“Once you hear the details of victory, it is hard to distinguish it from defeat” – Jean-Paul Sartre
After many years, the nation’s retrieval of some lost territory astride the Kargil heights found endorsement as an event to be solemnly observed; previously, this national level military undertaking seemed to have been propagated or ignored according to political considerations!
By the year 1993, defence budget had been curtailed to such an extent that routine upkeep of weapons, equipment, ammunition stocks, even buildings, roads and parks – the hallmark of cantonment order – had to be severely curtailed.
The Kargil Conflict is a saga of supreme valour and grit displayed by young Indian soldiery, and its wholehearted appreciation by the people of India, thanks to the live media. But there rests in the conscience of many observers, a sense of loss, another story.
Every country goes through occasional economic stagnations when it becomes impossible to keep their armed forces in best trim – equipped and modern. Matured governments negotiate through such problematic times with due forethought and wisdom.
The military hierarchy is taken on board who, with equal measure of wisdom, respond by keeping the institutional ethos and core competences alive while finding ingenious ways to manage depleted combat power. In 1991, that however was not the case with the Indian Government, ruled as it was by politicians and bureaucrats who, if competent in most affairs, were evidently innocent of the nuances – and imperatives – of nurturing the nation’s military institution.
Neglect of the armed forces and their role in the overall security of the nation was in stark evidence from the year 1990. That was when drastic cuts in defence budget was negotiated between officials of the Finance and Defence Ministries; needless to state, the military hierarchy was not taken on board.
By the year 1993, defence budget had been curtailed to such an extent that routine upkeep of weapons, equipment, ammunition stocks, even buildings, roads and parks – the hallmark of cantonment order – had to be severely curtailed. More crucially, by tacit understandings within the governing machinery over curtailment of defence expenditure, an atmosphere of avoidance of services related matters had been allowed to prevail – Ministries of Defence and Finance mainly, but even others like the Home, the Railways and Surface Transport Ministries no less.
This deliration manifested in the dismissive manner by which the political hierarchy and the bureaucracy responded to matters concerning the armed forces.
The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had meanwhile appropriated an arbitrary authority to decide as to what weapons and equipment the soldier would have to fight with – and when. That was how the authority, but not accountability, to vet professional opinions of Generals was vested!
Admittedly, in those days when bullion from the exchequer had to be bartered to keep the economy afloat, prudence did demand a curtailment of the defence budget. But that compulsion could have been better managed through conjoined civil-military initiatives, as indeed it is done in matured governments. Instead, the sanctified practice of close and routine interactions between the Service Headquarters, the Defence Ministry and the political leadership became rarer if not non-existent.
Thus under an acquiescent political leadership, the attitude of the bureaucracy towards national defence had fallen into frivolity. “Military preparedness was not a priority; there would be no war in the foreseeable feature”, “the ever-demanding military hot-heads are incorrigible; their clamour for exotic ‘toys of war’ need not be taken seriously”, and such notions had become the common refrain among power-wielders of the early 1990’s, and duly ‘justified’ by clichés and citations which were neither appropriate nor relevant.
With Ministry officials questioning nearly every requirement of the armed forces, even routine cases of replenishments and replacements found rest in the bureaucratic ‘pending tray’. Further, it became a norm to shove even the most desirable cases of improvements in military systems into an orbit of ‘questions’, ‘further justifications’, ‘more clarifications’, ‘other opinions’ etc., till the issue was either dead or diverted for good.
Notably, besides a few apparently better disposed IAS officers, the Ministry was mostly manned by officials on deputation from the Railways, Revenue, Audit and such cadres who in their zeal to save defence expenditure, went about blocking even the subsistence scales of the forces.
The DRDO had meanwhile appropriated an arbitrary authority to decide as to what weapons and equipment the soldier would have to fight with – and when. That was how the authority, but not accountability, to vet professional opinions of Generals was vested!
Truly, there was fostered in the Defence Ministry, a policy of keeping the military matters at bay, and draw much satisfaction, even laudatory appreciations, from it. Consequently, when confronted with matters military, the barely-tolerated exasperations of the South Block Mandarins had to be experienced to be believed. By the year 1995, the inventory of war wherewithal had been allowed to deplete to a level that made it impossible for the armed forces to fulfil, even by the half, their politically sanctified mandate.
