Kargil War: A saga of grit, valour and sacrifices

It is everyone’s duty to pay rich homage to the departed souls “who preferred to die for a cause, than meekly surrendering to the enemy” and those “who preferred to die for something, than living for nothing”.

kargil war
The colossal loss of brave young leaders, casualties suffered by hundreds and their suffering and torments faced by their families are the indelible remains of the war. (Express Archive)

By Col Shiv Choudhary (Retd)

Historically, there has never been stability or peace between India and Pakistan. To that extent, the thundering of guns and border skirmishes across the LOC that divides India and Pakistan (Pak) in Kashmir has never been a novelty. However, it was a bit intriguing, when the two sides exchanged fire in the first week of May 1999 because just three months earlier, the PMs of the two countries had embraced each other at the Wagah border, to work towards peace. Also, after the PM of India was accorded a 21 gun salute on his visit to Pak, it was hoped that the guns on the two sides would fall silent.

It is everyone’s duty to pay rich homage to the departed souls “who preferred to die for a cause, than meekly surrendering to the enemy” and those “who preferred to die for something, than living for nothing”.

Sadly, the much-aroused hope was quickly shattered at the approach of summer, when the heavily armed Pakistani army masquerading as terrorists, crossed the LOC on 80 Km front and occupied the Kargil heights ranging between 16,000-18,000 ft. They began attacking and disrupting the strategic highway linking Srinagar and Leh in the first week of May 1999.Indian political leadership and army quickly realised the Pak intention and lost no time to plan for eviction of Pakistanis. This led to the Indian army to quickly launch Operation Vijay On 26 May and an army division was moved to evict the intruders.

The Indian army had the inherent tactical and operational disadvantage of urgently moving uphill carrying war material through the icy heights and inhospitable mountainous terrain. On the contrary, the Pak army occupied mountain tops with good top-down observation and dominance over the approaches with effective fire. In the bargain, the Indian army suffered heavy losses while moving uphill through approaches devoid of natural cover. The brave Indian army did not relent, facing odds under treacherous fire from artillery and small arms.

The ever-reliable Indian Air Force was called in though for a limited role.It started raining rockets and machine gun fire on the Pak positions occupied on high reaches and behind the ridges and disrupted their supply lines in the rear. This decisive intervention changed the dynamics of the operations in an unprecedented way on May 26. By May end, a proper war like situation involving selectively targeted air strikes was existing in Kargil.The Air Force was further tasked to keep the crucial Srinagar-Leh highway free from the Pakistani threat which it did so boldly. On June 13, crucial Tololing peak was captured, which proved a turning point in the operations. The capture of Point 5140 followed immediately.

Simultaneously, the Pak PM Nawaz Sharif and his over ambitious army chief Gen Musharraf were exposed the world over for their ill-conceived decision and fast failing operational plans. This compelled Pak to to beat a hasty retreat from his foolish misadventure. Operationally, on 4 Jul, Tiger Hill was recaptured followed by capturing of all the key peaks by 13 Jul. Pak intruders felt defeated and began retreating from Kargil. A deadline of 16 Jul, was set for total withdrawal and operation Vijay was declared a success after a most difficult limited war in the history that lasted 50 days. Victory, over all conceivable odds, raised the morale of the nation along with the indelible memories of valour by the brave young military men led by their fearless military leadership.

There is a view that India was gullible and trusted Pak in the spirit of Lahore Declaration, whereas Pakistan had laid the trap for the unsuspecting Indian leadership. It would not be totally naïve to say that while the Pak PM was actually signing the Lahore Declaration in Feb, his army chief, Gen Parvez Musharraf was giving final shape to intended Kargil misadventure utilising operational time and space to deceive the Indian leadership. A parallel can be drawn to what happened in Galwan Valley in Leh sector in 2020. It is for us to realize that time has gone for preaching peace and seeking resolutions through talks. A weak neighbour is always considered weak and vulnerable. It is time to project and say; you attack me only to pay the heavy price.This demands a strong army and money to maintain it without any cribs.

