Harinder Baweja on her book Kargil: The Inside Story, how unprepared India was for the war
Harinder Baweja talks about writing the book as a soldier's diary, and the 'cavalier attitude' shown by India's top brass during the Kargil War
As a journalist who covered the Kargil War, Harinder Baweja was right in the thick of the action, watching and observing it unfold. In her book Kargil: The Inside Story, which was originally published in 2000, she revealed a reality of the war unknown to many of India's citizens — the lack of preparedness on the part of the Indian contingent, and the obtrusive politics that cost many lives.
Baweja wrote the book as a soldier's diary, fuelled by the firsthand stories of Indian and Pakistani troops, as well as information from After Action Reports (AAR) filed by units involved in the conflict. Nineteen years after the war and 18 years after her book first came out, she speaks to Firstpost about her experiences in Kargil and how India has failed to learn from experience.
Why has the Kargil war been such an impactful part of history for you? Why do you think it still captures the imagination of Indians?
The short but sharp war over the frozen heights in Kargil came soon after India and Pakistan declared their nuclear prowess. Pakistan's audacious plan of capturing the heights at a time when the nuclear tests had signalled a deterrence and India's response, caught the imagination of Indians. The first televised war was streaming in practically every home. The common Indian could see the valour and courage of the soldier firsthand. The fact that the then army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, had set his Kargil plan into motion even before Atal Bihari Vajpayee crossed the land border into Lahore on a bus, was also seen as an act of great treachery.
For me personally, the true story of the war came through long interviews with the battalions involved in the war. The inside story of the war — which was not told on television — lay in the After Action Reports (AAR) filed by various battalions. My book reveals fine details of what the Indian soldier actually endured. The politicians wrapped the country in patriotic fervour by saluting coffins of dead soldiers, but why and how did these soldiers die, is the question I have tried to answer in the book.
Tell us about your experience in Kargil.
I drove into the war theatre from Srinagar and was quite unprepared at the end of the nine to ten-hour journey; the war could be witnessed on the main road. Guns were booming and artillery shells were flying around and exploding at close proximity. After interviews with various army units, it became clear that India had been caught by complete surprise. The Pakistanis had the advantage of height and for the first few weeks of the war, the Indian soldiers fought bravely but with hands tied behind their backs. The book captures the details of the unequal war.
In what ways was India prepared or unprepared for the war?
India was unprepared would be the honest answer. When unit after unit was ordered into Kargil, they had no idea of who the enemy was, their numbers, their location or even the extent of the intrusion. They were not even well equipped. Units had been thrown into Kargil, without proper clothing and ammunition.
In the book, you say that India’s top brass had quite a cavalier attitude towards the war. Do you see any change in this attitude in the present day?
The 'cavalier attitude' has been well documented in the book. India has not been put to the war test since Kargil, but given that the recommendations of the K Subrahmanyam committee have not been implemented in their entirety or understood for their worth, it would be safe to say that we have not learnt our lessons from Kargil. The terror attacks in Mumbai and Pathankot are perfect examples of our 'cavalier' attitude to a real and pressing problem.
India-Pakistan relations today are as tense as ever. Could you comment on how far we have come, and what is needed to arrive at a solution?
The just-concluded election in Pakistan points to the difficulties in the India-Pakistan relationship. The shadow of the Pakistani army is written all over the electoral process and will continue to complicate the relationship between the two neighbours.
Why did you choose to write the book as a soldier’s diary?
I was clear from the very beginning that the book could only be told in the soldier's first person. Kargil was about the soldier from start to finish, and the only way to tell the inside story of the war was through the experiences of the soldiers.
What were the challenges you faced while writing this book?
The senior leaders in the war theatre were not always accessible. They had been caught by surprise and did not want to be found out. I remember a Brigade's liaison officer calling different units every evening to check if any journalists were staying with them. I was, but this was completely unknown to the Brigade headquarters. Since I had been covering the Kashmir conflict and many of the Valley's units were tasked to go to Kargil, I had an advantage as I was already known to these units.
How do you think war reporting/journalism has evolved over time?
Covering conflict is a risky business and takes a psychological toll. Exposure to dead and mutilated bodies affected me and I remember I would often wake up at night. I covered the war from the roadhead. The actual war was fought on heights ranging from 14,000 to 17,000 feet. I kept asking myself one question: what happened on those heights? I finally went back after the war was over and spent time with the soldiers to find answers. That is how the book took shape. News organisations need to pay more attention to not just the physical safety of their reporters but also their psychological well being.
Would your approach differ if you had to write the book today?
I would write it in exactly the same way!
Do you think Kargil has been mythologised — turned into a fable of struggle and horror — instead of being looked at as a learning opportunity to be better prepared and equipped?
I agree. The new edition of the book has a new introduction that delves into exactly this aspect. Sadly, we have not learnt our answers.
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