During the next couple of years, while military concerns had been raised repeatedly at the highest level, these were deftly diverted every time by some bizarre, some distorted examples of bureaucratic red-tape. There were none to rationalise the deliration; having, in the post-independence era, divested itself of the benefits of statutory military counsel, the Government had left for itself no scope for balancing measures.
In a dynamic institution like the armed forces, this situation was gnawing at the soldiery’s core values and motivation.
By 1998 or so, as the stocks of war materials had depleted below critical limits and realistic training turned farcical on account of various restrictions, many service officers grew indifferent, even skeptical, to the ideology of military security. Even the Service Headquarters had turned disillusioned with what they saw as an institutional apathy.
Thus much of the military hierarchy, having found fruitless their exertions to maintain field formations in fighting trim, had started to give up; what little activity did continue, it was the due to the force of disciplined habit rather than any conviction.
As disillusionment percolated down the chain of command, traditional discipline and values, the bedrock of the ‘call’ of soldiering, were afflicted with severe dilutions. In a dynamic institution like the armed forces, this situation was gnawing at the soldiery’s core values and motivation. The only saving grace was the astute leadership shown by most of the Captains, Majors, Colonels and some remnants of the diehard order of the military brass who stuck regardless to their noble pledge and military ethos.
That was the situation which had prompted the Army Chief to tell the Prime Minister 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”.
Indeed, notwithstanding their mask of outwardly concern, successive Governments of the 1990’s had been complicit in this downslide – despite their pronounced intent, they did nothing to improve the matters. They all misled the nation when they parroted the cliché that, “armed forces are ready to face any challenge”, as they put it.
‘Hollowness’ in Military Force
Political and bureaucratic indifference had by now thrown up a peculiar situation – not unlike the 1962. The million strong, fourth largest army of the world had been reduced to a capability for less than just a few weeks of warfare.
And as it is wont to happen, while the Army groaned under the weight of increasing shortages of war wherewithal and mounting losses of men and material in counter-insurgency operations – necessitated by the failings of the same governing system – the other two Services fared no better, engaging themselves in imaginary doctrinal castles and internal politicking.
The Army was being made to pay for the scam perpetuated by the politicians and bureaucrats.
It would be in order here to cite some examples which were widely debated before and after the Kargil Conflict:-
- The only modern gun – Bofors – was severely afflicted by non-supply of spares. The Army was being made to pay for the scam perpetuated by the politicians and bureaucrats.
- In the past one decade there had been no modernisation of any of the branches of the Army.
- Ammunition stock levels had been depleted to such levels that a war of more than one or two week’s duration would not be possible to sustain.
- Ordnance factories were starved of orders, and afflicted with dearth of skilled workers, were working at bottom capacity.
- Military transport fleet had grown so old that its reliability to move under operational conditions had become suspect.
- While gallant Jawans subsisted on coarse rations of sub-standard specifications, many of the entitled clothing and equipment, even physical training shoes and drawers, were denied to them due to paucity of funds.
- Realistic and innovative training, collective training particularly, the very basis of military organisation, had been severely scaled down due to restrictions, if not ban, on transportation, weapon usage and various types of ammunition.
- Procurement of even basic war-like stores had become tardy. Acquisition of bullet-proof jackets were delayed for years, need for snow-mobiles in the Siachen Glacier was questioned, over-due upgrade of tanks was stalled and only a few explosive handling equipment could be inducted after a delay of one decade while blast casualties kept mounting.
Worse, the cutting edge fighting units were deficient of, besides ammunition, their basic war-equipment: infantry battalions short of machine guns, armoured regiments short of tank fitments, artillery regiments deficient of gun accessories and engineer regiments short of assault bridges, to mention just few examples.
Life-cycle stocks of ammunitions – missiles, mines and explosives, fuses, power-packs etc. – rather than being replaced, had their ‘life extended’ repeatedly without due inspection and testing, in disregard to its consequences. That was the state which came to be described within the Army hierarchy as “Hollowness” – not that it raised any heckles among the wise men in power.
