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Kargil: India’s first Televised War
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Issue Book Excerpt: Empire\'s First Soldiers | Date : 03 Aug , 2012

‘Their’s not to reason why’

The Kargil conflict, India’s first televised war, more than anything else, reinstated the Indian Army to its rightful status in the public minds of being the finest fighting force in Asia, after the by-then fading images from the bad dream that was Sri Lanka. But that doesn’t mean that whatever happened that made this war necessary was an inspiring commentary on the way the security of the country’s borders was being handled. It was very definitely an instance of our entire intelligence gathering mechanism, civilian as well as military, miserably failing to do their job. No wonder the Pakistanis managed to have a few thousand of their soldiers, masqueraded as ‘jihadi’ militants, intrude into our territory right under our army’s nose.

The northern segment of the 740 kilometre-long LoC, where Kargil falls, runs along the mountain ridges and peaks of the Ladakh Range as high as 16,000 to 20,000 feet. Traditionally, a mountainous border is defended by an army by holding the dominating heights, with the gaps in between thinly held or patrolled regularly. While that generally had been the pattern followed by the Indian Army in Kargil, there had always been the tendency to lower the guard during the winter months, under the assumption that the enemy was not likely to try anything with the passes blocked by snowfall. Benefitting from this assumption and braving the heavy odds of operating in inclement weather, the Pakistanis delivered a master stroke when they occupied the strategic skyline of Kargil during the months that preceded the summer of 1999. They could, from their positions, effectively disrupt the traffic on the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh Highway, the Indian Army’s vital link for logistics support of its troops at Siachen. The once-shelved Pakistani plan of an offensive in Kargil – that could shake off the Indian hold on Siachen – was on to a splendid start. The Indian intelligence agencies, having failed to detect the massive build up and infiltration, had been caught napping.

121 Independent Infantry Brigade of the Indian Army, deployed in the area, failed to keep up regular and vigorous patrolling of the gaps, which could have prevented the intrusions. Neither did the next higher formation, 3 Infantry Division, prove any more vigilant in the matter. As it happened, even after the intrusions were detected by mid May, the brigade headquarters either dismissed them as insignificant militant movements, or was too busy passing the buck. And inconceivable as it might sound, the brigadier concerned, with some three thousand men under his command, assigned to guard the border, would later complain of absence of orders from top, to shoot down a few miscreants trying to intrude. Worse, his indecorous ‘revelations’ to the media of having been corresponding directly with the Army Chief – as if no formation commanders existed in between – marred the reputation of the entire service; not surprisingly, resulting in his ignominious exit.  The net consequence of whatever failure was that, once again the nation was left to depend solely on the grit and courage of her young officers and men to fend off a disaster; which they did, as always in the past, gloriously well. More than 400 of them paid the price with their lives.

the brigadier concerned, with some three thousand men under his command, assigned to guard the border, would later complain of absence of orders from top, to shoot down a few miscreants trying to intrude.

In responding to the aggression at the strategic level, the Army Headquarters, unlike in 1965 and 1971, did not have the luxury of opening alternate fronts, or even that of crossing the LoC. The government policy in dealing with the situation – which pinned a lot of hope on a diplomatic resolution of the crisis – was one of no escalation at any cost, which put a severe restraint on the army to keep the fight localized; in other words to go for it hammer and tongs. What followed – Operation Vijay – was a magnificent feat of arms unparalleled in the history of warfare. The Indian infantrymen, in a breathtaking display of guts and glory, scaled the murderous heights and virtually plucked a stunned enemy out of their formidable vantage points in a series of do-or-die operations. On 17 June, about a month after the infiltrations were noticed, the Indian troops snatched its first victory when they took Tololing. Pak reverses followed one after the other. Point 5140 (Dras) fell on 20 June, Point 5203 (Batalik) the following day, on 29 June Three Pimples (Dras) fell, followed by Jubar Complex (Batalik) on 2 July, Tiger Hill (Dras) fell on 4 July, and Point 4875 (Mashkoh) on 7 July.

Pakistan had by now been reduced to the pitiful state of the quintessential school bully who picks up a fight with someone, only to get himself hammered silly and then glances all round pleading for someone to step in and save his skin. In the event, it was President Bill Clinton of the United States who came to the rescue, with a beleaguered Premier of Pakistan knocking at his door. Consequently, a ceasefire brokered by the United States came into force by the middle of July, and the battered remnants of the Pakistani army was permitted to withdraw to their side of the LoC. The operations formally ended on 26 July.

