In the jagged heights of Kargil, the signs of battle have long been obliterated. It is nineteen long years since the mountains reverberated with the constant sound of artillery fire. India fought a sharp though short war in a rugged, remote and inhospitable corner that few had even heard of. Kargil, Drass, Mushkoh, Batalik were mere names till the media brought them into ordinary drawing rooms. Even the names of locations in the war theatre bear testimony to just how desolate and isolated this part of India is: Point 4875, Point 5140, Point 4812. They were just geographical references, restricted to strategic maps in the offices of army commanders, till Kargil exploded into life, in full colour, on television screens.
India emerged victorious in July 1999, but paid a heavy price. The Indian army and the air force lost 474 men. As many as 1109 were wounded.
Several post-mortems were done after the then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ordered by the President of the United States of America to withdraw his troops from Indian territory. Within 72 hours of the army declaring victory on July 26, 1999 – referred to as Vijay Diwas – the government set up its first committee, under the chairmanship of K Subrahmanyam, to “review the events leading up to the Pakistani aggression in the Kargil District of Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir,” and recommend measures, “considered necessary to safeguard national security against such armed intrusions.”
The committee was scathing in its report. “The Review Committee had before it overwhelming evidence that the Pakistani armed intrusion in the Kargil sector came as a complete and total surprise to the Indian government, army and intelligence agencies as well as to the J&K state government and its agencies. The Committee did not come across any agency or individual who was able clearly to assess before the event, the possibility of a large scale Pakistani military intrusion across the Kargil heights,” it said at the outset. No intelligence agency had any inkling of the fact that Pakistan was putting an audacious plan into action, in the peak of winter, braving avalanches and blizzards.
The Committee made several recommendations, many of which have been implemented, including better coordination between the various intelligence agencies. Two sentences from the Committee’s report, stand out, nineteen years after the guns have fallen silent over the frigid wasteland in Kargil. They, in fact, are key to the oft-asked question of whether Kargil can be repeated. “Pakistan’s action at Kargil was not rational. Its behaviour patterns require to be carefully studied in order to gain a better understanding of the psyche of its leadership,” the report observed.
Does India’s security establishment have a better understanding of Pakistan’s “psyche”? Has India learnt its lessons from Kargil? The continuing assaults on India – over the nearly two decades since Kargil – provide some answers.
India has been hit multiple times. In less than two years after the Kargil conflict, Pakistani-trained terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament in December 2001. The assault on the temple of India’s democracy brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war once again and the armies of the two nations were caught in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation for several months.
Despite a complete analysis of the need to shore-up the country’s intelligence-gathering abilities, ten armed terrorists sailed to Mumbai, all the way from Karachi and held the financial nerve-centre hostage for over 72 hours, killing 166 innocents. The gaps in India’s security establishment were prised open once again and several post-mortems done. Several prime ministers, IK Gujral, Manmohan Singh, and the more muscular-oriented Narendra Modi have been tested by Pakistan and its proxies.
Modi took the risk of allowing an ISI representative to be part of a Joint Investigations Team that visited India after another audacious attack on an air force base in Pathankot, but Pakistan has done little – if nothing – to bring the terrorists to book. After the Pathankot attack, the advisor to the Pakistani prime minister admitted to the fact that the terrorists had made telephone calls to the Jaish-e-Mohammad headquarter in Bahawalpur but the investigation made no headway.
Pakistan continues to hit India through non-state actors. The suicide attack on an army camp in Kashmir’s Uri in August 2016 forced Modi to take political ownership of the surgical strikes that followed, but the strikes have failed to deter Pakistan.
The assaults have also exposed the chinks in India’s armour. Fidayeens, determined to destroy and die, have repeatedly managed to find their way into well-guarded installations. They did that in Pathankot, where they even spent a night, undetected. Suicide squads managed to cut the wire and kill 18 unsuspecting soldiers in Uri. In January 2018, another squad breached the security to enter an army installation in Jammu’s Sunjuwan.
In a signed column, written sixteen years after Kargil, General VP Malik – who was the chief of army staff during the war – said, “Our western border is much better manned than before. More troops have been deployed on the LoC and a border fence has been constructed. We also have surveillance satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, thermal imagers, radars and ground sensors, which were non-existent in 1999. But apart from that, we do not seem to have learnt any important lessons from that war. The modernisation of the armed forces continues to lag behind. The existing state of weapons and equipment could be sufficient for border skirmishes, but if they escalate, which can never be ruled out, deficiencies of weapons and ammunition and the lack of modernisation will make the present day Chiefs repeat what I had said long ago – ‘We shall fight with whatever we have.’ Over the years, our capability to deter the adversary has been seriously eroded.”
The vulnerability is more than evident. His words remind me of what I witnessed for the two months that I was in Kargil.
In 1999, young officers and men won the day for nation, despite unimaginable odds: shortage of men and machines, guns that didn’t open up, missile warheads that didn’t fire.
Cut to today, to now, and ask the question again: have we learnt our lessons? General Malik has already answered it, but here is what a 2017 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) found: 61 of 152 types of ammunition, considered critical by the Indian Army to fight a war, were available for just 10 days. The report, tabled in Parliament in July pointed out that the army is meant to hold ammunition to fight a 20-day war.
For this reason and more, it is imperative that the true story of Kargil not become a mere footnote in history.
Excerpted with permission from A Soldier’s Diary: Kargil, The Inside Story, Harinder Baweja, Roli Books.