Kargil war A saga of grit, bravery and sacrifice

Col Shiv Choudhary (Retd)
Genetically, there has never been stability or peace between India and Pakistan. In continuation of that, the thundering of guns and border skirmishes across the LOC that divides India and Pakistan (Pak) in Kashmir has never been a novelty. However, it was a bit intriguing, when the two sides exchanged fire in the first week of May 1999. It was more so, because just three months earlier, the Prime Ministers (PM) of the two countries had embraced each other at the Wagah border, to work towards peace. Also, after PM of India was accorded a 21 guns salute on his visit to Pak, it was hoped that the guns on the two sides would permanently fall silent.
As expected and sadly, the much-aroused hope was quickly shattered at the approach of summer, when the heavily armed Pakistani army masquerading as terrorists, crossed the LOC on 80 Kms front and occupied the Kargil heights ranging from 16,000-18,000 ft. They began attacking and disrupting the strategic highway linking Srinagar and Leh in the first week of May 1999. Indian political leadership and army quickly realised the Pak intention and lost no time and made plans to launch physical attacks to evict the Pakistanis from our side of the LOC.This led to the Indian army to quickly assess, plan and launch ‘Operation Vijay’ on 26 May. An army division was moved with speed to evict the intruders.
The Indian army had the inherent tactical and operational disadvantage of moving uphill carrying all war like stores through the icy heights and inhospitable mountainous terrain. On the contrary, the Pak army occupied mountain tops with good top-down observation and could dominate the approaches with effective fire. In the bargain the Indian army suffered heavy losses while moving from a lower height to higher ones, as the approaches were devoid of natural cover. The brave Indian army did not relent, facing all odds under treacherous fire from artillery and small arms, continued on their mission. The ever-reliable Indian Air Force was called in. Though limited, yet the decisive intervention by the Indian Air Force changed the dynamics of the operations in a dramatic and unprecedented way on May 26. It started raining rockets and machine gun fire on the Pak positions occupied on high reaches and behind the ridges and disrupted their supply lines in the rear of the enemy.
By May end, a proper war like situation involving selectively targeted air strike was existing in Kargil. This was further backed by the Air Force with one of the tasks to keep the crucial Srinagar-Leh highway free from the Pakistani threat. On June 13, crucial Tololing peak was captured, which proved a turning point in the operations. This was immediately followed by the capture of Point 5140. Simultaneously, immense pressure was mounting on Pakistan PM Nawaz Shariff from all round the world. He was badly exposed and had to beat a hasty retreat from his foolish misadventure. On 4 Jul, Tiger Hill was recaptured from Pakistani army. By now, Shariff and his over ambitious army chief Gen Musharraf were feeling the heat of their ill-conceived decision and fast failing operational plans. Meanwhile, India captured all the key peaks by 13 July and Pak intruders began retreating from Kargil. A deadline of 16 July, was set for total withdrawal and operation Vijay was declared a success after a most difficult limited war that lasted 50 days. Victory, over all conceivable odds bewildered raised the morale of the nation along with the indelible memories of valour by the brave young military men led by their fearless military leadership.
There is a view that India was gullible and trusted Pak in the spirit of Lahore Declaration, whereas Pakistan had laid the trap for the unsuspecting Indian leadership. It would not be totally out of place to say that while the Pak PM was actually signing the Lahore Declaration in Feb, his army chief, Gen Parvez Musharraf was giving final shape to intended Kargil misadventure and utilised the operational time and space to deceive the Indian leadership. A parallel can be drawn to what happened in Galwan Valley in Leh sector in 2020. It is for us to realize that time has gone for preaching peace and seeking resolutions through talks. A weak neighbour is always considered weak and vulnerable. Instead time to project and say; you attack me only to pay the heavy price.
There are always lessons to learn both from success and defeat. To that extent, there have been lot of views, controversies, case studies and brain storming sessions both by the army experts and political leadership. This involved strategists, intelligence agencies, committees, inquiries and boards to analyse the failure to foresee Pak’s massive recce, planning, preparations, build-up, logistics, aviation activities and defensive works, which went on months. All inquiries seemingly met the fate as hither-to-before with no accountability. Only few insignificant aspects recommended by the Kargil Review Committee have been implemented with the major recommendations of the report lying frozen in the Ministry of Defence.
