Brig Devinder Singh (retd) Commanded one of the largest brigades in the Kargil conflict in the Batalik sector. At one point of time, his 70 Infantry Brigade had 11 battalions under it as against the normal three. In an interview to The Indian Express, he goes back memory lane to recall the trials and tribulations of the Kargil intrusions.
Q: As we enter the 20th year of Kargil what emotions come to your mind?
The sacrifices of the troops made in the conflict are being slowly forgotten. The Kargil Divas is not officially recognised at many levels. There has been a tussle at the political level whether the 1971 war Vijay Divas was the real one or the Kargil Vijay Diwas. Also, the remembrance of the event seems to be focused only on the actions which took place at Drass and below and not at Kargil and beyond. Thus, while the general public hears a lot about Tololing, Tiger Hill etc not much is known about the actions in the Batalik sector, Khalubar ridge, Kukarthang etc. Basically, it is 8 Mountain Division versus 3 Infantry Division. The actions of 8 Mountain Division are highlighted and there is comparative silence about the actions under 3 Infantry Division.
Q. Do you think that almost two decades down the line we are better prepared in that area and we have learnt our lessons fully?
We are better placed all right, there is no denying it. But even then my personal observation has been that you are distracted between safeguarding the line of control i.e. shallow intrusions versus infiltration. We had information at time also that there was a build up to the momentum, firing had been gloing on from 1998 to 1999 and there were reports of troops build up across the LoC. But the focus on our side was on militancy. However what ultimately happened was that there was no infiltration but a shallow intrusion took place. The Wide Area Surveillance and Observation (WASO) was also changed from along the LoC to the valleys because it as thought that the infiltration will come through the valleys and then beyond. For various reasons the focus on counter insurgency and anti-militancy operations is again gaining an upper hand. There are certain areas in the North, in Ladakh sector which may be again open to Pakistan misadventure. The Army will be well cautioned to look at the areas which are dormant.
Q. In hindsight do you think it would have helped the Army to have crossed the LoC as part of the operations to push back Pakistani intrusions?
The question has two implications-tactical and strategic. At the tactical level it would have been good to cross over and hold positions of strength. But at a strategic level there were other considerations wherein it was being tried to show that we were only taking back what had been lost and nothing more then that. So the tactical and strategic requirements were not in sympathy with each other. Tactically, no doubt we could have pushed across the LoC and taken positions of advantage as that was the time when we could have taken advantage of the situation. After a status quo was reached it was very difficult to do anything.
Q. How did you find the morale of the boots on the ground who had to re-take the heights at extreme because the defending Pak troops were well entrenched?
Hats off to the men and the officers at the unit level. They managed to have a very high sense of morale and the urge to undertake a mission and do the job. That was also because of the leadership at the junior level and the bond they had with the troops. That really paid off. But the fact is that when you have to taken on these operations you have to be far-far superior to the defender. The normal ratio of attacker versus defender is 1:3 but for this operation, General VP Malik, on return from Poland, had put the ratio at 1:15 but in my sector the ratio was around 1:9 or 1:10. Till I had lesser ratio of 1:3 the results were slow to come but once I got the required ratio things started moving. We were also operating far from the roadhead and many troops were involved in logistic operations. Drass had the advantage of being on the roadhead but in Batalik there was nothing and everything had to be carted and which used almost 50 per cent lof your troops only in dumping supplies.
Q. As a Brigade Commander did you have to improvise a lot in the conflict?
Very much. The whole game was about improvisation. 3 Div were on lower priority. 8 Div had come in prepared and they came up with adequate force levels with well defined features in front. They had Tololing and Tiger Hill as major objectives with a full division to take them. Whereas in Batalik we had the Jubbar ridgeline, Khalubar, Kukarthang and two other ridgelines spread over a huge area. Also in 3 Div we got troops in penny pockets and it was all based on re-adjustment based on varioius sectors. The Kargil Review Committee report says that the intrusions were spotted on May 3, they were confirmed on May 7 and on May 8 the responsibility was given to 70 Brigade. and on the following two days two battalions were released to the brigade- 1/11 GR and 12 JAK LI. But on the ground instead of 800 troops in one battalion there were only 299 and the other one had less than 300 too. These were de-inducting battalions and there were leave parties which had gone to Nepal from 1/11 GR and in the other battalion major chunk had gone to the new location to take over and handed over all their major battalion support weapons. They were in holiday mood in Leh with just a few junior officers. But the report gives the impression that these were fully equipped equipment.
Q. What was the mood in the initial stages of the conflict?
In the initial stages there were panicky orders to quickly reduce the size of the intrusion before reporting the full facts to the government. Till that time there were attempts to hem in the intrusion. What I am trying to say is that there was need at the time to balance the orders given by higher HQs and the condition of the troops on the ground seeing the shortage in numbers. The casualties would have been far more had we not gone steady.
Q. Lastly, if you were to look at the conflict from the enemy’s perspective, where did they go wrong?
I think it was tactically a brilliant plan but strategically it was not sustainable. A war game which took place in April, one month before this whole episode was detected, I played the same scenario and this is the exact same how it happened in the conflict. I was asked why should the enemy do an intrusion and not an infiltration because that was the mindset of the Corps Commander. I said because they will be able to say that I have intruded into Indian territory and installed the flag. The GOC was not much convinced. In the war game, playing the enemy commandere’s role I had also asked for two more battalions to interdict the national highway. In the real conflict, had the Pakistanis come down in Drass from the heights and taken hold of the town it would have taken a long time to get them cleared from it. This would have created major implications for us even though we had the Manali-Leh highway open. It would have made the task of dislodging them very, very, very difficult.