After the War of 1971 it was clear that Pakistan could never wrest Kashmir through conventional military aggression. Consequently, she adopted another method…
At this juncture, while the service top brass were compelled to pass time under this state of affairs, the stage was taken up by some arm-chair security experts who went over-board in chanting the American mantra of future warfare. ‘information warfare’, ‘battle field transparency’, ‘precision attack’, ‘cyber war’, ‘force multipliers’, ‘re-organisation’, etc, were hotly discussed in articles and seminars, with nary a prospect of ever putting these into effect in a governing system so chary of the military.
In fact, such propositions had the opposite effect; security policy makers deduced that conventional warfare had become redundant and the political purpose of war could be adequately served by the missiles produced by the DRDO! As a corollary, justification was contrived to endorse the state of ‘hollowness’ in the Army and limit its engagement just to the counter-insurgency role.
As complacency set in the Government, the mood of indifference flowed into the national intelligence agencies as well as the field army formations. Thus the whole lot seemed to have disassociated from their charter of updating information of the happenings across the Line of Control.
All this while, Pakistan and her fiercely fundamentalist militants were watching, with intent.
Pakistan’s Game Plan
In 1998, another defeat was staring at the Pakistan Army in its proxy war. Moreover, India’s nuclear weaponisation had forced Pakistan to shed what was an exposed duplicity, to go officially nuclear.
As a state which is accountable to its army, whose empire is in turn sustained by attempts to undermine India – even if dishonoured in defeat every time – it was impossible now for Pakistan to resist the temptation of taking advantage of India’s military ‘hollowness’. India’s focus on economic build-up, and ready ‘strategic asset’ of brainwashed so called ‘jehadis’ added to the attractiveness of the scheme.
The game plan was evident. After the War in 1965, Pakistan realised that India would not be shy of adopting her preferred military options to defeat any aggression. After the War of 1971 it was clear that Pakistan could never wrest Kashmir through conventional military aggression. Consequently, she adopted another method – that of exploiting India’s internal fault-lines. A long proxy war followed, first in Punjab and then in Kashmir.
Armed incursion across the Line of Control was the second phase of this plan, which was meant to be followed up with conventional military attacks in due course under a backdrop of nuclear blackmail. India of the 1990’s, never credited with strategic fervour in any case, helped the matter by degrading her military strength to such an extent that Pakistan was sanguine of success of her venture against any reckonable threat from the Indian armed forces.
Young officers and men rose to the occasion to wash the sin of ‘hollowness’ that had been perpetrated in the South Block and acquiesced, if helplessly, by their formation commanders.
Intrusion and its Eviction
By May 1999, the Pakistan Army had prepared well enough to pose to India such a stratagem of a military challenge that would leave the latter with no satisfactory solution to ameliorate. After carrying out due logistic preparations over a year and a half, some well equipped and religiously poisoned terrorists were grouped with predominantly ‘volunteers’ from the regular army as well as the Northern Light Infantry, to be inducted across the Line of Control through the Gultari, Shangruti and Chorbat La Sectors of the Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (POJK).
As summer approached and the deep snow-covered high altitude mountains became traversable, these heavily armed and well provisioned contingents of infiltrators crossed the Line of Control to occupy the heights dominating the life-line road axis running from Srinagar across the Mushko Valley, Dras, and Batalik in the Kargil Sector and beyond to Turtuk in the Sub-Sector West, which lies South of the Siachen Glacier.
The story hereafter is too well known to be repeated here. Suffice to state that:-
- The intrusion was detected by sheep-herders. Apparently, winter aerial observation patrols over the Line of Control had not been carried out purposefully, and the Army may have been delayed in patrolling and re-occupying the winter vacated posts.
- Top formation commanders had erred in viewing this intrusion as but a minor infraction which would be cleared out with just a sleight of hand.
- Probably to cover their lapse, the Army hierarchy chose to hurriedly commit troops, marshalling them from nearest areas to evict the well organised enemy that had entrenched itself in extremely rugged heights. Artillery guns were moved from all over and lots of ammunition were collected by scraping at bits of stocks found from here and there. There seems to be a rush to win back the heights as early as it could be reckoned.
- Young officers and men rose to the occasion to wash the sin of ‘hollowness’ that had been perpetrated in the South Block and acquiesced, if helplessly, by their formation commanders.
