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The Truth About the Kargil War Is Bitter But it Must Be Told

security
Institutional failures, if left uninvestigated and uncorrected, inevitably come back to haunt the army and the nation.
Indian soldiers in Batalik during the Kargil War. Photo: PMO

On Vijay Diwas, which is observed on July 26 every year, glowing tributes are rightly paid to the soldiers who laid down their lives to ensure India’s victory in the historic Kargil War. But the nation also witnesses another drama of a different kind.

A lot of old Army generals, who never saw an artillery shell fall closer than two km, that too during demonstrations in firing ranges, as well as the likes of those who have seen snow only in Bollywood classics like Kashmir ki Kali and Aarzoo, emerge as great experts on TV channels. Some can even be heard yelling their lungs out. They heap praise upon themselves for ensuring India’s victory in Kargil and indulge in a lot of chest thumping from the safe confines of television studios. But the truth behind the fiasco that resulted in the loss of more than 500 Indian soldiers, and another 1,500 wounded during the war gets suppressed in the cacophony.

So, even as I salute those young men without whose bravery and sacrifice India could have never won the Kargil War, there is a dark underbelly to Kargil which must be spoken about.

The events which led to the Kargil fiasco, which I will go on to narrate in some detail in this story, are not classified. They are available as court records, information procured through RTI queries and from books published by those involved in the war, including General V.P. Malik, Major General Verma, Captain Amarinder Singh and a few others. In fact, all relied upon action reports supplied to them by General Malik, as also briefings provided at Army headquarters, in order to put together their books.

A reading of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) report lays bare the details of how military decisions were taken at the highest levels vis-à-vis the intelligence inputs that were at hand. But the KRC report fell far short of providing the full picture.

The genesis of the Kargil War can be traced back to 1984, when India took control of what is known as the highest battlefield in the world: the Siachen Glacier. We preempted Pakistan and occupied the glacier on April 13, 1984, following Operation Meghdoot. Apart from India, Siachen is strategically important for Pakistan as well as China. Thereafter, to prevent the Pakistanis from doing the same to us in the thinly held area of Kargil, a division was specially raised by the Indian Army and deployed to plug the gaps.

The Pakistani strategy, therefore, was to again create gaps in Kargil, and to raise and train enough forces from locals from their side of Kargil and the Northern Areas. Their strategy was also to replace regular troops from ground-holding roles and use the regulars for capture of areas not held by India in Kargil. For Pakistan, a total secrecy in the military build-up was to be maintained over the years.

A memorial for soldiers who lost their lives during the Kargil War. Photo: PTI

In the early 1990s, Indian intelligence agencies detected that Pakistan had raised 10 Northern Light Infantry (NLI) battalions. The issue was discussed in detail between Military Intelligence (Military Intelligence Directorate) and Military Operations (Military Operations Directorate). During these discussions, it was agreed that these new raisings were intended to relieve regular troops from ground holding roles but how the relieved regular troops would be used was not vigorously discussed and left at that due to the bizarre logic that we did not have enough troops to counter that.

Pakistan resorted to two steps to create gaps in Kargil again. First, they kept the Kargil Sector absolutely quiet for years. Second, they inducted terrorists into the Kashmir Valley in large numbers. As anticipated by them, our generals reacted to the infiltration by moving the division specially meant for Kargil to the Valley. Kargil was left to the Kargil Brigade, with very large gaps.

Also read: I Witnessed the Kargil War. That’s Why I Won’t Celebrate It.

At this point, it would be pertinent to mention that in 1980, when I was company commander of the Kaksar Company in Kargil, Pakistan had intruded onto a height named Point 5108. I was tasked to capture that point, and was successful. The Pakistanis were evicted from Point 5108. However, in later years, India allowed this strategically important height to be occupied by Pakistan. There is no record of any inquiry about it even later. Pakistan also captured other features in the Kargil sector like the Dalunang Bunker Ridge and Sangruti, besides moving a long-range air defence gun to Point 5108 in a direct firing role. This gun hit our vehicle convoys on a stretch of about 14 km and made troop movement very risky and slow. We suffered many casualties there.

