Editor's Note: On the occasion of 22nd Kargil Vijay Diwas, Mission Victory India has published a series of articles and interviews chronicling personal accounts and narratives of military personnel who had a ring side view into the bloody 1999 Kargil conflict.
The first article in this series was published in the July issue of FORCE Magazine by MVI Editor-in-Chief, Colonel Vinay Dalvi (Retd). Thereafter MVI published interviews of Brigadier Rajiv Williams (Retd), Air Marshal Narayan Menon (Retd) and Lieutenant General Amarnath Aul (Retd), who held key appointments during the limited war.
These accounts were followed by a well-researched article by Vivekananda International Foundation, editor, Lt Gen. Gautam Banerjee (Retd) painting a sordid picture about the decade before the war following which, Padma Bhusan recipient, Lt Gen. Satish Nambiar (Retd) wrote an article in direct response supporting Col. Dalvi's article published in FORCE.
MVI concludes this special coverage with our shorter version of the long form version published in FORCE and with this we wind up our entire coverage with a heart wrenching poem by Neil John. Hopefully our entire coverage has brought out the right lessons. Happy reading!
The 1999 Indo-Pak war fought in the jaggedly heights of Kargil War jolted the nation and its military up from the illusionary peace promised by the Lahore Peace Declaration between the Indian Prime Minister and his counterpart. The conflict thrust upon India to regain its territory in the treacherous mountainous of Kargil district well inside the Line of Control (LoC) that Pakistani forces had occupied during the winter months of 1998/1999 at an unparalleled cost of life and limb.
How we landed ourselves in this situation is a result of negligence, how we came out from is a saga of gallantry! This retrospective piece aims to bring out some personal accounts from Tri-service veterans who took part in the war and bring to the reader what they have to say about it over two decades on.
Pre-Kargil: A Decade of Bureaucratic Apathy
It is poignant to highlight the crippling blow to the morale of India’s senior military leaders that had a trickle-down effect up to the rank and file of the armed forces, adversely affecting operational preparedness. Analyst Lieutenant General Gautam Banerjee spoke about this tryst in India’s strategic history: The situation prompted the Army Chief to tell the PM that the Army’s “heart was willing, but the body was weak”, while the Navy Chief rued that policy makers were “innocent of the knowledge that it takes decades and centuries to build up a Navy". It is under this prism that the conflict should be viewed.
General VP Malik, then Chief of Army Staff, describes the conflict in his authoritative book ‘Kargil from Surprise to Victory' as a “limited war - the first of its kind after India and Pakistan tested their nuclear weapons.” 'Operation Vijay’ – the Indian codename for the war was a blend of strong and determined political, military and diplomatic actions, which enabled us to transform an adverse situation into a military and diplomatic victory."
It was the courage under fire on display by the fighting men and gallant actions of young artillery forward observation officers (FOO) and battery commanders who took of infantry companies when their comrades were killed. The Indian Airforce’s gallant actions during ‘Operation Safed Sagar' and the Indian Navy’s silent yet deadly contribution during 'Operation Talwar'turned the tide of war in our favour and be heard from those who were in the thick of it.
A Brigade Commander Recalls
Lieutenant General Amarnath Aul (Retd), who was the Commander of 56 Mountain Brigade (part of 8 Mountain Division) recounted the compulsions of triggering the war, “Initially when the intrusions were detected, it was felt that terrorists’ groups have infiltrated, and they would be cleared very soon. Subsequently, it was very apparent that we were facing a regular force which had penetrated deep inside all our sectors.
"The threat to NH1A was apparent as it is the only connectivity between the Valley and Ladakh region which was a lifeline to the latter. The enemy aim was to cut off the lifeline to Ladakh, capture Turtuk in the Nubra Valley which would isolate parts of Siachen from the Ladakh region. With situation prevailing in mid May 99, we had to take a decision to clear the enemy from our side of the LC. It took us some time to build up our forces and fire power before we finally launched our offensive.”
