As India celebrates 20 years of victory in the 1999 Kargil War today, here is an inspiring story about Ashok Nantokar, an ex-serviceman in the Indian Army who later turned into a social reformer, and who fought in the Kargil War.

Nantokar had also fought for the Indian Army’s Operation Blue Star, Operation Pawan.

The 45-year-old ex-soldier, who is an Art of Living instructor, has worked to get 130 toilets built in Dhanora Adivasi village in Amravati, Maharashtra.

From serving at the border to serving the people within

“Once we were posted in Tripura. We had leads and were looking for some terrorists. For our mission, we had to cross a lot of nallas (canals),” says Namdev Atmaram, Honorary Captain and a senior to Ashok Nanotkar.

“Ashok sabse pehle rope bandke jaata tha aur fir 2-3 colleagues ko help karta tha cross karne me'(Ashok would always be the first one to tie the rope and cross, making sure it was safe to cross, before helping others to cross the nalas),” he said.

The most disciplined, loyal, relentless, extremely caring, dedicated to the welfare of his country and unstoppable — the opinions were quite unanimous about what his associates perceived of someone like Ashok Nantokar, an ex-serviceman in the Indian Army turned social reformer, who fought for the Indian Army’s Operation Blue Star — which was fought in June 1984 to clear out Sikh militants from Harmandir Sahib Complex, Operation Pawan — to take control of Jaffna from LTTE in Sri Lanka and Kargil War – an armed conflict between India and Pakistan in 1999.

Here’s Nantokar’s riveting story of moving through terrorist-infested mountains and rivers, serving the nation during three national crises, reviving dead river bodies to bring back water to villages, and empowering India’s rural youth to take up responsibility for social change.

The beginning

Nanotkar today is a volunteer and a teacher with the Art of Living, striving relentlessly to serve rural India through various social service projects related to river rejuvenation, open defecation-free village communities and rural youth empowerment and community leadership projects under the aegis of The Art of Living and Good Year in Amaravati where Ashok led a comfortable childhood.

Back then, his family had 15 acres of land and it was an agricultural household. He remembers his moment of reckoning with the Indian Army. He was going to Nagpur to drop his sister and on the way out from the railway station, he saw Indian Army’s poster. He knew he wanted to join the Army that very moment. “Comfortable living and a good salary seemed like the cherry on the cake, but that was not why I wanted to be in Indian Army,” Nanotkar says.

After passing his high school exams, Ashok tried getting the details of the recruitment drive to be present there for observing the process. He was rejected two times because he was declared unfit.

“I wasn’t tall enough,” Nanotkar says.

An acquaintance with Major Garhwa helped him crack it. “He then taught me a few exercises to help me work on my height.”

Ashok was determined. He slogged hard. He was third-time lucky in moving one step closer to his life’s mission.

Journey in the Army

He recalls the rollercoaster ride that his Army life offered. Right from the highs of winning wars to the lows of losing friends and the pride mixed with stoic sadness, the helplessness of watching the bodies of colleagues being taken away in tricolour-wrapped coffins.

He was a part of Indira Gandhi’s Operation Blue Star. The Maratha Regiment and Punjab Regiment were posted together in Pune. There was anger and resentment. Some of the sepoys deserted their units to join the other side. “Servant of the nation became a terrorist overnight,” he says with sad surprise. We were deployed to trace them in Mumbai and take control. “We shot at night and the next morning our friends were on hospital beds,” says a stoic Nanotkar, who was only 21 back then, trying to gulp down the pain at the moment.

From the age of 21 to 33, his service in the Army took him through Arunachal Pradesh where the locals threatened to cut them into pieces or threw stones at them, to Andamans where they interacted with the Jarawas; life offered him all kinds of experiences.

While there is tremendous pride associated with working in the Army, there is a problem unique to the Armymen that Nanotkar was not spared either. Nanotkar got married at 33, after some trials.

“In Vidarbha, no one wants to marry their girl to an Army man. Life of an Army wife isn’t easy and I had to wait a while to find my wife.”

As if life imitated the art of films, three days after the wedding, Ashok got ‘an emergency call’ from the force asking him to head to Kargil where the situation was intense. He bursts into a laugh and says, “Their worst fears came true. I still remember 60-70 of my wife’s relatives came to see me off at the station.” In the 11 years that he served the nation post his marriage, the husband and wife stayed together only for three-and-a-half months. Their meetings were limited to his holidays.

