In the early summer of 2001, the Indian Army was making meticulous preparations to carry out a highly classified operation across the LoC in J&K. Code-named Kabaddi, the operation would, when carried out, alter the geography of the LoC, the line agreed upon by India and Pakistan at Simla in 1972 after the Bangladesh War of Independence.

Around 25–30 Pakistani army posts from the Batalik sector of the Ladakh region of J&K right down to Chamb-Jaurian in the Jammu sector were earmarked by the Indian Army’s Northern Command for capture: around one–two posts per brigade. They were to be captured in a surprise operation judiciously divided into multiple phases, overrunning the Pakistani defences. It had to be a limited operation – no one wanted a full-scale war with Pakistan.

The general outlines of the audacious operation, codenamed Kabaddi, were drawn up in June 2001 in a meeting among the newly appointed general officer commanding-in-chief (GOC-in-C), Northern Command of the Indian Army, Lt Gen Rostum K Nanavatty, Lt Gen Gurbaksh Singh Sihota, the director general of military operations (DGMO) of the Indian Army, and the then Indian army chief Gen Sundararajan Padmanabhan at the office of the chief of the army staff (COAS) in New Delhi.

It was an unusually long meeting for the three senior officers of the Indian Army in which Gen Nanavatty and Gen Sihota appraised their chief, Padmanabhan, of the situation on the LoC and the increasing terrorist infiltration into J&K. They had to do something to radically change the payoff structure for Pakistan, Gen Nanavatty argued. Gen Padmanabhan agreed and gave the go ahead to make preparations for Operation Kabaddi.

Gen Nanavatty returned to his headquarters (HQ) in Udhampur, in the foothills of the Shivalik ranges in J&K, with a three-month preparation time from his chief to get his command ready for Operation Kabaddi. Gen Padmanabhan told Gen Nanavatty to expect orders to carry out the operation to arrive in due course.

The top-secret operation, which continues to remain undisclosed to the public, was to be carried out at the brigade level and below so as not to cross any dangerous threshold in a nuclearised environment.

Operation Kabaddi would include a wide spectrum of evolving punitive operations such as the execution of deliberate fire assaults to destroy military and terrorist points, and area targets across the LoC; ambushes and raids across the LOC; and company, battalion, and brigade-sized deliberate offensive attacks to capture objectives of tactical importance across the LoC that would improve the Indian Army’s counter-insurgency (CI) posture.

However, according to Gen Nanavatty, “it was not a single, coordinated operation to commence on a prescribed date. There was no mathematical distribution of tasks to formations and units.” They were planned to take place in several phases based on various operational contingencies. There was a great flexibility built into Gen Nanavatty’s operational plans to deal with contingencies and Pakistani responses to a surprise attack by India.

It was to be a purely army operation – the Indian Air Force (IAF) was neither notified nor integrated into the operational plans. However, as the preparations progressed, Gen Nanavatty did suggest to Gen Sihota that the IAF be brought into the picture to effectively carry out the mission.

The underlying strategic rationale behind the top-secret plan was to ease the pressure from the Pakistan-sponsored insurgency in J&K which was showing no respite despite the several military gains made by India through the 1990s.

Home-grown insurgency was dying out, but infiltration from Pakistan continued unabated. The Indian Army wanted to bring an end to it, or demonstrate to the Pakistan Army the costs of aiding infiltration into J&K.

The execution of Operation Kabaddi was to take place on or after 1 September 2001. In the words of Gen Nanavatty, “We were required to be ready to execute operations as planned on orders any time on or after 1 September 2001. But there were no ‘start’ and ‘finish’ dates.”

There is no clarity on whether Operation Kabaddi had political approval from the Vajpayee government in New Delhi. The two officers who were extensively interviewed to get an understanding of the 2001 operation, Gen Nanavatty, the then Northern Army commander, and Lt Gen HS Panag, who was a brigade commander under Nanavatty, could not confirm whether the plan had political clearance from Defence Minister George Fernandes, Defence Minister Jaswant Singh (who took over from Fernandes in March 2001), or Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Gen Panag talked about discussions with Gen Nanavatty. The latter recalled his discussions with the then army chief Gen Padmanabhan. When Gen Padmanabhan, who lives in Chennai after retirement, was contacted by the author, he said that due to his advanced age, he did not recall the specifics of the operation or whether such an operation had political clearance.

On whether there was political clearance, Gen Nanavatty responded that “only army HQ can answer the question as to whether the planned operations had the sanction of the government. As far as Northern Command was concerned we had the approval of army HQ.”

