Skeletons in the Generals’ cupboards

It is time for the truth about command failures during the Kargil war to be made public.

Published - August 12, 2009 02:51 pm IST

“Generalship unparalleled in the history of warfare,” 15 Corps Commander Lieutenant-General Kishan Pal said of his contribution as a commander of India’s forces during the Kargil war.

As India observes the tenth anniversary of that, we have been reminded of the need for nations to remember the valour of soldiers. But nations must also learn from the mistakes of those who sent soldiers to their death — or will be fated to repeat them.

Early in May 1999, three officers were having lunch in Kargil when news of Pakistan’s offensive in the Yaldor sector arrived. None was surprised at the news: each had warned their superiors of India’s vulnerabilities in Kargil, only to find themselves overruled.

Kargil-based 121 Brigade Commander Surinder Singh, his subordinate Colonel Pushpinder Oberoi, and 70 Brigade Commander Devinder Singh have not been featured in any of the many television commemorations of the war — but in their unheard testimonies lies the story of staggering command failures that went unpunished.

On August 25, 1998, Major R.K. Dwivedi, the Brigade-Major of the Kargil-based 121 Brigade, sent out a letter marked 124/GSD/VIS. To this letter were attached the contents of Brigadier commander Surinder Singh’s scheduled briefing of Army chief General V.P. Malik on the situation in Kargil.

In terse military shorthand, the briefing paper warned of a “push [by] militants across the L[ine] (of) C[ontrol]. Pakistan, it said, could “engage NH [National Highway] IA with AD [Air Defence] w[ea]p[o]ns”, “t[ar]g[e]t selected f[or]w[ar]d posts,” and “hit Kargil and outlying vill[age]s”.

Paragraph 8, marked “Enhanced Threat Perception,” recorded the intelligence foundations of these fears. The document recorded the arrival of fresh Pakistan troops at forward positions around Olthingthang. Fresh heavy and medium guns had been inducted into the sector, paragraph 6 (b) noted. Later, in paragraph 15, the document pointed out that “infilt[ration] routes [were] available through Mashkoh Valley, from Doda side to Panikhar, Yaldor and through nalas [streams]”. Forty-five Pakistani irregulars, paragraph 20 noted, had already moved across the LoC.

Brigadier Surinder Singh’s apprehensions were anchored in a growing mass of intelligence on Pakistan’s offensive intent.

Intelligence Bureau Director Shyamal Datta had, on June 2, 1998, issued a personally-signed alert on the training of large numbers of Pakistani irregulars. Based on intelligence provided by the Intelligence Bureau’s Leh station, Mr. Datta’s note recorded increased military activity along the LoC, notably near posts code-named Chor, Hadi, Saddle, Reshma, Masjid, Dhalan and Langar — the very posts which served as base camps for Pakistani forces during the Kargil war.

Later, Intelligence Bureau informants reported the deployment of M-11 missiles on the Deosai Plains and the laying of fresh minefields. The RAW, for its part, said new Pakistani troops — the 164 Mortar Regiment, the 8 Northern Light Infantry and the 69 Baloch Regiment — had been pumped into the area. In effect, a full brigade had moved in, a posture indicating offensive intent.

Military Intelligence spies made similar determinations. In June 1998, the Kargil Brigade Intelligence Team reported that supplies of ammunition were being dumped, and that terrorists had been seen in Skardu, Warcha and Marol, awaiting infiltration through the Kargil sector.

On August 30, 1998, Major KBS Khurana of the 1/S23 Intelligence and Field Security Unit at Kargil sent out a hand-written note, marked 1/10/6, referring to disturbing information provided by a source code-named 3820SC. “It has been revealed,” Major Khurana wrote, “that 500 Afghan militants have been brought to Gurikot, NJ 7959, to be further inducted into India in the near future”.

Early in January 1999, Colonel Oberoi called the attention of 3 Infantry Division Commander Major-General VS Budhwar to significant weaknesses in India’s forward defences, on the basis of an exercise code-named “Jaanch.” In his January 30, 1999 letter, Colonel Oberoi stated enemy action could render “some posts untenable.” It proceeded to call for forces being permanently stationed on Point 5165-metres, Pariyon ka Talab and Point 4660-metres — now famous as Tiger Hill.