The colossal loss of brave hearts and the young leaders, casualties suffered by hundreds and their suffering and torments faced by their families are the indelible remains of the war. Inter alias three principal agencies; RAW, IB and MI cannot just absolve themselves of a massive intelligence failure of this magnitude. Indeed an unpardonable lapse. Indeed, many heads should have rolled but nothing at all has happened to those who were responsible.
Pak with its poor international diplomatic standing, failed again on all fronts. Militarily, Pakistan was forced to rethink its strategy in Kargil. Infact, Pak PM turned himself from a hero to zero by this disastrous misadventure. India has since been taking many actions to internationally expose Pak at different levels through varied channels; be it G-8 to hit Pak’s crippling foreign reserves, IMF for monetary assistance/ loan, US for anti-terrorist operations on Pak soil, and diplomatically to expose it as hub for harbouring terrorists. Indeed, many things unknown to the common people are happening during the last few years. The real test of India’s diplomatic skills lies in the distant future as to how India can internationally ostracise Pak. Apparently, all is on the right course as Pak is being repeatedly placed on the grey list by the FATF for failing to curb anti-terror financing.
In the overall analysis as pointed out by some experts earlier, Pak had failed in Kashmir valley, upstaged in the bus diplomacy and failed to paint the subcontinent as a nuclear flashpoint. Pak opted for a desperate gamble to bring Kashmir to the forefront of international consciousness again. They factored in the fluctuating stability of Indian Parliament and resultant impending election during planning for Kargil. Pak woefully underestimated the collective Indian response and spirit abundantly seen when needed. Infact, Pak was shell shocked after a few days of initial operations and did not expect a full-scale offensive by India.
Pak expected UN intervention and arrival of international emissary to broker peace, thus achieving her aim of internationalizing Kashmir issue. The frustration and hopelessness of the situation forced Pak PM to dash abroad in the thick of war on Jun 28 for a supporting response or a face saver. Indian plan in not crossing the LOC was endorsed by the USA. Russia too backed India while France, China, Britain expressed their concern to settle Kargil issue bilaterally. It taught Pak that India has the strategic autonomy to pursue its national interest without having to seek consent from any big powers. This Indian resolve will surely have impact on anyone who intends to venture against India in future.
India lost many of her brave warriors in battles conducted on some of the most inhospitable terrains in the world. The fighting man climbed and fought valiantly without rest and respite, the Bofor Howitzers, AA Guns and MBRLs hit with utter precision and destroyed concrete positions both on the forward and reverse slopes. The logistician ensured that the fighting force need not look back and the medical corps ensured that no injured succumbed without valiant effort by the doctors. The Air Force regretted for getting only a limited chance to wreck hell on Pak and its army. The brave hearts preferred to die for a cause and become martyrs for the nation. The wounded displayed resilience beyond imagination to continue their fight and will power to recover and re-enter the battle field. Victory as thought did finally come to us. Sadly it came with many bodies of our fallen heroes wrapped in the national flag.
On 26 July, India salutes its fallen heroes and stands by the brave army for their spectacular victory in Kargil. This day is observed not just in the Kargil-Dras sector but across all states of India. In New Delhi, PM pays homage to the war heroes at Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate. This is the reason; the whole country feels emotionally integrated, united in its will, and forgetting all political, social and ethnic differences on this day. Since we have no religion, caste, or quota in the Indian army, everyone fights for India and pays homage to the martyrs as true Indian.
UT of Jammu and Kashmir, which can proudly boast of innumerable men in olive green, martyrs and decorated heroes, marches ahead to pay its utmost respect to the martyrs of Kargil war on 26 July. Like every year, this day is being celebrated at the sacred sites with equal poignancy, pride, spirit, respect and enthusiasm keeping into mind the Covid19 guidelines. The solemn day demands willing participation from every citizen to display undisputed patriotism and spirit in furthering this solemnity of the day like previous years. Needless to say, this is purely an apolitical occasion and everyone should endeavour to maintain its apolitical identity.
We must show solidarity with the families of brave departed souls. Long live the Martyrs who laid down their lives fighting against all odds in “Operation Vijay” and the Indian army for its selfless devotion and sacrifices.
(The author can be contacted at Shiv Choudhary 2@gmail.com)