“On 1 Jun we came under command 8 Mountain Division. Having realised the strength of the enemy at various heights, we got into the process of building up our forces and firepower to almost 20 Firing Units. This took us almost 12 days to gear up. The first assault was launched on Tololing on 13 Jun by 2 Raj Rif with 18 Grenadiers providing the firm base. The objective was captured by the morning of 14 Jun. Tololing was the first objective to be captured and it paved the way for our subsequent successes,” said the former Bde Commander on the buildup of forces.
A Young Officers Account
Captain Akhilesh Saxena (Retd), a young forward observation officer at the time recounted his experiences leading the Tololing assault, “We had written our final letters to our loved ones before we proceeded to attack the Tololing peak in what was basically a suicide charge. The enemy rained down continuous fire, artillery shelling and bombardment upon our advancing party.
"We had lost men and while others sustained serious injuries. Our supply lines were cut off by the enemy, the only things we carried to the assault were some bullets, hand grenades rifles and rocket launchers, that is all. We had no rations, there was nothing to eat and nothing to drink. We had to budget our supplies; the aim was if we can carry a kilogram more than why not a kilogram of more ammunition?”
“Capt. Vijayant Thapar, who later went on to be posthumously awarded the Vir Chakra and I were the only two officers leading this attack and had seven to eight jawans with us who were grievously injured," he elaborated.
Operation Safed Sagar: A Chief of Air Operations Recounts Experience
Air Marshal Narayan Menon (Retd) recounted the IAF’s role in the conflict and challenges faced: “There was a need to airlift troops, ammunition, and other essential supplies to augment the forces at Kargil. There was urgency to build up force levels and evict the intruders. On 25th May we received the code-word to commence offensive operations from the next day.
"But there was a caveat. Under no circumstance were the aircraft to go across the LoC. Given that the known intruded area was about 140 km along the LoC with depths varying between 1 to 8 km, the constraint of not crossing the LoC posed considerable problems, the most severe being the restrictions on attack profiles of fighter aircraft,” he said speaking about the IAF’s operational constraints.
“Restricting attack direction, as this caveat of not crossing the LoC imposed would lead to suboptimal weapon delivery and our difficulties would be compounded by the irregular alignment of the LoC. Many of our mission plans had to be revised in consultation with army representatives who provided target coordinates and exact location of our own troops in the targets’ vicinity.
"The targets were gun emplacements, enemy supply lines, firm bases and launch pads having igloo type or normal tents and ‘sangars’,” He added further. “These sangars proved to be very strong and as we learnt later almost immune to the impact of rockets or front gun ammunition delivered with pin-point accuracy, both by fighters and by helicopters. These target systems were not the conventional ones that air forces are trained to engage.”
“It was for the first time after 1971, IAF personnel were exposed to war and carry out major operational roles. The experience would be beneficial to all those involved,” said the IAF veteran. “We realised our shortcomings and weaknesses in communications, training, and equipment maintenance. The unsatisfactory state of intelligence gathering, and intelligence sharing came out,” he added.
“Planning for joint operations requires an environment of trust and confidence in each other’s abilities. The Indian Army is as fine a professional fighting force as any but when it comes to sharing intelligence there is, as I have perceived, a level of reluctance on its part,” He concluded.
Analyst Group Capt TP Srivastava Speaks
Group Captain TP Srivastava (Retd) also spoke about critical lapses, “The Kargil war has been the fiercest unwanted battle in the most inhospitable terrain that had to be fought and won at all costs merely because someone failed to do his routine task of reconnaissance and patrolling. Lives were lost for nothing.” He went on to highlight a critical lapse post the conflict, “We formed the Kargil Review Committee, which did not have tri-service representation. Three civilians and an army officer as members decided what was best.”
