July 1999 was a month of both exhilaration and relief for India and the Vajpayee-led government for the manner in which the brief, but potentially destabilising, Kargil war ended. Pakistan’s perfidy, led by the wily and audacious army chief at the time, General Pervez Musharraf, of occupying craggy mountain peaks in the high Himalayas and posing a challenge to India’s territorial integrity was foiled by the resolve and raw courage of the Indian military.
But a heavy price was paid. Almost 550 troops made the ultimate sacrifice and as many as 1,400 were injured. This human cost reflects poorly on the higher defence establishment of the day. India lacked critical military inventory but this was compensated by the leadership of the middle and junior ranks.
The roll call of honour — symbolised by the image of the do-or-die young Indian soldier atop a re-captured peak with the tricolour and the jingle “yeh dil mange more” — includes Vikram Batra, Manoj Pandey, Hanif-ud-din and Yogendra Yadav among many others. The extraordinary air effort and the many tactical innovations in the latter phase of the operations contributed in no small measure to the final outcome.
The 20th anniversary of the Kargil war will be remembered across the country in a celebratory manner over three days (July 25-27) and the theme is, “Remember, Rejoice and Renew”. While remembering the fallen soldier is commendable, it may be desirable to also “remember” and “reflect” on the larger national omission that plagues India’s institutional approach to national security.
The central element of Kargil that merits remembering is that it had caught the Indian higher security establishment by surprise. This is similar to what happened in October 1962, and later in November 2008. In each of these cases, the country paid a heavy price in terms of the lives lost. But it is not evident that the political and military leadership has engaged in rigorous introspection.
Yes, the 1962 debacle was followed by the emphatic military victory of 1971 and the birth of Bangladesh, though it is a different matter that the long-term political and strategic gains that could have been obtained in relation to Pakistan were squandered. At Simla, in 1972, India was oblivious to the imperatives of geography and uncomfortable with the leverage of macro military power. Alas, few national security-related lessons were institutionally internalised.
Kargil was a different story. While the war ended in a positive manner for India, the Vajpayee government constituted an expert committee on July 29, 1999, “To review the events leading up to the Pakistani aggression in the Kargil District of Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir; and to recommend such measures as are considered necessary to safeguard national security against such armed intrusions.”
Led by the late K Subrahmanyam, a doyen of the Indian strategic fraternity, the Kargil committee submitted its report (KCR) in record time — a rare achievement since extensions for such committees is routine. In an even more remarkable development, a sanitised version of the report was placed in the public domain in the form of a book.
The KCR is comprehensive and due credit must be given to its members — Lt Gen K K Hazari, B G Verghese and the tireless member secretary, Satish Chandra — for the report. This was very different from the fate of the much discussed but yet to be made public Henderson-Brooks Report of the 1962 war with China and it may be useful to remember what the KRC said in its conclusion.
Its epilogue “ brings out many lessons that the armed forces, intelligence agencies, Parliament, government, media and the nation as a whole have to learn. These should stimulate introspection and reflection, leading to purposeful action. The committee trusts that its recommendations will be widely discussed and acted upon expeditiously so that the sacrifices made will not have been in vain. The best tribute to the dedication of those killed and wounded will be to ensure that ‘Kargils’ of any description are never repeated.”
To its credit, the Vajpayee government set up a Group of Ministers (GoM) to make specific policy recommendations across four domains and individual task forces were constituted that brought together the best Indian talent and experience. It seemed as if Vajpayee would lead India’s security reforms in much the same manner that Narasimha Rao had for economic reforms.
Alas, this was not to be and both 9/11 in New York and the terror attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 pushed the Kargil recommendations to the back-burner. On the 20th anniversary of Kargil, remembrance must be tinged with shame that Parliament has not found it important enough to engage in serious, non-partisan and informed deliberations over how to arrive at “purposeful action”.
Critical lessons not learnt from Kargil made the country vulnerable, that was one of the reasons for what happened in Mumbai in November 2008.
The current paradox is that while the Modi team has triumphed electorally on the plank of national security, it appears that the emotive appeal of the fallen solider and the manner in which it can be exploited for catalysing nationalist sentiment is a higher priority. To “remember” national security experiences in a selective manner is a dangerous Barmecide endeavour.
Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies