Late in the summer of 1998, India's spies began reporting unusual events along the Line of Control in Kargil — Pakistani troops were being pumped, high-altitude posts reinforced, fresh minefields laid. From his headquarters in Leh, 3 Infantry Division commander Major-General VS Budhwar saw the warnings, and ordered Indian troops out into the mountains but to hunt down animals for a zoo, and not to scout for infiltrators.
In a letter (written on 1 June 1998), Major-General Budhwar sternly ordered field commanders to ensure "that various types of wild animals/birds are procured and despatched to the zoo at Leh at your earliest".
"No representation," the Colonel concluded sternly, "will be entertained".
The General's zoo isn't being talked about at the gilded 20th-anniversary celebrations of the Kargil war — authored as it has been by opportunistic politicians, Generals covering up their own incompetence, and a supine media — as there’s no room for the ugly truth in India’s national myth on the Kargil War.
"Generalship unparalleled in the history of warfare”, 15 Corps Commander Lieutenant-General Kishan Pal said of his contribution as a commander of India’s forces during the Kargil War. There are skeletons in the Generals' cupboards, though. And until the country gives them a proper cremation, they will haunt India’s military.
Fifteen years ago, at a glittering function in New Delhi presided over by then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Brigadier Devinder Singh received a citation saluting his role in recapturing Point 5203-metres during the Kargil War, "unmindful of and with total disregard for personal safety". He was hailed for having “meticulously planned the application of all the resources at his disposal” in the battle for Batlik.
Then, Brigadier Devinder was passed over for promotion, on the grounds that he mishandled operations.
In 2010, Armed Forces Tribunal judges Lieutenant-General ML Naidu and Justice AK Mathur passed a judgment accusing top military commanders with falsifying battle records on the Brigadier’s role and ordering the official history of the war rewritten. The case is still pending in the Supreme Court, where the United Progressive Alliance government’s Defence Ministry officials went in appeal.
From Brigadier Devinder’s case and other Kargil-related litigation and classified documents, this much is clear that the top military and civilian leadership ignored warnings of imminent conflict, and then scapegoated mid-level commanders.
Led by now National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, the Srinagar station of Intelligence Bureau (IB) had become increasingly concerned about the Kargil sector from the summer of 1998. In one message, the IB warned of increased military activity along the Line of Control in Kargil, notably near posts codenamed Chor, Hadi, Saddle, Reshma, Masjid, Dhalan and Langar — the very posts that served as base camps for Pakistani forces during the war.
Shyamal Datta, then IB director, issued a personally-signed alert on 2 June, 1998 — a rare decision — signaling serious concern.
Later, IB informants reported the deployment of M-11 missiles on the Deosai Plains and the laying of fresh minefields. The Research and Analysis Wing (R&W), for its part, said new Pakistani troops — the 164 Mortar Regiment, the 8 Northern Light Infantry and the 69 Baloch Regiment — had been pumped in.
Military intelligence made similar determinations. In a 30 August, 1998, note, Major KBS Khurana of the 1/S23 Intelligence and Field Security Unit said a source code-named 3820SC had revealed that “500 Afghan militants have been brought to Gurikot, NJ 7959, to be further inducted into India in the near future”.
Field commanders in Kargil were voicing the same concern. In a 25 August, 1998, letter, Major RK Dwivedi, the Brigade-Major of the Kargil-based 121 Brigade, recorded 121 Brigade commander Surinder Singh warning of a “push [by] militants across the L[ine] (of) C[ontrol]. Pakistan, it said, could “engage NH [National Highway] IA with AD [Air Defence] w[ea]p[o]ns”, “t[ar]g[e]t selected f[or]w[ar]d posts,” and “hit Kargil and outlying vill[age]s”.
Paragraph 8, marked “Enhanced Threat Perception,” recorded the intelligence foundations of these fears. The document recorded the arrival of fresh Pakistan troops at forward positions around Olthingthang. In paragraph 15, the document pointed out that “infilt[ration] routes [were] available through Mashkoh Valley, from Doda side to Panikhar, Yaldor and through nalas [streams]”. Forty-five Pakistani irregulars, paragraph 20 noted, had already moved across the LoC.
Early in January 1999, Colonel Oberoi called the attention of the 3 Division’s Major-General Budhwar to significant weaknesses in India’s forward defences, on the basis of an exercise code-named "Jaanch". In his 30 January, 1999, letter, Colonel Oberoi stated enemy action could render "some posts untenable". It proceeded to call for forces being permanently stationed on Point 5165-metres, Pariyon ka Talab and Point 4660-metres — now famous as Tiger Hill.