“It [Kargil] happened because of a total lack of intelligence gathering, collation and transmission to frontline formations in spite of our dedicated defence satellites. These structures were built over weeks or months, maybe years when we were playing shut eye games in the offices of intelligence agencies,” said Group Capt. Srivastava, signing off.
Operation Talwar: The Navy’s Silent War
Op Talwar involved nearly all components of naval warfare and began with the identification of Pakistani naval positions following which they were to identify and protect their own vital assets. The objective was to serve as a coercive counterbalance against the enemy further expanding the operations from the Kargil sector. “The operation involved the largest ever deployment of combatant ships in the Arabian Sea,” wrote Commodore Srikant Kesnur and Commander Digvijay Singh Sodha in an article published in the Asian Age, excerpts of which have been reproduced in the successive paragraphs.
“The Western Fleet, which by itself was enough to tackle the Pakistan Navy, was additionally augmented by assets from the Eastern Fleet. As India progressively involved its naval aviation, submarine, amphibious and Coast Guard assets and conducted high tempo operations including Electronic Warfare exercises, the signal was clear. Further, when the Pakistani authorities started bandying about the ‘N word’, India responded by moving ships closer to Pakistan coast, a clear indication that we would not yield to the nuclear blackmail.
“This large-scale deployment…was close enough for Pakistan to notice and feel the presence, with the possibility of their supplies being choked. This forced her Navy to shift her assets from Karachi, fearing an Indian Naval strike on the harbour…The escort operations revealed that blockade of Karachi and interruption of oil supply from the Persian Gulf were serious vulnerabilities for Pakistan requiring an operational and strategic pause.
“By keeping Pakistan in a continued state of anxiety and alarm about our intentions, by forcing it to spread its assets thin and by conjoining with the other two services where required, one may affirm that the Navy’s role in the Kargil war was silent, understated but significant,” concluded the writers. These observations were echoed by Commander Mukund Yeolekar (Retd), the Editor-in-Chief of the Seagull Magazine during our conversation.
The Road to Vijay
Lt Gen Aul (Retd), best summarised how the wheels of victory turned back towards us: “Detailed planning and execution of operation. Commanding Officers were given the independence in planning and execution of tasks after detailed recce and info on deployment of the enemy. Surprise and deception measures were the hallmark for executing these tasks to ensure enemy attention is diverted from the actual direction of assault.
"Artillery played a major role and was utilised to the maximum in pounding objectives. Bofors were also used extensively in the direct firing role. The motivation, the will to win, which the junior leadership displayed was par excellence. Enough time was given to the infantry units to recycle and reorganise for subsequent operations. Problems of logistics were overcome by commandeering porters and ponies from Amarnath Yatra."
by Neil John
They walked up the steep slopes, knowing it’s all against the very nature of warfare, the hail of bullets hitting them from all directions, every boulder was life and every incoming shell death, yet they pressed on, they were told victory lay at the end! Some wrote letters home, knowing very well, this would be the final one, while others just prayed to their gods, the inevitable was to happen.
Cold nights, extreme weather, the enemy still an unknown identity, the country watched, military leaders, made decisions that would lead men to the ultimate sacrifice, politicians just wanted their coverage, body bags created national fervour, won them elections, no aar paar ki ladai, just agey bado mere bhai!
No isolation of the enemy, not even given time for reconnaissance, no idea from which direction the angel of death was going to hit, we can’t escalate the war, we need to fight without crossing the border, those scraggy slopes, saw many a valour, many a death, a multitude wounded for life.
Soldiers of the Indian Army, pressed on, the leadership did not even have the courage to call for a justified war, they had made a mistake, let them come and occupy our winter posts, they had to redeem the name but at what cost? Families broken, children orphaned, parents lost their only hope.
Victory came a bit too late, we engraved the fallen in stone, made scape goats of a few, while the rest of the criminals, wore the laurels as medals, the very leadership that caused the battle, didn’t lose life or limb, but display the sacrifices of someone else’s soul as honour.
(With inputs by Aritra Banerjee)