The Kargil Operations, in many ways, brought out all that is best about the Indian armed forces. The army was eminently supported in its ground manoeuvres by the air force. Notwithstanding the loss of some aircraft in the beginning – and an officer being taken prisoner and loss of another – they maintained consistent close-support air strikes. In a remarkable show of their flying skills, the pilots were able to effectively engage targets right close to the LoC while under the severe restriction not to cross it. The navy too, with its aggressive posture in the Arabian Sea, kept the enemy on tenterhooks. Within the army itself, it turned out to be as much glorious a feat by every one of the arms and services, as it was by the infantry. The artillery, like at Siachen, took on an offensive role, bringing down its massive firepower. Nothing demoralized enemy as did the havoc the guns caused on their positions. And there were the forward observation officers leading an assault on occasions when a company commander fell.

Being a localized engagement involving only one formation (15 Corps under the Northern Command), there were no South Indian infantry units available or engaged in the Kargil War. Interestingly, 16 Cavalry chipped in on a dismounted role, two squadrons providing firm base for attacks on Tololing and Tiger Hill while one squadron held the Zojila Pass; the farthest an armoured regiment was employed in the sector. There were of course the Madras Engineers, who lived up to their reputation, and the scores of South Indians in the ranks of the artillery and signal units, besides many from the various services, who all did their bit splendidly.

2 Engineer Regiment of the MEG, commanded by Colonel Krishnaswamy, was the only Sapper unit covering the entire sector, which extended to a frontage of almost 250 kilometres from Mashkoh in the west to Batalik in the east. The enemy having had heavily mined the approaches to their hilltop positions, the sappers had the extremely risky job of clearing them before the infantry could advance, besides an array of challenging tasks like laying of tracks and helipads, all of which had to be carried out fast paced. And often the Sappers had to move at the head of the assaulting infantry to do the bunker-blasting, the highly hazardous task of blowing up the enemy bunkers by placing shaped charges against them.

For the Madras Sappers, it was once again professionalism and courage all the way. Captain Rupesh Pradhan1, who was severely wounded in one of the mine clearing missions, was awarded the Vir Chakra. Another young officer, Lieutenant Amit Kaul, fell to enemy fire while engaged in track building. One of the NCOs, Lance Naik Jayavelu, was killed in action while bunker-blasting during an assault by 4 Jat at Kaksor. He was posthumously decorated with the Sena Medal. The Regiment was decorated with two more Sena Medals, 5 COAS Commendation Cards, and the GOC-in-C Northern Command Unit Citation for ‘Kargil’, for its participation in Operation Vijay. The MEG was awarded the Battle Honour, KARGIL.

The Kargil War will go down in history as a sterling testimony to the Indian Soldier’s raw courage.

The Kargil War will go down in history as a sterling testimony to the Indian Soldier’s raw courage. It will also be remembered as a paradigm of treachery by one neighbouring nation towards another anywhere in the world. Two pieces of intercepted tele-conversation just prior to the war, between Lieutenant General Mohammad Aziz Khan, the then Chief of General Staff of the Pakistan Army, and his Chief, General Pervez Musharraf who was visiting China, unambiguously exposed their bogus claim that the intruders were ‘jihadi’ militants and not Pakistani soldiers. The infamous controversy whether their Prime Minister was aware of it or not is of little relevance to India.  That the Pakistan military was contriving this diabolic subterfuge, even as the Prime Ministers of the two countries were engaged in peace efforts that produced the Lahore Declaration, is one ugly fact which Pakistan has no way of talking its way out of.

The double-dealing by the Pakistani military brass in the affair didn’t end with deceiving India, a neighbour whose destruction they are sworn to anyway. They put one over on their own people as well. Initially they pretended that it was all ‘jihadi’ stuff, going to the extent of not even accepting the dead bodies of their soldiers. But when finally the game was up, with the mounting evidence of Pakistani soldiers killed – nearly 300 of their dead bodies were identified by the end of the operations – or captured by the Indian Army, they changed tack, falling back on their favourite charade of painting a glorious ‘victory’, as they always did after so many defeats in the past. As it turned out, there weren’t many takers for it even in Pakistan – the people of that country had too long been taken for a ride by their generals.

Elements of the Pakistan Army proved themselves rather the unworthy descendants of the proud force that was the pre-independence Indian Army, when they indulged in barbarism of a kind unheard of in the civilized world while dealing with Indian Prisoners of War during the Kargil Operations.