Less than a month later, on February 9, 1999, troops of the 5 Para Regiment spotted movement on the top of Point 5770, a strategic height in the southern Siachen area. Again, on March 4, between eight and ten Pakistan soldiers were seen removing snow from a concrete bunker to west of the summit of Point 5770. That evening, shots were exchanged in the area — the first fire-contact of the Kargil war. The officer who reported the Pakistani intrusion, Major Manish Bhatnagar, was removed from the area, and the loss of the peak hushed up.

Finally, in April, 1999, local commanders conducted an exercise to test the impact of a Pakistani attack — ironically enough, just as the intruders were entrenching themselves in the Kargil heights.

Major General Mohinder Puri, commander of the 8 Division which would soon lead the battle in Dras, played the role Pakistan’s Army chief, while 70 Brigade’s Devinder Singh acted as the General-Officer Commanding of Pakistan’s 10 Corps area. Towards the fag end of the exercise, the group gamed a brigade-strength assault on the stretch between Zoji La and Kargil. Pakistan could, the exercise demonstrated, occupy large stretches. Lieutenant-General Pal and Northern Army Commander Hari Mohan Khanna dismissed the idea.

Like Lieutenant-General Pal, Major-General Budhwar was dismissive of his subordinates’ concerns. Early in 1999, the 9 Mahar Regiment was moved from its counter-infiltration positions along the Yaldor Langpa, and stationed near Leh. The 26 Maratha Light Infantry, charged with protecting the Mashkoh-Dras stretch, was also pulled back.

Brigadier Surinder Singh protested. In an August 12, 1998 letter, marked 101/GS (Ops)/ANE/R, he warned of the paucity of troops. “While the combating of an insurgency is an important role for the B[riga]de,” Brigadier Singh noted, “we must not loose sight of our primary role, that of ensuring the sanctity of the LoC and integrity of own territory. All the forces which can be spared for the anti-infilt[ration] role from integral t[roo]ps are already deployed.”

Despite losing approximately a quarter of its troops, to commitments elsewhere, the 121 Brigade did what it could — a fact subsequently suppressed by the official Kargil Review Committee.

Troops were withdrawn from the Mashkoh area for just 80 days in the winter of 1999, down from 177 days in 1997 and 116 days in 1998. Yaldor was left undefended for 64 days from February to April, where troops had been withdrawn for 120 days in 1997 and 119 days in 1998. Kaksar, another key area, was undefended for just 38 days, where it was left open for over 200 days in previous years. In Dras and Yaldor, Colonel Oberoi ordered troops to prepare fresh bunkers, preparing for what most local commanders believed was an inevitable onslaught.

General Budhwar and his subordinates seemed to inhabit different worlds. His pet project was building a zoo for Leh city. In June 1998, General Budhwar’s office demanded of field commanders “that various types of wild animals/birds are procured and despatched to zoo at Leh at your earliest.” “No representation,” the Colonel concluded sternly, “will be entertained.”

Even after fighting broke out, top commanders refused to engage with reality. At a meeting of the Unified Headquarters in Srinagar on May 24, 1999, Lieutenant-General Pal insisted that there “were no concentration of troops on the Pakistani side and no battle indicators of war or even limited skirmishes.” Paragraph 4(v) of the minutes of the meeting records his claim that the “situation was local and would be defeated locally:” an appalling miscalculation.

During the war, repeated efforts were made to hush up failures. Major Bhatnagar, fresh from Siachen, was ordered to push his battle-fatigued and frost-bitten troops up Point 5203-metres in Batalik. He asked for time to prepare his unit — only to find himself court-martialled. Major Ajit Singh, ordered to make a near-suicidal attempt to retake Point 5353 in Dras after the formal end of hostilities, was also court-martialled. He was sacrificed to protect higher commanders from responsibility for their failure to recapture the key position. Major Singh won his legal battle and retired with honour — but even today, the peak remains under Pakistan’s occupation.

Colonel Oberoi was cashiered for his failure to defend against the intrusions — intrusions he had warned of, but was not given resources to act against. Brigadier Surinder Singh, too, was sacked. Brigadier Devinder Singh, lauded in India’s official history of the Kargil war — he “himself operated ahead to keep abreast of the developments during each battle and to inspire his battalions to give of their best” — was passed over for promotion. Many of the officers have moved the courts for justice, but given the slow pace of the Indian judicial system, it will likely be years before their pleas are ruled on.

“The truth about what went wrong, where and why should not embarrass anyone,” the former Union Defence Minister George Fernandes said on August 14, 2002, “and it is a must so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.”

Perhaps the time has come for the man who now occupies his office to order that the whole truth be told.

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