Revisiting Kargil

14 minute read

The chilly winds at Drass, Kargil, do their best to keep the Tricolour fluttering at the Drass War Memorial to pay respect to the five hundred and twenty-seven martyrs, and the many that lived. Memories of war are such that they sear themselves upon the minds of those who have lived through the ordeal. Nineteen years ago, India and Pakistan, both nations recently elevated to nuclear status, fought a war on the cold and desolate heights of Kargil which drew the attention of the entire world.

The Fog of War

The war in Kargil was the result of a planned operation by the Pakistan Army, under General Pervez Musharraf. Code-named ‘Operation Badr’, it was treated with utmost secrecy, so much so that only a handful of senior Pakistan Army officers were aware of it, and even the Pakistan Navy and Air Force were kept out of the loop. The entire operation was to be conducted under the direct operational command of Major-General Javed Hassan, Force Commander Northern Areas (FCNA). Even Nawaz Sharif, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, alleged that he was unaware. The point of concern lies in the fact that the planning of this very operation began as early as 1998, and that the plan was still being worked upon during the iconic Lahore Declaration, that was signed by Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif, on 20-21 February 1999. In a nutshell, the Declaration’s aim was centred around both nations respecting each other’s territorial integrity, while taking into consideration the prevention of use of each nation’s land for actions against the other. The irony of Pakistan’s actions despite its resolves made a strong appearance when Pakistani troops infiltrated into Indian territory, under the guise of jehadi militants, and occupied several Indian ‘Winter vacated’ posts in Mashkoh, Drass, Kargil, Batalik, and Kaksar. The Pakistani troops took control of posts that overlooked the important Srinagar-Kargil-Leh Highway (NH-1D), in the Kargil area, and targeted Indian Army convoys and vehicles carrying supplies to Kargil and the entire region of Ladakh in general, with mortar and artillery shelling; raising red flags in New Delhi. This particular highway at that time was the main surface communication link between Ladakh and the Kashmir Valley, thereby giving Pakistan a strategic edge over India (Kargil: From Surprise to Victory, General VP Malik).

The Causes, and the Delayed Reactions

India was taken by surprise regarding the Pakistani infiltration. A major failure in intelligence gathering, and sharing among the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the three services (Army, Navy & Air Force) is labeled as one of the greater reasons for India’s late response to the situation in Kargil. The Lahore Declaration of February 1999 also became the cause for a heightened sense of complacency in the government. A good amount of covering up, and repeated denial, by the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and the people at R&AW and IB, worsened the situation, and delayed any kind of action. A persistent rhetoric that resounded in the halls and corridors of the MoD was that these were regular incursions carried out by jehadi militants, and that the Pakistan Army was not involved. But Military Intelligence, later on, had an altogether different story to tell.

Initially, local reconnaissance (recce) carried out by 121 (Independent) Infantry Brigade, under 3 Infantry Division, came out with no inputs on any anomalous activity in the Kargil region, and the Formation Commander of 121 (I) Infantry Brigade kept issuing ‘No Intrusion Certificates’ to HQ 3 Infantry Division till April 1999, despite the clear intrusion into Indian territory. Apart from this, there were long gaps between the posts in Kargil given the tough and inhospitable terrain of the region. An Indian Army patrol comprising an officer, Captain Saurabh Kalia, and five men of 4 Jat, was sent up for a routine patrol around the Bajrang Post in the Kaksar sector. This patrol came in contact with Pakistan Army troops and militants. In the ensuing firefight, all six men were captured and subjected to inhumane acts and torture. Their mutilated bodies were recovered after almost a month. The capture of this patrol led to a great amount of tension in New Delhi, and it was soon clear that there were major intrusions in the Kargil region. It must be noted that holding ground is not part of jehadi tactics, and the Army was now certain that the Pakistan Army had a strong connection to the intrusions. The Army recovered from its own failure in intelligence, and formed a picture of the entire scenario,1 and Prime Minister Vajpayee, was briefed on this by the then Chief of the Army Staff, General VP Malik.

The Indian Army had assessed the unusual movement of troops and equipment (including artillery) into the Northern Areas in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), and the same intelligence had been sent up the chain of command. The Indian Director General Military Operations (DGMO), Lt Gen Nirmal Chander Vij, and his Pakistani counterpart, Lt Gen Tauqir Zia, spoke over the Hot-Line, and the Indian Army’s concerns were denied by Lt Gen Zia. A picture of the entire situation was framed and presented to the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), but all the reports were discredited and the entire issue was labeled as a basic jehadi infiltration, despite strong concerns put forth by the Military Intelligence.

The charade of denying and throwing the ball into the others’ court led to a serious delay in reacting to the intrusion in Indian territory, and provided Pakistan with ample time to settle itself in the occupied areas. India, although surprised by such an operation by Pakistan, for the Pakistanis had accomplished the near impossible task of infiltrating through such an inhospitable terrain in winters, recovered and acted just in time to prevent further loss of territory.

Pakistan’s motive to invade into Indian territory after its failure to do the same in 1965 (Pakistan’s Operation Gibraltar), and then in the 1980s (Siachen glacier, across Point NJ 9842), is often debated. Unlike the Indian Army, the Pakistan Army often meddles in the political affairs of the country, leaving extremely less or absolutely no space for a democratic approach to the conflicts that it faces. After a staggering defeat on the Siachen Glacier (India’s Operation Meghdoot), thus losing the strategic advantage that Siachen provided, Pakistan was left without a foothold on the glacier and with a vengeful mindset. Apart from this, Pakistan’s ever-growing obsession with the Indian state of Kashmir, and its desire to redeem itself from the humiliation suffered in erstwhile East Pakistan, and the icy heights of Siachen, also served as strong motives. These factors along with the military arrogance rampant in the country fueled Pakistan to try one more time to achieve what it had not in over fifty years since Independence. Pakistan’s Operation Badr, if successful, also aimed at highlighting the conflict over Kashmir, thus drawing the attention of the International Community, and from there, enabling it to negotiate a solution more favourable to its cause.

