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Colonel Nizam Dane: An officer who loved peace but was pushed towards war and died with his boots on
I am posting an appreciation I wrote for The Sunday Times 27 June 2010, since I still am not sure what and what not to say about this serious, hilarious, jovial etc person that I knew so well within a short period. We miss him more today that when he bid adieu to life the way he wished for. May the Almighty grant him a place in Paradise.
The whereabouts of Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Nizam Dane of the 10th Battalion of the Vijayaba Infantry Regiment, was not known for hours after fighting broke out. It turned out he had been hit by guerrilla fire. A weekend newspaper described him as the senior-most officer to die in the ongoing operation.
That was back in 1997, at the height of Operation Jayasukurui, conducted by the military to wrest control of the Vanni from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Lt. Colonel (posthumously promoted Colonel) Nizam Dane, affectionately known as Raja Dane, and his men from the 10th Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) were holding ground at the forward defence lines (FDLs) at Periyamadu, off Omanthai. In the darkness of night, wave after wave of LTTE cadres mounted a fierce attack on the artillery positions. The soldiers fought back, but realised the opposition was too formidable. When they received orders to retreat, after the FDLs were overrun at several points, they managed to remove the artillery batteries, but with great loss of life.
Raja Dane did not make it back alive. When the Army mounted a counter-attack and forced the Tigers back, they found the 10th VIR Commanding Officer propped up against a tree trunk, one hand holding his beret to his chest – his boots still on.
“With boots still on” were favourite words with Colonel Dane. He would say, “My only wish is to die with my boots on.” The Almighty granted him his wish. Nizam Dane died in action on June 24, 1997.It is 13 long years since he left us, and I still struggle to find the right words to describe the man he was.
All I can say is that Raja was a dedicated Army officer, a loving husband (to Eileen), a dedicated father (to his only offspring, Romola), and a doting grandfather, even for a brief period.
In my long association with him, I rarely saw him lose his temper, but he did get angry with me once. It was during a discussion, one of so many, on finding a solution to the ethnic or terrorist conflict. I made the mistake of asking why he, a Malay, was fighting in a conflict between two other races. I vividly remember his response.
“This is our country,” he said, with animation. “Whoever fights, it’s the future generation that will suffer. We must fight, if necessary, for our children’s sake. Mind you, it has to be a political solution at the end. The leadership to fight to a finish also should be political.”
Today, after the brave armed forces have destroyed the LTTE, the question remains: Where do we go from here? Raja Dane touched the lives of the top brass and the ordinary soldier.
“Apey Sir nitharama positive,” his troops would say. That phrase had great significance. In the military, “Apey Sir” carries much weight. It meant that Raja was “one of us” – someone who belonged to the troops. Raja was also loved for his positive take on life.
Time was of the essence for him. “Do it now”, he would insist. True to his Geminian character (not that he believed in astrology), he had many irons in the fire at the same time.
When I talked about astrology, he would dismiss it as bunkum, but he would prod me for more! How else to explain a good soldier who opted to be a voluntary officer without joining the regular force? He wanted to be on the move, he needed space. He gave up a teaching career and a comfortable office life with Mercantile Credit Ltd to be a soldier. He was with the 5th Artillery in Jaffna, Mannar, Gampaha, Colombo and Batticaloa.
For a period, he served as secretary to the North East Governor, General Nalin Seneviratne. Raja was with Military Intelligence before he was seconded to the Vijayabahu Regiment, which he commanded until his death at Periyamadu, in Omanthai, during the Jayasikurui Operation. (And, if I am not mistaken, it was one of the Vijayabahu regiments that recovered the body of the Tiger leader.)
Raja Dane never talked about his military operations. To ask him about any of that was like trying to pluck a feather off a tortoise. But once in a while he would give us that “desperately-need-to-know” tidbit.
A man who loved peace but was pushed towards war – that is as close as I can get to describing Raja Dane. He departed fighting – a fitting end for a true soldier.
He would not have wanted to be assassinated by his foes. That much I know through my experience with my friend, partner, companion and brother-in-law, Colonel Raja Dane.
Now, as we enjoy the peace that has followed the war, it will be even more difficult to forget Colonel Tuan Nizam Raja Dane, and all those like him who paid the supreme sacrifice.
T.B. Singalaxana – The Sunday Times, 27 June 2010.