The best of armies may lose battles or even a war for a variety of reasons. But no army worth its salt should have its soldiers found wanting in chivalry and sense of honour, whatever the circumstances. Elements of the Pakistan Army proved themselves rather the unworthy descendants of the proud force that was the pre-independence Indian Army, when they indulged in barbarism of a kind unheard of in the civilized world while dealing with Indian Prisoners of War during the Kargil Operations. The mutilated dead bodies of Lieutenant Saurabh Kalia and five jawans of an Indian patrol, handed over a month after their capture by the Pakistani troops during the build-up to the operations, bore telltale signs of the soldiers having been tortured to death in captivity, an atrocity which shocked the nation. (And the fact that those valiant six didn’t break despite being subjected to the worst kind of atrocities – bones broken, eyes gorged out and even limbs chopped off – spoke volumes on the courage and dedication of the ordinary Indian soldier.) Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja of the Indian Air Force, who was taken prisoner on 24 May when his MiG-21 was shot down, was murdered in cold blood. Such rank depravity may very well be the beginning of the end – the disintegration of a once professional army injected by the venom of religious intolerance and fanaticism.

In stark contrast was the conduct of the Indian Army which endeared itself to the entire nation, not only by its valour, but by upholding the human values in the finest of military traditions. The televised images of the Pakistani dead being buried with due respect by the Indian soldiers brought home the human face of the Indian Army to millions of its countrymen. Nothing exemplifies what moulds the attitudes and outlook of the soldiers of the two armies, as do two books which have since been published on Kargil, one each by the rival chiefs who held the posts during the war.  Kargil, From Surprise to Victory, by General VP Malik, gives us an honest, down-to-mother-earth account with barely a word of self praise, which no one could have complained of had he indulged in, given the magnificent show the army he commanded put up. Then comes the much hyped account by the army chief turned President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, In the Line of Fire, a pack of lies his own countrymen has come to scoff at. That just about sums it up – it is not that an ordinary Pakistani soldier is any less in his professional traits than his Indian counterpart; it’s just that Indian generals think like soldiers, while the Pakistani ones think like politicians.

Thanks to the media, with the Kargil War, the selfless dedication of the Indian soldier has come to be imprinted on the public minds as never before. On 8 July 1999, when the victorious soldiers of 18 Grenadiers hoisted the National Flag on Tiger Hill, the highest feature and the most formidable objective of the war, the entire nation proudly rejoiced with them. The Indian soldier had announced his invincibility loud and clear. Pakistan got the message; so did the rest of the world; but the political leadership of India remains stone deaf. Within the year of Kargil victory, we had the disgraceful spectacle of the country’s External Affairs Minister escorting a bunch of under-trial terrorists to be handed over to the hijackers of an Indian Airlines aircraft, who were holding 167 passengers and crew hostage. Another two years thence the Indian Parliament itself was attacked. The terrorist scourge continues; be it at the streets of Srinagar, the markets of New Delhi, the trains of Mumbai, or down south at Bangalore at an institute of education. And one impotent government after another keeps outdoing its predecessor in the shrillness of its lame rhetoric, that the nation’s security will not be compromised. It’s already compromised, and no fat chance that things will change as long as we remain sitting ducks. We can talk till the cows come home, or take the fight to the enemy now, and win this war.

At Point 5140, Captain Vikram Batra, a young officer who was to make the supreme sacrifice in a subsequent action, had proverbially radioed ‘Yeh dil maange more’ (the heart wants more).  The brave hearts of his likes would always want more; but would the noxious hearts of our politicians want anything at all beyond the winning of next election!

Note

1. Rupesh Pradhan, who lost the use of both his hands, was later to demonstrate the never-say-die spirit characteristic of a soldier, with his resilience. After spending two years in the hospital, and having recovered only partial use of the hands, he continues to serve in the army, and as a major, now commands a company. Refusing to play the role of the victim in need of sympathy, he gets on with his life as normal as the other man could. He drives, uses a key board and does almost everything else. And if that isn’t enough, he has already cleared his B.Tech and is preparing for the M.Tech exam. He aspires to join the IIT.

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About the Author

DP Ramachandran

D P Ramachandran is a former cavalry officer of the Indian Army and a veteran of the 1971 Bangladesh War and author of the book Empire's First Soldiers.

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