India observed the 17th Kargil Vijay Diwas on Tuesday to honour the sacrifices made by Indian soldiers in a war for which the country was not prepared. The high altitude mountain war fought by two nuclear armed neighbours in the summer of 1999 lasted longer than the earlier three wars that India fought with Pakistan (1948, 1965 and 1971). The Kargil War taught the country many lessons, which have still not been fully absorbed.
India was complacent when the war erupted, as it broke out soon after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee undertook a bus ride to Lahore to open a new chapter in India Pakistan relations. General Pervez Musharraf, who had been appointed Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff by then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif even though he was ranked third in terms of seniority and in the line of succession to the coveted post, planned the ‘war’, supposedly without the knowledge of his Prime Minister.
General Musharraf claimed that he had briefed Sharif, but the details that have emerged suggest that Sharif was unaware about the movement of troops till the war broke out.
That General Musharraf was not telling the truth was evident when on June 11; India released intercepts of a conversation between him and Chief of General Staff, Lt. Gen. Aziz Khan while Musharraf was on an official visit to China. That intercepted conversation revealed that Musharraf wanted to know Sharif’s reaction to his decision to move units of the North Light Infantry across the Line of Control (LoC) and occupy the Kargil Heights. The war had begun.
A boastful General Musharraf later claimed that he wanted Pakistan to hold India by the throat by occupying the Kargil Heights which overlooked a road that connected Srinagar to Leh. As far as the Indian Army was concerned, it emerged that the division commander under whose jurisdiction the Kargil sector came was busy ‘developing’ areas around Leh and had not released funds to pay the workers whose job it was to gather information in the winter when the army vacated the posts.
The sense of complacency was justified later on the premise that due to the warm exchanges between Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Sharif; nobody thought about the Pakistan Army simultaneously moving its troops into Indian Territory. Some Indian intelligence agencies had information about unusual activities taking place in areas vacated by Indian troops in the winter, but that input wasn’t taken seriously. There was little sharing of facts in the Joint Intelligence Committee.
During the first week of May 1999, India received reports of infiltration in the Kargil sector. Initially, it was claimed that the infiltrators were Mujahideen, and then Defence Minister George Fernandes confidently said they will be ‘thrown out’ soon. Soon more accurate facts emerged and he was informed that regular Pakistani armed forces had occupied heights overlooking the Srinagar-Kargil Road.
The Indian Army tried to reoccupy the posts overlooking the Srinagar-Leh Road, but faced gunfire from Pakistani forces. There was also heavy shelling by the Pakistan Army and the number of infiltrators increased in Dras, Kaksar and Mushkoh sectors.
The then Indian Army Chief, General Ved Prakash Malik, was abroad on an official visit when he was informed of the actual facts related to the infiltration. On his return, an assessment was made and it was realized that the Pakistan Army had occupied the posts vacated by the Indian Army during winter. These posts overlooked the road between Leh and Srinagar. Thereafter, the Indian Army prepared for the conflict and decided to shift troops from the rest of Kashmir into the area around Dras.
The shifting of troops took time. Meanwhile, the help of the Indian Air Force was sought and it went into action. One IAF combat aircraft and a helicopter were shot down by the Pakistan on May 28.
The fiction that those who occupied the Kargil Heights were ‘Mujahideen’ was exposed when India released documents captured from Pakistani soldiers on June 5. On the defensive, the Indian Army suspended access to media outlets while troops were being inducted into the area. However, Gaurav Sawant, a correspondent representing a New Delhi newspaper, stayed back and was in Kargil for nine weeks, during which he reported on the war and his experiences. He has since written a book titled “Dateline Kargil: A Correspondent’s Nine-Week Account from the Battlefront”.
India’s losses during the war were 527 soldiers killed, 1,363 wounded and one captured. It was only after the induction of army formations from the rest of Kashmir, that media organisations were taken to visit Kargil.
Indian television coverage, which provided a near live telecast of events, proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the Pakistan Army had occupied posts vacated by the Indian Army during the winter. Initially, the battles were fought by the Indian artillery, which deployed Bofors guns, which proved effective and saved the day for the county.
The Indian Army started recapturing the Kargil Heights steadily, but suffered heavy casualties. Tololing was recaptured on June 13, Point 5060 and Point 5100 on June 29 and Tiger Hill on July 4.
When the facts of Pakistani intrusion became known the world over, and that too after Atal Behari Vajpayee’s attempt to establish better relations with Pakistan, Sharif tried his best to defend his country’s actions. There was a fear that a nuclear conflict may erupt.
On the defensive, Sharif said he had been kept in the dark by General Musharraf, while Musharraf maintained that he had briefed the Pakistan Prime Minister. Then United States President Bill Clinton rang up Sharif on June 15 and told him to pull his troops out of Kargil. Sharif rushed to Washington to explain Pakistan’s actions, but was firmly told to pull out his troops.
A joint statement issued by President Clinton and Prime Minister Sharif underlined that the Line of Control (LoC) would be respected and that Pakistan had agreed to pull out its troops from the posts along the Kargil Heights. The crisis officially came to a close on July 26.
Following the two-month-long war, a report on it was prepared by the renowned strategic thinker K. Subrahmanyam. Later a Group of Ministers, headed by then Home Minister L. K. Advani, suggested changes to enable the country to face and counter future challenges. The changes recommended included reorganisation of the armed forces into unified commands and the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff.
One of the reports suggested changes in the releasing of defence information. Many of the suggestions made on the Kargil conflict remain in cold storage. Initially, there was reluctance to call the Kargil conflict a “war”. After many years, it has been accepted that the day the ‘war’ ended be observed as a Vijay Diwas.