Fifteen years ago, at a glittering function in New Delhi presided over by prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Brigadier Devinder Singh received a citation saluting his role in recapturing Point 5203-metres during the Kargil war, “unmindful of and with total disregard for personal safety”. He was hailed for having “meticulously planned the application of all the resources at his disposal” in the battle for Batlik. Then, he was passed over for promotion.
Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first official visit to Kargil on Tuesday, his government has been preparing to fight the last remaining battle of that war.
Later this month, the Supreme Court is expected to hear the Indian Army’s appeal against a stinging Armed Forces Tribunal judgment delivered in 2010 on the treatment to Brigadier Singh. Lieutenant-General M L Naidu and Justice A K Mathur had charged top military commanders with falsifying battle records on the brigadier’s role, and ordered the official history of the war rewritten.
Modi and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley will now have to decide whether to pursue the appeal, filed under the UPA government. Their decision could hinge on advice from Modi’s handpicked National Security Adviser, Ajit Kumar Doval, whose eyewitness testimony suggests there are skeletons hidden in the army’s war-room.
Brigadier Devinder Singh’s case, and a batch of other Kargil-related litigation by mid-level and junior commanders, all revolve around the build-up to the war. The Army’s top brass, these cases collectively suggest, ignored intelligence warnings of imminent conflict — and then scapegoated mid-level commanders for poor conduct of early operations. The credit for India’s eventual triumph thus went to senior officers, from XV Corps commander Lieutenant-General Kishan Pal upwards.
Evidence directly collected by Doval, however, has suggested the Army’s top brass did have early warnings. In the summer of 1998, the Intelligence Bureau’s Srinagar station, under Doval’s command, generated warnings on increased military activity along the Line of Control in Kargil, notably near posts codenamed Chor, Hadi, Saddle, Reshma, Masjid, Dhalan and Langar — the very posts that served as base camps for Pakistani forces during the war.
Shyamal Datta, then Intelligence Bureau director, issued a personally signed alert on June 2, 1998 — a rare decision that suggested he found the source of Doval’s intelligence credible. Later, IB informants reported the deployment of M-11 missiles on the Deosai Plains and the laying of fresh minefields. R&AW, for its part, said new Pakistani troops — the 164 Mortar Regiment, the 8 Northern Light Infantry and the 69 Baloch Regiment — had been pumped in.
At a meeting of the Unified Headquarters in Srinagar on May 24, 1999, however, Lieutenant-General Pal insisted there “were no concentration of troops on the Pakistani side and no battle indicators of war or even limited skirmishes.”
Doval did not return calls seeking comment. In a 2006 interview to Tehelka magazine, he had said the note should have spurred efforts by “people patrolling that area”. The Army patrolled Kargil on paper only, he added, saying “patrols had been going there for years, but not to the places showing in the logbooks — movement was shown but actual patrolling was not conducted”.
Local commanders, documents available with The Indian Express show, were sensitive to these warnings, but didn’t have the troops to do their job. In one letter, on August 12, 1998, and marked 101/GS (Ops)/ANE/R, Brigadier Surinder Singh, commanding the 121 Brigade in Kargil, protested to the 3 Division command that approximately a quarter of this troops were moved to fight terrorists in Kashmir.
“While the combating of an insurgency is an important role for the B[riga]de,” Brigadier Surinder Singh noted, “we must not lose sight of our primary role, that of ensuring the sanctity of the LoC and integrity of own territory.”
Brigadier Surinder Singh was later removed from service, after the Army said a court of inquiry had established he had leaked classified documents to the media. In ongoing litigation before the Armed Forces Tribunal’s Chandigarh bench, though, an RTI request revealed that the Leh-based 3 Infantry Division had no knowledge of such an inquiry.
“I’ve nothing to gain from this litigation except my honour,” says Surinder Singh. “It’s all I want back.”
Kargil-based field commander Colonel Pushpinder Oberoi also called the attention of 3 Infantry Division commander Major-General V S Budhwar to significant weaknesses in India’s forward defences. In a letter on January 30, 1999, Colonel Oberoi stated enemy action could render “some posts untenable”. It proceeded to call for forces being permanently stationed on Point 5165-metres, Pariyon ka Talab and Point 4660-metres — now famous as Tiger Hill.
The warnings did not spur command action. In June 1998, as the Intelligence Bureau warning was being generated, Major-General Budhwar’s office ordered his troops to ensure “that various types of wild animals/birds are procured and despatched to zoo at Leh at your earliest”.