Less than a month later, on 9 February, 1999, troops of the 5 Para Regiment spotted movement on the top of Point 5770, a strategic height in the southern Siachen area.
Again, on 4 March, between eight and ten Pakistan soldiers were seen removing snow from a concrete bunker to the west of the summit of Point 5770. That evening, shots were exchanged in the area — the first fire-contact of the Kargil War. The officer who reported the Pakistani intrusion, Major Manish Bhatnagar, was removed from the area, and the loss of the peak hushed up.
Finally, in April 1999, local commanders conducted an exercise to test the impact of a Pakistani attack — ironically enough, just as the intruders were entrenching themselves in the Kargil heights. Major General Mohinder Puri, commander of the 8 Division which would soon lead the battle in Dras, played the role of Pakistan’s Army chief during the exercise, while 70 Brigade’s Devinder acted as the General-Officer Commanding of Pakistan’s 10 Corps area.
Towards the fag end of the exercise, the group gamed a brigade-strength assault on the stretch between Zoji La and Kargil. Pakistan could, the exercise demonstrated, occupy large stretches.
However, Lieutenant-General Pal and Northern Army Commander Hari Mohan Khanna dismissed the idea. Incredibly, the Major-General actually withdrew troops from threatened locations. Early in 1999, the 9 Mahar Regiment was moved from its counter-infiltration positions along the Yaldor Langpa and stationed near Leh. The 26 Maratha Light Infantry, charged with protecting the Mashkoh-Dras stretch, was also pulled back.
Brigadier Surinder protested. In a 12 August, 1998, letter, marked 101/GS (Ops)/ANE/R, he warned of the paucity of troops.
“While the combating of an insurgency is an important role for the B[riga]de,” Brigadier Surinder noted, “we must not lose sight of our primary role, that of ensuring the sanctity of the LoC and integrity of own territory. All the forces which can be spared for the anti-infilt[ration] role from integral t[roo]ps are already deployed.”
Despite losing approximately a quarter of its troops, to commitments elsewhere, the 121 Brigade did what it could. Troops were withdrawn from the Mashkoh area for just 80 days in the winter of 1999, down from 177 days in 1997 and 116 days in 1998. Yaldor was left undefended for 64 days from February to April, where troops had been withdrawn for 120 days in 1997 and 119 days in 1998. Kaksar, another key area, was undefended for just 38 days, where it was left open for over 200 days in previous years.
Even after the fighting broke out, top commanders refused to engage with reality. At a meeting of the Unified Headquarters in Srinagar on 24 May, 1999, Lieutenant-General Pal insisted that there "were no concentration of troops on the Pakistani side and no battle indicators of war or even limited skirmishes". Paragraph 4(v) of the minutes of the meeting records his claim that the "situation was local and would be defeated locally" — an appalling miscalculation.
During the war, repeated efforts were made to hush up failures. Major Bhatnagar, fresh from Siachen, was ordered to push his battle-fatigued and frost-bitten troops up Point 5203-metres in Batalik. He asked for time to prepare his unit — only to find himself court-martialled.
Major Ajit Singh, ordered to make a near-suicidal attempt to retake Point 5353 in Dras after the formal end of hostilities, was also court-martialled. He was sacrificed to protect higher commanders from responsibility for their failure to recapture the key position. Major Ajit won his legal battle and retired with honour — but even today, the peak remains under Pakistan’s occupation.
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Colonel Oberoi was cashiered for his failure to defend against the intrusions — intrusions he had warned of, but was not given resources to act against. Brigadier Surinder, too, was sacked.
Brigadier Devinder, lauded in India’s official history of the Kargil war — he “himself operated ahead to keep abreast of the developments during each battle and to inspire his battalions to give of their best” — was passed over for promotion.
Faced with a long war of attrition that could have claimed the lives of even more Indian soldiers — or the high-risk prospect of having to escalate the conflict — Vajpayee seized on a United States-backed deal that allowed Pakistan to pull back from Kargil.
In Islamabad, the so-called Gang of Four who plotted the war — Pakistan’s then-army chief General Pervez Musharraf, the chief of general staff Lieutenant-General General Aziz Khan, 10 corps commander Lieutenant-General Mahmud and force commander northern areas Major-General Javed Hasan — saw the withdrawal as a strategic victory.
The (Pakistani) Generalscalculated India would not go to war even faced with extreme provocation, and escalated the jihad in Kashmir sharply. From 2000 to 2002, more Indian security force personnel were to be killed in counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir than had been lost in Kargil.
"The truth about what went wrong, where and why should not embarrass anyone," former India defence minister George Fernandes had said on 14 August, 2002, “and it is a must so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.”
He should have listened to his own advice — but it’s imperative India does.
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