Kargil conflict remembered

G Parthasarathy | Updated on July 10, 2019 Published on July 10, 2019

Army personnel during the celebrations of 20 years of Kargil victory   -  THE HINDU

It brought home the hard truth that for the Pakistan army enmity towards India is vital for it to continue as de facto ruler

Precisely two decades ago, three battalions of the Indian Army were tasked with attacking and retaking the heights of Tiger Hill, the highest peak in the Kargil sector. Tiger Hill is located at the commanding heights over the vital Highway connecting Srinagar to Ladakh. The operations to recapture the hill, which commenced during the last week of May 1999, were accompanied by a battle for the adjoining peak of Tololing, which ended successfully on July 3-4, 1999.

Control of the high peaks of Tiger Hill had enabled Pakistani forces to monitor the movement of our forces and disrupt supplies to our troops in Siachen. Coinciding with these events, Nawaz Sharif paid a hurried visit to Washington and agreed to pull back his forces in Kargil on July 4 — America’s Independence Day. This happened after Vajpayee had rejected President Clinton’s offers of mediation.

The Kargil conflict took place when both India and Pakistan were under economic pressure from UN-backed sanctions, after their nuclear tests in May 1998. The Clinton Administration was determined to “curb, rollback and eliminate” India’s nuclear weapons programme. Pakistan took advantage of the prevailing situation. Infiltration by the Pakistan army into the Kargil sector reportedly commenced around the same time, as the nuclear tests.

While the Nawaz Sharif Government was initially unaware of these developments, it backed its army’s actions wholeheartedly once General Musharraf briefed it. Contrary to popular perception, Nawaz was briefed on more than one occasion on what was happening, including at the Pakistan Army’s Regional Headquarters in Skardu.

India’s intelligence services learnt of the infiltration only around a year later, resulting in an ugly blame game over who was responsible for a serious intelligence failure.

Prime Minister Vajpayee had meanwhile decided that one way to deal with the American led international pressure was to try and make peace with Pakistan. It was decided that as a “grand gesture,” Vajpayee would visit Pakistan by bus, to inaugurate a Lahore-Delhi bus service.

Vajpayee was totally unaware of what was happening across the Line of Control in Kargil, when he arrived in Lahore. Nawaz played along after being briefed of his army’s plans. Arriving in Islamabad a few months before the Vajpayee visit, I found the atmosphere marked by Pakistani duplicity.

Close associates of Nawaz like Information Minister Mushahid Hussain were inciting Sikh pilgrims from across the world, even as Mushahid and the Governor of Punjab were in touch with the Lashkar-e-Taiba leader, Hafiz Muhammed Saeed.

Masterly speech

Vajpayee, who was and remains widely respected in Pakistan, was warmly received. The Service Chiefs did not receive Vajpayee on arrival, but called on him at the Governor’s residence, in Lahore, where he was staying. He delivered a masterly speech at a civic reception in Lahore, which moved the audience. The Pakistan military and significant sections of its political establishment appeared to think otherwise.

The intentions of the Pakistan establishment were evident during the Vajpayee visit, even in negotiations for finalising the Joint Declaration. Vivek Katju, who then headed the Pakistan Division, handled these negotiations firmly and skilfully. There was also no respite from terrorist strikes in J&K, in the months preceding and following the Vajpayee visit.

The Indian army, particularly its young officers and jawans, deserve the gratitude of the nation, for the valour they showed in battle, after climbing high mountain peaks in Kargil. Pakistan acknowledged that 453 of its soldiers were killed in the conflict, eleven years later.

They could afford to obfuscate, as the soldiers who were killed were largely Shias from Gilgit-Baltistan.

The nuclear dimensions of the conflict were handled by quiet moves by India, which ended the initial bluster from Pakistan, by its hawkish Foreign Secretary, Shamshad Ahmed. Indian casualties in the conflict were 527 army personnel killed and 1,363 wounded.

Prime Minister Vajpayee visited the Army Operations room during the third week of May 1999, for a briefing by Army Chief General Ved Malik, which I attended. The Army Chief gave a detailed account of Pakistani infiltration and assured Vajpayee that the Army would ensure that it throws out all Pakistani intruders.

One was aghast at the prospects of the bloody battles ahead and the extent of initial intelligence shortcomings, on our side. General Malik alluded to the need for air-support during the briefing — a proposal which was accepted the same day by Vajpayee, with the condition that IAF aircraft should not cross the Line of Control.

I was told to return immediately to Islamabad, as air strikes were commencing the next morning. The IAF was confident that its MiG 29s and Mirage 2000s could take on the PAF, equipped with American F-16s.

The PAF realised that discretion was a better part of valour and stayed away from coming too close to the LoC. Two IAF aircraft were brought down by Pakistani surface to Air Missiles — a MiG 21F piloted by Squadron Leader Ahuja, who sadly lost his life and a MiG 27L by Flight Lieutenant Nachiketa, who was captured.

The Pakistanis sought to play their usual games by arranging a huge media event to showcase their “generosity” during a conflict, by offering to release Nachiketa in my presence, at the Foreign office.

I refused to attend the proposed “release” function, describing it to the Foreign Office as a “media spectacle” demeaning the dignity of an IAF officer, captured in combat. The International Red Cross then handed Nachiketa over to us, inside the Indian High Commission, the same evening.

Seeking revenge

The Kargil conflict brought home many hard truths for us. Firstly, the Pakistan army, which rules the country, is not going to forget its 1971 humiliation. It will try and take some form of revenge, whenever it can. Enmity towards India is essential for its very existence and for it to continue as de facto ruler of the country.

With Vajpayee’s approval, we continued issuing visas to Pakistanis liberally during the Kargil conflict. The Lahore Bus Service and the Samjhauta Express functioned normally, carrying passengers to and from Pakistan. While Pakistanis were being misled by screams of imminent victory and azadi for Kashmiris, calm and determined Indians were going about their normal lives.

Let us mark the 20th anniversary of the Kargil conflict soberly and appropriately, with national tributes to General VP Malik and his brave soldiers, as also to Air Chief Marshal Anil Yashwant Tipnis, the fighter-pilots and others, in the Indian Air Force.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on July 10, 2019
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