Kashmir’s Return to Normalcy

By 1997, the insurgency in the Kashmir valley was at an all time low, and the efforts of the Indian Security Forces had paved the way for elections, after a long, chaotic period. After six years of Governor’s Rule in the Valley, along with planned Counter-Insurgency and Counter Terrorism (CI/CT) Ops, the azaadi driven mania had lost its zeal. Militancy had only brought suffering to the valley, and the people of Kashmir realized this. Farooq Abdullah of the National Congress (NC) became the Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir as a result of the elections, thus forging Kashmir’s first step2 in regaining normalcy.

General Zia ul Haq had learnt important lessons from the ‘holy war’ in Afghanistan, waged against the Soviets, and his plan to make India ‘bleed through a thousand cuts’ had fueled a strong uprising. This plan did not serve merely to ‘liberate’ Kashmir from India, but aimed, on a larger geopolitical scale, to ‘disintegrate’ the nation. The plan, despite all efforts, lost its momentum, and the state began to inch back towards peace. Pakistan’s military realized this and foresaw an unfavourable situation. It thus became imperative to boost the militancy once again, and the Pakistani Deep State set the ball rolling by initiating plans for Operation Badr.

The Concept of a Limited War

The year 1998 saw Pakistan become a nuclear state. This changed the entire geopolitical scenario in South-East Asia, as India and Pakistan both were now armed with nuclear weapons, and embroiled in a seemingly perpetual state of conflict. Up until 1999, all wars fought between the two neighbour nations had been conventional wars, with both countries crossing the Line of Control (LC) and the International Border (IB), and going all out. In 1999, however, a new aspect was now part of the deliberations on both sides of the LC. The nuclear threshold could not be crossed, for it would have severe ramifications. As the war escalated, the air in the Operations Rooms of both countries grew thick with tension, and this tension seeped into the rest of the world, creating a situation not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis of the ‘60s. Pakistan knew that it could gain a slight advantage by crossing the nuclear threshold, but India would soon gain the upper hand through escalation dominance. The International Community, therefore, became extremely interested in de-escalating the conflict, with the US jumping into the fray.

With the nuclear option hanging over the collective heads of India and Pakistan like the sword of Damocles, a different kind of war was fought, wherein a serious amount of political restraint was maintained, as in the case of India. Under clear orders of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the Indian Army was, under no circumstances, to cross the LC or the IB. The war soon turned into a process of evicting the Pakistani intruders from Indian soil. The Navy took up a position of dominance in the Arabian Sea, while the Air Force conducted regular sorties.

Followed by a short period of very limited success, the Indian Army started gaining control over the situation after recapturing Tololing in Drass, in mid-June 1999. The war had now been on for almost a month.

Kargil: It’s Relevance Today

Nineteen years after the war in Kargil, one must understand how volatile the nuclear threshold had been. India, although a little delayed in its reaction, was successful in evicting the intruders from its soil, with Nawaz Sharif, bringing in the then US President, Bill Clinton, to provide a face-saving plan of action for Pakistan. As the Pakistani troops withdrew from Indian territory, they left many of their fallen brothers behind, who were later given funerals befitting men of war, with full military honours, by India. The US was partly successful in saving Pakistan from international humiliation, but most of Pakistan’s lies, and General Musharraf’s ego were laid bare, for the entire world to see.

Revisiting the situation in New Delhi during the war, a strong politico-military friction had surfaced, and the war effort had suffered greatly in the initial stages. As time progressed, the war turned into an effort to evict Pakistani troops from Indian soil, and by mid-July 1999, Pakistan made known its intention to withdraw completely from the Kargil region. This was a clear indication of US intervention. It also served as Pakistan’s informal acceptance of its role in occupying territory on the Indian side of the LC, which it formally denied for years to come. A major ramification of the war manifested itself in the form of rebooted militancy in Kashmir. While the situation in the ‘90s had initially focused on an insurgent ‘nationalist’ movement, the 2000s saw a movement that was primarily focused on terrorist ideology. This change had begun taking place in the mid-‘90s, but had been controlled to a great extent. Post the war in Kargil, the situation in the Valley had fully morphed into a terrorist situation, and it continues to be so till date. Pakistan was thus successful, albeit partially, in knocking off the Indian efforts3 aimed at bringing normalcy to the Valley.

The conflict’s resolution, of course, lies in the hands of the political dispensation, and there is no denying this fact. In the same breath, it must also be noted that as long as Pakistan continues to meddle in the internal affairs of India in the state of J&K, with its plethora of nefarious schemes, the regaining of peace and normalcy will remain a distant aim. In the end, the nation as a whole must never forget the valour and courage displayed by the officers and men of the Indian Army on the inhospitable and treacherous terrain of Kargil. Their sacrifice shall forever be remembered as the price that was paid for the continued freedom of India.

With Inputs From:

  1. Kargil - From Surprise to Victory – General VP Malik, PVSM, AVSM 

  2. India’s Military Conflicts and Diplomacy – General VP Malik, PVSM, AVSM 

  3. The Crimson Chinar – Brigadier Amar Cheema, VSM 

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