His posting in Siachen played an instrumental role in making the who he is today. He says quite normally, a ‘normal’ that only his group knows, “There was no time to even shave. The beard grew. We had food at odd times.” Did he starve? “Two-three days was no big deal. That was manageable. We could always fry leaves of trees and have with salt.” According to Nanotkar, the only way to survive in an environment like that was to bring in humour and accept the situation as it was. “Many years later, I found out, The Art of Living’s Happiness program reiterates this and teaches people to live like this – happy under all circumstances. Hence I could relate to the organization in my first program I attended with them.”

Kargil War was an emotionally numbing experience. “No one can imagine the gnawing feeling of having to wrap 26 dead bodies in tricolour and having to load them to be taken to Chandigarh,” he says tearing up. These were people he loved and interacted with on a day to day basis. Post Kargil war, his family urged him to quit. He took voluntary retirement.

But clearly, the instinct and passion to serve the nation are still dominant. He emailed to his unit post-Pulwama attacks, enquiring if the Army needs him back.

“Ashok Nanotkar was a grace to our Army troop,” says an emotionally moved Namdev Atmaram, Honorary Captain and Nantokar’s senior, as if he had wanted someone to ask him about Nantokar’s story. “You give him any work, he will finish it completely and then only go to rest. Even when we used to have 20-22 hour routine, I never found him wanting to rest. He would be ready for his duty even when he was running on zero sleep”.

“The most precious thing about his personality was ‘wo kabhi khud kia ni sochta tha, dusro ka sabse jyaada khyal rakhta tha (he would never think about himself. He would always first worry about the team). When we used to do map readings, he used to serve food to all the class and eat at last,” Atmaram shares.

Nanotkar’s tryst with The Art of Living

Post retirement, Ashok felt that he was at a loss. The nagging feeling of wanting to serve people and his country made him restless. That’s when he was urged by his family to do the Art of Living’s Happiness Program. “I was sceptical at first,” he chuckles, but life had other plans. The Happiness course spoke to him in ways like nothing else did. He had used similar strategies to manage his mind while being posted in adverse conditions. He went on to take up other courses and through the Art of Living, he found another path to serve people.

“It was an ambition and passion to begin with. After I met Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, I realized that I have taken a Sankalp (intention) for life and this is my purpose. This is my calling.”

The Art of Living has worked in many tribal areas in Maharashtra, making them completely open defecation-free (ODF) and now has started working on watershed in these villages, with many of these projects being led by Nanotkar.

When the work started initially, The Art of Living volunteers led by Nantokar would visit each house early morning, visit Panchayat offices, conduct Art of Living programs and used to create awareness among the villagers, empower them to take the responsibility for the development of their own village and turn it into a model for others to emulate.

“Ek din Ashok ji se baat karte hue pata chala ki un dino unka sugar bohot low hai par wo fir bhi muskurate rehte the, apni yoga aur kriya karte aur kaam karte rehte aur fir in village se 25 km travel karke apne ghar jaate, (One day, while speaking to him, we realized, his blood sugar had dipped quite low those days. But he was smiling through it, doing his yoga and Sudarshan Kriya (a deep breathing practice), taking awareness sessions, doing seva (service) and then travelling 25 km back to his home, in that condition,” says Manoj Shende, a beneficiary working with Morshi Police Department in Amravati.

“Ashokji jo Art of Living ke teacher hai, humare liye bhagwan hai (Ashokji who is an Art of Living teacher is god for us,” says Shende. “We have water crisis in these villages and these projects will solve the issues in the tribal areas. We believe in him.”

Nanotkar is serving the nation, but this time without guns. He has worked to get 130 toilets built in Dhanora Adivasi village along with 70 toilets built in Udar, Ekalveer, Taroda and Bhevkunid villages, all of which are open defecation-free today.

“Gaon ke road achche hai aur bade bade lights- in villages ki kaya palat ho gayi (Now these villages have broad roads and are well lit),” Nantokar says. “There is so much work to be done. The Art of Living Foundation is doing a brilliant job of getting like-minded individuals together on a spiritual journey.”

Ashok has built a team of enthusiastic and responsible volunteers in most of these villages.

He quickly goes back to his life mission, “Mann se awaaz aati hai…auron ke liye karna hai..auro ke liye jeena hai. (I want to work for them, live for them).”