XV Corps leadership punished officers, who warned of looming threat, to cover up failures: critics
Less than a week after an Army patrol in Kargil vanished into thin air, top Jammu and Kashmir officials met to discuss the looming crisis on the Line of Control.
The senior-most military commander in the region, XV Corps Commander Lieutenant-General Kishan Pal, reassured them that there was nothing to discuss.
Minutes of the meeting of the Unified Headquarters in Srinagar on May 24, 1999 show he insisted that there were “no concentration of troops on the Pakistani side and no battle indicators of war or even limited skirmishes.”
Commander’s war role
Earlier this week, Armed Forces Tribunal judges Justice A.K. Mathur and Lieutenant-General M.L. Naidu cast a significant doubt on the commander’s war role, ordering, among other things, that an official war history, based on his documentation of events, be revised.
The Tribunal found that he falsified war records to ensure that a key subordinate, 70 Infantry Brigade Commander Devinder Singh, was denied promotion and battle honours
The May 17 order of the judges is likely to have consequences on other cases revolving round claims that Lieutenant-General Pal suppressed warnings of a Pakistani intrusion into Kargil — and then punished those who set off alarms.
Key among those cases is a complaint filed by Major Manish Bhatnagar. In January 1999, troops commanded by him on the Siachen glacier began coming under heavy fire.
Major Bhatnagar concluded that Pakistani soldiers had occupied Point 5770-metres, threatening Indian positions lower down the glacier as well as logistical supply lines to the southern Siachen glacier.
He says his immediate superior, Colonel A.K. Shrivastava, responded to the threat by asking him to stop sending written reports.
On June 10, 1999, Major Bhatnagar was ordered to make a three-day journey to the headquarters of the Batalik-based 70 Infantry Brigade along with four junior officers and 80 men from the 5 Para Regiment. They were ordered to immediately assault Point 5203-metres. Major Bhatnagar demurred, saying the men were worn out by the journey and inadequately equipped.
In November 1999, the military authorities prosecuted Major Bhatnagar for cowardice — an allegation the officer says was intended to discredit his early warning on the Point 5770 intrusion. This charge was later dropped and replaced with the offence of having disobeyed orders from superiors.
No orders given
But during the court-martial, Commander Devinder Singh said he gave Major Bhatnagar no orders in the first place. Finally, the latter was convicted of having “improperly stated” the condition of his troops.
The Bhatnagar case has thrown up credible evidence that the XV Corps leadership was willing to risk the lives of under-prepared troops to cover up its operational failures.
India had first said that Point 5203 was captured by troops under the command of Captain Amod Kalia on June 10, 1999. Major Bhatnagar was asked to commence an attack on the peak five days after victory was claimed. Point 5203 was eventually captured by troops led by Captain S.S. Bisht on June 19.
The officer’s plea for reinstatement is scheduled to be heard by the Tribunal later this year, but the judges there have said they do not have the authority to order an investigation.
Major Bhatnagar was just one of the several officers who apparently irked XV Corps in the build-up to the war.
In a January 30, 1999 letter, 16 Grenadiers’ commanding officer Colonel Pushpinder Oberoi informed his superiors of a war game that suggested that enemy action could make several Indian posts unsustainable. He called for stationing of troops on Point 5165 metres, Point 4660 metres and Pariyon ka Talab.
Later, the 16 Grenadiers’ commander was accused of having vacated a key position known as Bajrang Post. His superior, 3 Division Commander V.S. Budhwar, was found to have, in fact, ordered that troops from the post be pulled out — but was never punished.
121 Brigade Commander Surinder Singh, who was sacked under controversial circumstances, has also moved the Armed Forces Tribunal, saying he was punished without cause.
In an August, 1998 briefing note prepared on the eve of a visit by the former Army chief, General V.P. Malik, he pointed to the unusual movement of Pakistani troops and artillery into the sector — movements which had, unknown to him, also generated successive intelligence.
Troops pulled out
Despite these warnings, troops were pulled out of defensive positions along the Line of Control. In the end, the 121 Brigade is estimated to have been relieved of about a quarter of its troops.
The full consequences of the XV Corps’ misreading of the intrusion have never been investigated. India’s first patrol after news of intrusions surfaced was made up of just six men, led by Captain Saurabh Kalia.
The men were captured by the Pakistani troops at the Bajrang Post on May 7, 1999, and executed after being brutally tortured.