The rationale for this large-scale offensive operation had its origin in the previous year. The year 2000 had witnessed several small-scale and successful operations of this kind. During the previous year, local units of the army, with the tacit understanding and green signal from the army’s higher ups, had “adopted a calibrated offensive action across” the LoC “to sanitise areas of infiltration” on the Pakistani side. In an article written in 2014, military analyst Pravin Sawhney wrote rather candidly about several minor operations that were carried out during those months.

For example, on 22 January 2000, fighting in the Chhamb sector left 16 Pakistani soldiers dead. While both sides blamed one another, the truth was that Indian troops, in strength, attacked a Pakistani post and overran it. Similar instances occurred in Akhnoor, Mendhar, Kotli, Naushera and Pallanwala between January and August 2000.

So the planners, in a sense, only had to repeat the smaller operations on a larger scale.

The success of the previous year’s minor operations and the success of the Kargil War in 1999 under nuclear conditions had emboldened the Indian Army. Moreover, the then defence minister George Fernandes was a fan of the Indian Army’s limited war doctrine. The army’s recently retired chief VP Malik had spoken about it at length and become one of its proponents in later years.

Gen Nanavatty personally oversaw the preparations, going from brigade to brigade along the LoC to discuss the minute details of the plan with his brigade commanders. Operational plans were shared down to the brigade commanders’ level who were told to be ready for an assault, when the time came.

Three posts were selected from the Batalik sector, where Gen Panag was posted during those days. Gen Panag was a brigade commander then and he was in charge of carrying out the operation on three Pakistani posts. Gen Panag recalls Nanavatty flying into the former’s brigade HQ to decide the objectives and details of the operation. The general and the brigadier then went up to the LoC on the Indian side and the army commander was shown the three posts that were marked out to be captured.

Panag’s brigade was holding around 70 km of frontage of the LOC, so the objectives were spread out but he was confident of capturing them when the orders came. Nanavatty approved the plan before returning to his Command HQ.

Reserve battalions were pulled back from CI duties inside Kashmir, and were trained to carry out the mission and were kept on operational alert. The planners were aware that such an offensive land grab operation would not go unanswered by the Pakistani side: they were prepared to absorb the Pakistani response, most importantly by anticipating it.

To the chief architect of the operations, the Northern Army commander, the plan of action was crystal clear: battalion and brigade-size operations would involve crossing the LoC, capturing ground and posts by forcibly dislodging Pakistani soldiers, and holding the captured positions.

What would the Indian Army do with the captured territory and posts across the LoC? The chief was unambiguous that there would be no withdrawal of forces from the captured posts, unless the central government intervened and issued clear and direct orders for a pull-back. The thinking behind that was that the captured posts would improve the Indian Army’s defensive posture at the LoC both in the operational sense as well as to deter infiltrators.

In Gen Nanavatty’s words: “Offensive operations constituted attacks at brigade, battalion and company level to capture objectives and ground of tactical importance that would improve our defensive and CI posture. We intended to hold ground that was captured unless ordered by the government to the contrary.”

In early September, Gen Sihota, the DGMO, rang up Gen Nanavatty from the army HQ in New Delhi and asked, “Are you ready? Are your plans ready?” The Northern Army Commander responded, “We are ready since the 1st of September.” The plans were in place, material preparations were complete and the men were ready to strike – all they needed was the order from the chief.

The order never came. The choice of September 2001 to carry out the mission turned out to be fateful.

Just when everything was in place and the plan was to go forward, the terror attacks on the twin towers in New York took place. 9/11 changed everything, including the geopolitics in South Asia thanks partly to changing United States (US) calculations vis-à-vis Pakistan. Perhaps there was a small window of opportunity to carry out the operation immediately after 9/11 when Pakistan had not yet been drafted as an American ally in its war against terror. That window was never taken.

(The account of Operation Kabaddi is based on the interviews provided by two senior retired officers of the Indian Army: Interview with Lt Gen. Rustom K Nanavatty, Northern Army Commander, February 2001 to May 2003, 6 December 2017, New Delhi; and Interview with Lt Gen HS Panag, Army Commander, Central and Northern, 3 March 2017, Bangkok. Clarifications were sought from the two officers on several occasions thereafter via email and text messages.)

Excerpted with permission from Line On Fire: Ceasefire Violations And India-Pakistan Escalation Dynamics, Happymon Jacob, Oxford University Press India.