There are always lessons to learn both from success and defeat. To that extent, there have been lot of views, controversies, case studies and brainstorming sessions both by the army and political leadership.This involved strategists, intelligence agencies, committees, inquiries and boards to analyse the failure to foresee Pak’s massive recce, planning, preparations, build-up, logistics, aviation activities and defensive works, which went over months. All inquiries about our failures seemingly met the fate as hither-to-be before with no accountability. Only few insignificant aspects recommended by the Kargil Review Committee have been implemented with the major recommendations of the report lying frozen in the MoD.

The colossal loss of brave young leaders, casualties suffered by hundreds and their suffering and torments faced by their families are the indelible remains of the war. Inter alias three principal agencies; RAW,IB and MI cannot just absolve themselves of a massive intelligence failure of this magnitude. Indeed an unpardonable lapse where in few heads should have rolled. Seemingly, nothing happened to those who failed.

Pak with its poor international diplomatic standing, failed again on all fronts. Militarily, Pakistan was forced to rethink its strategy in Kargil. Infact, Pak PM turned himself from a hero to zero by this disastrous misadventure.India has since been taking many actions to internationally expose Pak at different levels through varied channels; be it G-8 to hit Pak’s crippling foreign reserves, IMF for monetary assistance/loan, US for anti-terrorist operations on Pak soil, and diplomatically to expose it as hub for harbouring terrorists. Many things unknown to the common people are surely happening. The real test of India’s diplomatic skills will be how India can internationally ostracise Pak. Pak is being repeatedly placed on the grey list by the FATF for failing to curb anti-terror financing.

In the overall analysis, Pak had failed in Kashmir valley and in painting the subcontinent as a nuclear flashpoint. Pak opted for a desperate gamble to bring Kashmir to the forefront of international consciousness again. They factored in the then fluctuating stability of Indian Parliament and resultant impending election during planning for Kargil. Pak woefully underestimated the collective Indian response and spirit abundantly seen when needed. Infact, Pak was shell shocked after a few days of initial operations and did not expect a full-scale offensive by India.

Pak expected UN intervention and arrival of international emissaries to broker peace, thus achieving her aim of internationalizing the Kashmir issue. The frustration and hopelessness of the situation forced Pak PM to dash abroad in the thick of war on Jun 28 for a supporting response or a face saver. The Indian plan to not cross the LOC was endorsed by the USA. Russia too backed India while France, China, Britain expressed their concern to settle the Kargil issue bilaterally. It taught Pak that India has the strategic autonomy to pursue its national interest without having to seek consent from anyone. This Indian resolve will surely have an impact on anyone who intends to venture against India in future.

India lost many of her brave warriors in battles conducted on some of the most inhospitable terrains in the world. The fighting man climbed and fought valiantly without rest and respite, the Bofors Howitzers, AA Guns and MBRLs hit with utter precision both on the forward and reverse slopes. The logistician ensured no looking back and the medical corps ensured that no injured succumbed without valiant effort by the doctors. The Air Force regretted getting only a limited chance to wreck hell on Pak and its army. The wounded displayed resilience beyond imagination to continue their fight and will power to recover and re-enter the battlefield. The brave hearts preferred to die for a cause and become martyrs for the nation. Victory as thought did finally come to us. Sadly it came with many bodies of our fallen heroes wrapped in the national flag.

On 26 Jul,India salutes its fallen heroes and stands by the brave army for its spectacular victory in Kargil. This day is observed not just in the Kargil but across India proudly boasting of innumerable men and women in olive green, martyrs and decorated heroes, who march ahead to pay respect and remember brave hearts who laid their lives. This day is full of equal poignancy, pride, spirit, respect and enthusiasm. The PM pays homage to the war heroes at the war memorial in New Delhi. Whole country feels emotionally integrated and united in its will. The solemn day demands willing participation to display undisputed patriotism and spirit in furthering this solemnity. This should be purely an apolitical occasion with everyone endeavouring to maintain a political identity.

We must show solidarity with the families of brave departed souls. Long live the Martyrs who laid down their lives fighting against all odds in “Operation Vijay” and the Indian army for its selfless devotion and sacrifices. Jai Hind

(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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