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Rear View: The sudden war

India was surprised at Kargil. But its lessons may still be unlearnt

Written by Inder Malhotra |
Updated: June 29, 2015 8:33:18 am
Kargil War, Kargil, Kargil War 1999, Pakistan Northern Light Infantry, Line of Control, Operation Vijay, LK Advani, India news, indian express column, news The government did well to appoint a Kargil Review Committee, headed by the country’s strategic guru, K. Subrahmanyam.

As briefly indicated earlier, the Kargil War of 1999 was highly significant, and it is imperative that we do not repeat the initial mistakes we committed then (‘And she didn’t have 272’, IE, June 15). The worst of these was that, until on May 3 some shepherds alerted the nearest military post about Pakistani infiltrators on Kargil and neighbouring heights building bunkers for themselves, the country knew nothing about this grave happening. Counter-measures began immediately, of course. But it still took more time before we realised that the invaders were not just “mujahideen”, but also soldiers of Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry.

Soon, it became known that this misadventure was the brainchild and handiwork of the then army chief and later military dictator of Pakistan, General Prevez Musharraf. Ironically, Nawaz Sharif, then as now the prime minister of Pakistan, had handpicked “Mush” by superseding three generals senior to him. It is true that Musharraf was late in informing his PM about what was afoot. But Sharif’s claim that Musharraf acted “behind his back” is inaccurate. Pakistani accounts have confirmed that when Sharif was briefed, his only question was: “Can we get to Srinagar?”

In recent days, in the wake of the Myanmar episode, Musharraf the braggart, now in a rather tight corner, has been making some absurd claims and issuing dire threats. But his statement during the Kargil War — that his men had captured 5,000 square kilometres of territory on the Indian side of the Line of Control in Kargil and adjoining areas — cannot be contested. Had Pakistan been able to consolidate its control of that region, it could have denied us the use of the all-weather road between Srinagar and Leh, thus separating the Kashmir Valley from Ladakh. Can we afford even a remotely similar situation ever again? Incidentally, a political nuance in the situation was
that the Vajpayee government then was a “caretaker”.

Most importantly, the Kargil War, while being Pakistan’s fourth war against India — except for the 1971 War for the liberation of Bangladesh, all others were launched by our western neighbour with the sole objective of wresting Kashmir from India by armed force — was also the first and, so far, the only limited and conventional war between two countries possessing nuclear weapons. That was a factor of prime importance. Yet, Pakistan’s mindset and basic policy remain unchanged, as should be clear from what Islamabad has been saying lately, in response to some imprudent statements on the recent military action on the India-Myanmar border emanating from some members of the ruling establishment in New Delhi. Pakistan asserts that Kashmir is an “unfinished part of the agenda of Partition”.

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Moreover, it repeats, parrot-like, that Pakistan will remain “incomplete” until “Muslim-majority Kashmir becomes a part of it”. On top of this, Pakistanis believe that they can try to grab Kashmir whenever they choose to because, thanks to their nuclear arsenal, India will
not be able to deliver a “sufficiently punishing blow”.

On the other hand, we cannot overlook that the international community remained silent on the Pakistani action in Kargil until it was clear that a brilliant Indian victory was nigh. The Indian army fought gallantly on nearly perpendicular mountains and drove the invaders out, without crossing the LoC. A wise decision taken on May 25 was to use air power in combat at great heights.

Remarkably, the Bofors gun, which caused Rajiv Gandhi’s downfall because of the bribe paid to still unnamed beneficiaries, performed extremely well. But because all firms related to Bofors had been “blacklisted”, we ran out of ammunition.


It had to be bought from South Africa at thrice the normal prince. Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif famously sought a face-saver by flying to Washington and meeting Bill Clinton on America’s national day, July 4. India could and did celebrate “Operation Vijay”.

The government did well to appoint a Kargil Review Committee, headed by the country’s strategic guru, K. Subrahmanyam. It submitted an excellent report. Its findings and recommendations were vetted by a group of ministers, headed by L.K. Advani, which approved almost all of them. These included the critically important suggestion that the armed forces needed a chief of defence staff.

While accepting all other recommendations, Vajpayee held up only this one for two reasons. One, the air force had created “too much of bad blood”. Two, former president R. Venkataraman and former PM P. V. Narasimha Rao, both former defence ministers in Congress governments, had advised him not to act in a hurry. However, he promised “a clear decision within a year”. Alas, 15 years have passed but, as strategists complain, “the Brahmin trinity’s indecision still holds”.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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First published on: 29-06-2015 at 01:08:01 am
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