The Sino-Indian war of 1962 can never be erased from the country’s collective consciousness, though it is extremely doubtful whether successive political dispensations have learnt any lessons at all, except for occasional acts of bravado as a sop to public sentiments. The wounds and the abiding sense of betrayal had not yet entirely healed, when Kargil, 37 years later, rudely jolted the country out of its sense of complacency and amnesia. Sitting on jagged mountain tops, the masked enemy, who never played by the rules, maimed and killed Indian soldiers with impunity, harrying them by rolling boulders down steep slopes or targeting them with machine gun fire and deadly sniper fire.
…the faujis fought under chaotic conditions in sub-zero temperatures, overcoming insuperable odds and accomplishing their objectives beyond the call of duty, amid a chilling replay of the factors that characterized the Sino-Indian hostilities.
The diabolical dimensions of these challenges, probably never before recorded in military history, tested the mettle of Indian soldiers to the extreme. Even then, these extraordinary men, hit hard by the absence of credible intelligence, a treacherous terrain and lack of cover, unpredictable weather, operating without backup and relying on their own willpower and frugal resources (as the Infantry always ends up doing) , scripted one of the most rousing chapters in human resilience. Fighting ferociously with a fierce determination that disdained death, they vanquished the duplicitous enemy or had him on the run, preventing Kargil from going the 1962 way.
The selfless sacrifices of young iconic officers and soldiers like martyred Lt Manoj Pandey and Capt Vikram Batra, Grenadier (now Subedar Major) Yogendra Yadav and Rifleman (now Subedar Major) Sanjay Kumar, all Param Veer Chakra recipients and many others, snatched victory from the very jaws of defeat.
On the other hand, the government of peaceniks, ostrich-like, buried its head in the sand, posturing as if matters were still under control, but privately rattled by the presence of hundreds of heavily armed intruders, poised for a long-drawn campaign. The half paralysed dispensation virtually took ages to respond to the acts of extreme hostility. Later, it compounded its error by being downright dismissive about emerging accounts of the demoralisation that had set in among the rank and file, based on the testimonies of men engaged in operations. Nevertheless, the faujis fought under chaotic conditions in sub-zero temperatures, overcoming insuperable odds and accomplishing their objectives beyond the call of duty, amid a chilling replay of the factors that characterized the Sino-Indian hostilities.
What is more, in a calculated snub to the then government, the United States turned down its request to share the locations of the intruders, available to them through GPS imagery, resulting in the sheer waste of so many more Indian lives. It fell to the lot of a dedicated band of young officers and men to salvage the nation’s pride and honour, through death defying efforts, feats of exemplary courage and unparalleled sacrifices, preventing a repeat of 1962.
The half paralysed dispensation virtually took ages to respond to the acts of extreme hostility.
Surprisingly, the horrific mutilation of Capt Saurabh Kalia and his men, who had been sent on a patrol to detect these incursions, shocked the subcontinent but left the government virtually unmoved. Driven by vote bank politics, it even went out of its way to woo Pervez Musharraf and invite him for talks later, conferring the rogue dictator with legitimacy and a lifeline he did not deserve. This is how the dispensation rewarded the architect of Kargil for an act of treachery against India, even alerting him about a possible bid on his life, earlier.
It can be said that other armies from the United States and Europe might have been better trained, armed and equipped, even more technically savvy than their Indian counterparts, with devastating firepower, air support and all the resources at their beck and call. But when it boils down to sheer performance and acts of valour on the battlefield, the frugally oriented Indian soldiery is in a class of its own. Their DNA is beyond comparison. The much vaunted SEALs, Green Berets, SAS or specialized battle groups like the Rangers and Marines, whose prowess has been overhyped and exaggerated by Hollywood and given a larger than life image, could have probably met their Waterloo in Kargil, where every crevice and deformity acted as a death trap.
The K Subhramanyam Committee, which went into factors behind the Kargil fiasco, submitted a scathing report: “The Pakistani armed intrusion in the Kargil sector came as a complete and total surprise to the Indian government, army and intelligence agencies . . . . The Committee did not come across any agency or individual who was able clearly to access . . . the possibility of a large-scale Pakistani military intrusion.” The panel also pointed out that national security remained fossilized within the ‘defence framework,’ outlined by Gen Hastings Ismay and endorsed by Mountbatten in 1947. Successive regimes did nothing to adapt the framework to the more challenging scenarios, which left gaping holes in the security set-up. Consequently, in the 52 years following 1947, the northern and western neighbours, taking advantage of these structural flaws, attacked India repeatedly, in 1962, 1965, 1971 and 1999 (Kargil) and launched scores of terror attacks on its soil.
Kargil morphed into a living nightmare for soldiers. It exposed the bumbling incompetence of intelligence agencies in detecting large-scale intrusions, spurring a bitter blame game.
Kargil morphed into a living nightmare for soldiers. It exposed the bumbling incompetence of intelligence agencies in detecting large-scale intrusions, spurring a bitter blame game. Behind the colossal failure lay the short sightedness and the folly of the political leadership, which always took strategic matters for granted, since independence. The then poetically inclined prime minister swore from public platforms about taking back every inch of territory held by the enemy. But then, in an abrupt about turn, he strictly forbade the Army and Air Force from pursuing or bombing the infiltrators even an inch across the Line of Control! Such were the supreme ironies of Kargil war. Paradoxically, the Intelligence Bureau let the Indian Army down for the second time after 1962. The Bureau, steeped in outdated British era police procedures, failed to fathom the inscrutable Chinese then or the treachery of Pakistanis later. RAW and Military Intelligence too, fared no better.
On the ground, extremely chaotic conditions prevailed as the Army mobilized the numbers to evict the intruders, after their detection on May 5. The Ministry of Defence, sitting in a far away Delhi, downplayed the threat as a localized event. The enemy, dismissed as a handful of “Paki rats,” relentlessly shelled and bombed the jumble of military convoys, either clogging the high altitude road or progressing at a snail’s pace, in a scenario straight out of hell. Things went so horribly bad that a colonel had to halt an entire convoy to issue a dire warning to the commanding officer in its lead jeep. “Don’t go ahead,” he shrieked, amid the din of a dozen earth shaking detonations. “You will all be butchered. They are dominating the road,” recalls author-columnist Harinder Baweja, who happened to be in that convoy.
The High Command hurriedly extracted 1 Naga from counter insurgency operations and despatched it post haste to Drass, along with other units from the Sikh, Grenadiers and JKLI regiments. The grossly under-strength Naga battalion (half the men were on leave), had neither the time to acclimatize nor equipped for high altitude warfare. These random orders were not the outcome of a planned strategy, but emanated from an unprepared military brass fumbling to make sense of the unfolding events, engineered by an enemy bent on dismembering India. It is reminiscent of the sins of omission and commission committed by the triad of Nehru- Menon-Kaul during the Sino-Indian war, resulting in the ignominious defeat of the Army, which took a fairly long time to recover from the trauma.
In November 2011, Admiral Kumar, addressing a seminar on “Limited wars in South Asia-against a nuclear background,” dubbed Operation Parakram as “the most punishing mistake for the Indian Armed Forces.”
Baweja, in her book A Soldier’s Diary, described as “the most accurate account” of Kargil engagement, based on the Army’s After Action Reports, conveys graphic images of 1 Naga, which went into action virtually blindfolded, just like other units. She writes: “They (the Nagas) had no snowshoes, no special clothing required for heights above 12,000 feet. Nor did they have local guides. . . . Even the maps they were given were photocopies. There is more to this tragic tale of confusion and neglect. They did not have a single medium machine gun and were issued INSAS rifles, a weapon they were totally unfamiliar with. For counter-insurgency operations, they used AK-47s. The officers and men of 1 Naga had never trained with these rifles. They didn’t even know its range. . . . In the eventual afterglow of victory, those responsible for such crass negligence will not be touched. Instead they will probably be promoted.”
Similarly, Operation Parakram, ordered in the wake of the terror attack on Parliament in December 2001, led to ‘massive dislocation of armed forces’ and colossal wastage of resources, entailing a loss of 800 men, according to Admiral Sushil Kumar in his ‘A Prime Minister to Remember.’ The operation never got off the ground as the then PM fumbled. Earlier, in November 2011, Admiral Kumar, addressing a seminar on “Limited wars in South Asia-against a nuclear background,” dubbed Operation Parakram as “the most punishing mistake for the Indian Armed Forces.”.One only need recall how late Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri acted decisively and ordered the Indian Army to respond to unprovoked attacks by the Pakistanis in 1965.