Exactly 10 years ago, on Republic Day, Brigadier Devinder Singh received a glowing official citation for gallantry, hailing his leadership of the Batalik-based 70 Infantry Brigade during the Kargil war.
Brig. Singh, the citation says, personally led the critical battle for Point 5203-metres as well as the now-famous assaults on the Jubbar complex. Despite sustaining injuries, he continued to fight “unmindful of and with total disregard for personal safety.” He was also complimented on having “meticulously planned the application of all the resources at his disposal.”
But, on Wednesday, the Armed Forces Tribunal will hear a petition from Brig. Singh, alleging that top commanders fabricated war records to deny the key operational contribution of the commander and his formation in winning what most experts concur was the most difficult campaign of the Kargil war.
This is the first of a string of Kargil war-related cases scheduled to be heard by the Tribunal — among them, those of 121 Brigade Commander Surinder Singh and Major Manish Bhatnagar, who say they were made scapegoats for the failures of top generals.
Despite his battle valour, Brig. Singh received only a Vishisht Seva Medal — a relatively low-order decoration normally given for peacetime duties. Later, he was passed over for promotion by the Army.
Key to the decision was a battle performance assessment prepared by Lieutenant General Kishan Pal, General Officer Commanding of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps.
In an assessment of 70 Brigade’s conduct during the war, Lt. Gen. Pal asserted that Brig. Singh had little to do with the success in Batalik. “Success in operations,” he instead claimed, “particularly in the last 10-12 days, came about by superimposing Brigadier Ashok Duggal, Deputy General-Officer Commanding 3 Infantry Division.”
Later, an after-action report prepared by Lt. Gen. Pal’s headquarters claimed that Brigadier Duggal had control of four battalions which led the assault along the eastern flank of the Batalik sector — the Ladakh Scouts, the 1st Battalion of 11 Gurkha Rifles, 12 Jammu Kashmir Light Infantry and 22 Grenadiers Regiment.
But these claims were directly disputed by the officers who led these units. Colonel Avtar Singh, Colonel General Staff of 3 Division, asserted that Brig. Duggal was “at no point of time ever tasked [with] nor did he perform any command or control operations.” Lieutenant Colonel A.S. Chandoke, who led the Indus Wing of the Ladakh Scouts, maintained that “throughout these operations, command and control remained with the Commander, Brigadier Devinder Singh.” Lieutenant Colonel Neeraj Mehra, who commanded 22 Grenadiers, also supported this account.
Lt. Gen. Pal clashed with the Brigadier in the past. In April 1999, he dismissed out of hand warnings emerging from a war game, where Brig. Singh acted as Pakistan’s Force Commander Northern Areas, which suggested that a Kargil-like intrusion could take place. That June Lt. Gen. Pal — who infamously promised to end the war in 48 hours — told the Chief of the Army Staff that just 45 militants were positioned in Batalik, instead of the 600-odd regular troops Brig. Singh said he was confronting. Brig. Singh’s assessment was later proved correct by the questioning of captured prisoners of war.
In order to protect himself and some superiors from the consequences of these gross errors of judgment, Brig. Singh’s petition suggests, Lt. Gen. Pal fabricated records trivialising his subordinates’ roles. Lt. Gen. Pal’s underestimation of the enemy intrusion led 70 Infantry Brigade to eventually command 11 battalions of troops, instead of the three battalions a brigade-sized force normally has.
Lt. Gen. Pal’s claims that he placed the eastern wing under Brig. Duggal’s command appear intended to gloss over the assessment failure and irregular wartime response.
Brig. Singh filed a complaint with the Army in 2000, charging Lt. Gen. Pal with bias — an allegation, the documents show, that at least ought to have been investigated.
But two years later, the Army rejected the complaint. In 2004, the Defence Ministry struck down Lt. Gen. Pal’s assessment of Brig. Singh’s battle performance. However, the Ministry refused to strike down sections of Brig. Singh’s annual confidential report, a document Lt. Gen. Pal was responsible for reviewing.
Notably, all three officers involved in preparing Brig. Singh’s post-Kargil ACR had direct equities in its outcome. Major General Budhwar, despite his command failures, suffered no punishment. Lt. Gen. Pal got a Uttam Yudh Seva Medal (UYSM). So did his immediate superior during the war, Northern Army Commander Lieutenant-General Hari Mohan Khanna — the officer who ought to have detected and corrected 15 Corps’ misrepresentation of command in the Battle of Batalik.
Interestingly, successive Chiefs of the Army Staff who could have set the record straight were also linked to the controversial conduct of the war by the Army’s top command.
General S. Padmanabhan, who led the Northern Army when Pakistan’s intrusions were taking place, went on to become the Chief of the Army Staff. So too did General Nirmal Vij, who was Director-General of Military Operations during the Kargil war, and received a UYSM. His Deputy, General J.J. Singh, who received an Ati-Vishisht Seva Medal, also rose to the rank of Army chief.