- The Air Force found itself ill-equipped to make a difference in high-altitude warfare. Yet, once committed, they fought gallantly while finding means to overcome the deficiencies.
…how was it that the Air Force found itself untrained and unprepared to fight over high-altitude mountains. Was it unaware of the terrain over which India must fight to preserve its integrity.
What however, may be found jarring to the nation’s politico-military conscience are some questions that point to ‘consensual neglect’ of our territorial integrity – economic limitations or military stagnation, whatever be the stated cause:-
- One, as to how come none of the top commanders, barring just one tantrum-prone brigadier, were indicted for such a grave lapse in handling military responsibility;
- Two, why could not we build up more deliberately to destroy the intrusion while harnessing winter and snow, just couple of months away, to freeze and starve the intruders;
- Three, how was it that the Air Force found itself untrained and unprepared to fight over high-altitude mountains. Was it unaware of the terrain over which India must fight to preserve its integrity;
- Four, how come that the principle of ‘political control of war’ was allowed to transgress its sanctified provisions by constraining the armed forces from temporarily crossing the Line of Control, thus forcing own troops to forego better approaches to attack the enemy from the rear.
No doubt, there must be good reasons for the Indian Armed Forces to adopt the course that they eventually did. However, dissected to its bare bones, doubts arise that the political and military leadership, both ordained to preserve as much as possible the lives of its soldiers, chose to evict the enemy by bartering young soldier’s lives and limbs. The doubt may be taken seriously if lessons are to be imbibed.
It is time we realise that Kashmir is only the first of Pakistan’s objectives; call for a separate Punjab, Bengal, Assam and Lakshadweep are to follow.
Pakistan’s Perpetual War-path
Even if we comfort ourselves with Pakistan’s defeat, the Kargil intrusion was a masterstroke which made us attack our own areas and suffer substantial losses in men and material while the aggressor remains immune and smug till date.
Our strategic short-sightedness has landed us in a most unenviable position. Pakistan continues to enjoy the fruits of her aggression in 1947-48, occupying one-third of a state which had legally joined the Indian Union. She disregards the UN call to withdraw from POJK while demanding that India complies to the call for a promised ‘plebiscite’. And yet our home-grown peace-peddlers propose that the Line of Control – a ‘line of aggression’ in fact – be accepted as the inter-national boundary!
Over the past 50 years, Pakistan has followed a single point agenda, that of relentlessly hammering away at the foundation of our secular, democratic way of life. She has targeted the loyalty of our people, infiltrated our institutions with saboteurs, spread a poisonous informer network across the country, exploited every opportunity to embarrass India, indulges in inciting our friendly neighbours and continues a blatant war of propaganda. And yet we expect her to follow the path of mutual understandings!
It is time we realise that Kashmir is only the first of Pakistan’s objectives; call for a separate Punjab, Bengal, Assam and Lakshwadeep are to follow. It is also the time to see that our intelligence set up is yet imperfect, our military institution is lame and our defence bureaucracy is not equipped to perform its responsibilities.
- Referencing defence budget as percentage of GDP may work for economists, statistics being a tool to buttress any argument one way or its opposite. But it is an obfuscating practice among military planners because it does very little to influence enemy’s designs to which they have to respond. For the record, had fallen below 2 percent of a rather modest GDP at that time.
- Perhaps that was the time when loose habits started gaining space into the military ethos.
- An army officered para-military force at that time, the Northern Light Infantry was, with much fanfare, absorbed into Pakistan’s regular army in recognition of its service in that very intrusion across the Line of Control which Pakistan denies!
About the Author
Lt Gen. Gautam Banerjee PVSM, AVSM, YSM was the DMO, IHQ of MOD, GOC Madhya Bharat Area, COS HQ Central Comd and Comdt, OTA Chennai. He is presently the editor of the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF). The General is a product of IMA Dehradun, and later the DSSC, HC and NDC Courses. He was commissioned into the Indian Army on 13 June 1971 from where he went on to serve in all types of terrain along the Pakistan and Tibet border and participated in all active operations till his superannuation on 30 June 2011. He can be reached on Email: [email protected]