been realised due to the insurgency. The produce is grown organically and was wasted as there was no means to transport the products where they could be marketed. There was also no cold-storage chain to store the yields. With help of the Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, we initiated the process on developing the citrus farming and bamboo products potential of the region. The villagers have created an orange farmers agency, and later this year during the Orange Festival, the product will be purchased by a juice and marmalade manufacturing agency based in Guwahati in the neighbouring state of Assam, at a rate favourable to the farmers. If accomplished, this will be the first time the entire produce is purchased by an external agency.

A truck for transporation of produce: A meeting was organised between the village headman and then Union Home Secretary Mr. G.K. Pillai. Mr Pillai is well known for his interest in, and concern for, the North East region and he gifted a truck to the villagers so that they could transport their horticultural produce. 

A waiting shed for stores: The village got a waiting shed from the Army civic action programme.

Repair of church for Christmas: We repaired the village church, which is an important unifying symbol. Also, the region will celebrate 90 years of Christianity in 2016. Efforts are on to carry out major repairs and renovation of the church in the village with help of voluntary contributions from well–wishers.  

Sewing machines for the women and girls Since the local women possess extraordinary talent in sewing and weaving it was decided to encourage the setting up of a sewing mission in the village with the help of a good samaritan, Dr. Sajan George, who gifted 10 fully automatic sewing machines to the village. Another good samaritan, Mr. Rajesh Gupta, gifted cotton yarn. His daughter, a graduate of the National Institute of Design, made designs for sewing

Water scheme: This is one of the first schemes we started with a proposal to supply drinking water to every household. We were able to provide water tanks to all houses in the village. It was meant to be a fullfledged water supply scheme with water tanks and a pipeline. However due to a lack of supervision the money was not spent in the manner it was intended.

Vocational Training: The levels of literacy are quite high in the region given the presence of many missionary schools. The students speak English well and often migrate to bigger cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, and do well in the service industry . With help of Dr. Alexander Thomas, the CEO of Bangalore Baptist Hospital, we embarked on a mission to train students from the district in Nursing and other hospital services such as radio technicians and medical transcription, among others.

Outcome In the state and circumstances that the state of Manipur is in, the act of calling an Army officer for a reconciliation and to honour him as one of their own required immense courage and nerve on the part of the villagers, given the bitterness and ill will towards the armed forces as a whole. It is in a sense a declaration of a freedom from fear, a spirit of liberation from the control of the militant movements who seek to control the tribes through their writ and might. I found that years of unrest have exhausted everyone. Lives and opportunities continue to be wasted. With the Indian economy taking off in other parts of the country, there is an urge to survive and envision a future beyond conflict. I felt that if the people participate whole heartedly in the schemes begun there – and so far they have shown every indication of doing so – they could have a chance at leading conflict-free, prosperous lives. For the first time now, I felt that there is a chance to birth peace organically, inside-out.

Initially when I interacted through the village alone, I came up against the distrust, and often hostility, of other villages and tribes. Therefore the onus was placed on the villagers (Longdipabram village) who had invited me to visit. The headman was asked to create a development society that covered the entire region so that these benefits went beyond Longdipabram village to cover the whole district. The requirement was that development should transcend traditional tribal divides and that everyone should have a stake in it.