India and Pakistan had fought three wars before the Kargil War 20 years ago: In 1948, 1965 and 1971. But there was something different about the Kargil War. The two countries had become declared nuclear weapon states in 1998, a war was never formally declared in 1999 and it ended without a ceasefire, as in 1948 or 1965, or a surrender document, as in 1971. Moreover, it was limited to about a 150-km frontage of the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government by choice, contrary to what Lal Bahadur Shastri did in 1965 when he chose to open a front in Punjab. Fought in the full glare of the media, it was a war which captured the Indian imagination. As it occurred during the 1999 election campaign, the military victory was closely enmeshed with the political narrative of the period.
In late 1998, four generals in Pakistan conspired to launch intrusions on the LoC in the Kargil-Dras sector for the purpose of internationalising the Kashmir issue — remember, this was before 9/11 — and cutting the India lifeline to Siachen glacier. By the first four months of 1999, Pakistani soldiers established approximately 140 posts and pickets. The intrusions went undetected till early May when they were grossly underestimated by the Army, which thus pushed soldiers piecemeal, leading to heavy losses with no breakthrough in the initial stages. The army eventually pushed more than 30,000 soldiers in the area, flooded it with Bofors guns and attained some initial success as the Indian Air Force was also brought in. Eventually half of the Pakistani pickets and posts were captured by the Indian military. Under huge global diplomatic pressure, Pakistan vacated the rest of the posts, which almost restored the status quo ante.
In the final analysis, it was a humiliating military and diplomatic loss for Pakistan. While it is true that Pakistan achieved initial tactical surprise, it failed abysmally when confronted by a determined Indian military. Globally, Pakistan came to be seen as an irresponsible country despite possessing nuclear weapons. The Kargil war also punctured the Pakistani myth that no conventional conflict was possible under a nuclear umbrella. It demonstrated that there was enough space for a limited conflict, and that principle has only been buttressed since, as seen at Balakot. Pakistan refused to learn the lessons but India established a review committee under K Subrahmanyam and followed up on most of the recommendations. Twenty years on, undertaking reforms in the spirit of the Kargil review committee to prepare for the challenges for the future will be the best tribute to the 527 soldiers who lost their lives on the icy heights of Kargil.