After taking over as Chief of Army Staff in October 1997, General Malik took certain decisions which belied military strategy and logic. These actions are all on record. He inter-changed the northern and southern army commanders, as a result of which both officers were new to their jobs. It takes about a year for an army commander to comprehensively study and assimilate all details of the area under his vast command, to understand the working style of his junior commanders, to explain his concept of operations and to project his military personality upon the command. These changes caused the greatest damage prior to the war. The northern army commander, who was transferred out, was thorough in his knowledge of the ground since he was, prior to this assignment, the corps commander at Srinagar and later the army commander. He had, in fact, ordered a standing regular army patrol to be deployed in the Batalik sector, which had the largest gap in the eastern part of Kargil. This patrol was, however, removed by the General-Officer-Commanding of Kargil Division, Major General V.S. Budhwar. When I took over the command of the brigade, known popularly otherwise as the Kargil Brigade, in June 1998, I was not even informed about this.

Further, the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) was changed. General Verma, the DGMO, was made the military secretary and General Vij was brought in as DGMO. Battalions and battalion commanders were changed. Brigade commanders were changed. The deputy GOC was posted out and the new incumbent was sent on premature retirement during the war while a third one was brought in. Frontline company commanders were also posted out during the war.

The most important appointments – that of the brigade major and GSO-3, my principal operations staff officers – were posted out during the war. This resulted in the fact that every single important appointment – from army commander down to company commanders, and from DGMO down to brigade major and the GSO-3 – were new to their jobs during the crucial period of the Kargil War.

Furthermore, battalions that had been holding the gaps against Pakistan were removed thereby giving the enemy a clear and unopposed run. General Malik himself left for Poland when the war had already begun and the Kargil ammunition dump had been blown off. He did not return to the country until May 20.

Earlier, the corps commander had brought in a brigade to thwart enemy operations in Dras sector, where high-profile objectives including the Tiger Hill, Tololing, Mashkoh Valley, Point 5140 and Point 5608 are located. However, just before our attack was to be launched and the troops had already started moving, the COAS stopped the operation and ordered the brigade to move out of Kargil sector to the Kashmir valley. This is a fact that is recorded in the Kargil Review Committee report.

On taking over the brigade in June 1998, I conducted an extensive reconnaissance of the LOC and a detailed analysis of our own defences, enemy deployment, intelligence inputs, and the vulnerability of our own area. This revealed an enemy buildup and an enhanced threat perception which required a relook of defences and a re-prioritisation. Therefore, I briefed the GOC and also the COAS. A detailed report, including on the vulnerability of Tiger Hill and other heights was prepared and discussed with the division commander, Maj Gen Budhwar. He wanted the same to be war gamed, which was done, and he was briefed in detail sometime in September/October 1998. Instead of releasing permanent defence stores, he again directed me to give him a presentation at Leh, which I did. I asked for defences on Tiger Hill, Talab (which is ahead of Tiger Hill), Point 5608 on the LOC (a small southern part of it was the temporary post of Bajrang) and other locations in writing.

Also read: Kargil Vijay Diwas: Has The Army Learnt its Lessons?

A report was sent to the divisional HQ on January 30, 1999. But the division commander refused to release the necessary defence stores and equipment. Nothing was heard till the first week of May 1999, when these were denied in writing by the division HQ. At that time, my brigade and I were already grappling with the enemy.

Though I made written requests for aerial photographs, aerial photo flights and satellite imagery, these were never supplied. Helicopters that were meant to be located in Kargil were shifted to Leh and were not permitted to fly within 10 kilometers of the Line of Control (LoC). Since the helicopters were stationed at Leh, they had to cross Fatula Pass on their way back before 12 noon. As a result, we had just 10 minutes of reconnaissance time on the day they were made available. And they were rarely made available.

Again, no mines could be laid during the war as all mine marking tapes had been taken by the GOC to Leh for the purpose of marking the ground for renovation of the garrison there and for construction of the infamous zoo. Frontline fighting troops and technical support troops were not only ordered to catch animals and birds but also to build and fabricate cages for the zoo. Though there was no bar by higher authorities on firing of artillery, local restrictions had been imposed upon me. I was not permitted to use artillery, whereas Pakistan used its artillery to hammer us at will.

A memorial for soldiers who lost their lives during the Kargil War. Photo: PTI

The Leh Division did not have an Operations Order (Op Order). No one knew exactly what to do when it was required by everyone for executing their roles. There was no clear channel of communication with this division. During the inquiry, all that officers of the division could produce in terms of an Operation Order was a pencil-written draft by some GSO-1 Operations of 1991 vintage.

The Strike Corps were rendered ineffective as tanks had been mothballed (greased) and their crew had been sent to perform infantry and police jobs of road opening in the Kashmir valley. De-mothballing and marrying up of these troops require anywhere between one and two months. The then MGO confided to a journalist that the tank ammunition was down to two days of contact rate fighting.

Our only major communication centre housing the Tropo-Scatter was burnt in an accidental fire just before the war. The inquiry for this crucial loss, as also the inquiry regarding the blowing up of the Kargil ammunition dump, was hushed up as war losses.

The division which was raised for Kargil was temporarily moved out to the Kashmir valley for anti-terrorist duties thereby leaving wide gaps which were temporarily held by transiting battalions. The division was not brought back for its primary task of defending Kargil. Also, General Hukoo’s Division – he had earlier commanded the Kargil Brigade and was well versed with its details – which was a reserve for Kargil was not moved in despite being available. A new division was brought in its place which was not familiar with the area.

A brigade headquarter was moved in without any additional troops in September-October 1998 but not given any operational task for seven to eight months. It, in fact, remained totally idle near Leh till 20 days before the war. And after taking over full charge of Dras and Mashkoh areas, they were shifted out elsewhere, creating severe problems of command and control. This denuded the Dras and Mashkoh areas of any troops and reserves. It was only when the enemy had reached right on the Srinagar-Kargil Road that I, with my brigade major and staff captain, were sent there to stall their onslaught. And we did push them back to recapture important positions and restore unhindered movement on the Srinagar-Kargil Road.

Also read: Celebrating Soldier Deaths Isn’t Remotely Patriotic

The day on which the Kargil operations began, the Army Commander, Lt. General H.M. Khanna, was in Pune attending to his personal affairs. The corps commander, who was also in Pune for his wife’s surgery, returned immediately though. These are not normal events in the working of the army.

Another serious issue that can only be answered by those in charge at the time is why Point 5353, which not only dominates the Zojila-Kargil Road but also the alternative route from Dras to Kargil, was left with the enemy. Also, before I handed over charge, I had captured and established a battalion (minus) behind the enemy on Point 5140. However, this battalion, which was one of the greatest tactical achievements by us, was removed and the enemy allowed to occupy that. This is the topmost point of Tololing.

No general officer was ever held responsible for all these glaring ill-conceived decisions. All of these events, which weakened our effort (to use the mildest words) before and during the war, need serious investigation. The same mindset of brushing things under the carpet is one of the reasons why the Chinese were able to prepare, concentrate and move to Eastern Ladakh last year, occupying territory up to Finger 4 at Pangong Tso.

Though I was removed from service, there was no charge against me either in terms of professionalism, valour or anything concerned with fighting the war. In fact, I was praised in writing in my ACR (compiled after I was removed from the Kargil command). The action against me was only for making photocopies of letters which contained 68 pages written to General VP Malik and getting them delivered to my residence (my Ops. Room bunker). And, that I had got these photocopies delivered through a messenger instead of an officer. I am told that others also removed documents from the Directorate of Military Operations to make photocopies for their personal use in books, etc. For example, the Hindustan Times reported in 2012, ‘RTI reply hints at unauthorised use of confidential documents’. However, action was never initiated against anyone.

The Kargil War is now more than 22 years behind us. The corps commander has since died, while other high-ranking officials, including the army commander and his chief of staff, the DGMOs, the MSs, the DGMI, the divisional commander and other brigade commanders are already very old. A proper inquiry involving some of these old generals and others may reveal several issues. These revelations may have serious implications for the national security of India.

Much has been written about Kargil. But when the above-mentioned facts are considered, many of the claims made in support of how the war was handled fall flat. Along with the soldiers lost and injured, truth has been a casualty in this war.

I do not wish to blame anyone and have submitted all this information in the interest of the nation. Only an independent inquiry can point to the shortcomings of the military in the war. The criminal justice system of India is one of the most unjust. My case, in which I have challenged the treatment meted out to me by the Army, has been hanging fire for the past 20 years in courts, including for about 12 years in the Armed Forces Tribunal in Chandigarh. Unless the Chief Justice of India takes suo moto cognizance and orders an inquiry under the supervision of the Supreme Court, the truth and vital facts affecting the security of India will remain buried forever.

Surinder Singh was a brigadier in the Indian Army and commanded the Kargil brigade during the 1999 war with Pakistan.

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