The Line of Control (LoC) despite the Shimla agreement in practice is governed by the principle of “Holders Keepers”, simply stated the force occupying the position defacto owns the areas

by Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia (Retd)

Two decades ago the Indian Army faced an unprecedented challenge, tasked to achieve the near impossible – recapture the peaks occupied by the Pakistan Army at an average altitude of 17000 feet in the Areas of Mushkok, Drass, Kaksar, Kargil and Batalik.

In a bold, ambitious and strategic masterstroke, Pakistan Army spearheaded by the Special Services Groups (Special Forces) and the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) infiltrated and occupied heights dominating the Zojila – Drass- Kargil – Leh national highway (NH1A), lifeline for sustenance and survival of Kargil and Ladakh regions as also the army deployment. Zozilla pass one of the two connecting Ladakh to the mainland usually opens for 100 days a year from 15 June to 15 October. Hence any disruption of NH1A would effectively cut off Kargil, Leh and the Siachen Glacier as also bring Kashmir back into international focus and centre stage, this being Musharraf’s aim.

The winters at these heights are harsh with snow accumulating to up to 100 feet accompanied by blizzards and avalanches, temperature touching minus 60°C. Taking advantage of the weather and terrain conditions, the Pakistan Army under Gen Pervez Musharaf infiltrated and occupied the heights, safe in the belief that no army would ever succeed in dislodging them.

The Line of Control (LoC) despite the Simla agreement in practice is governed by the principle of “Holders Keepers”, simply stated the force occupying the position defacto owns the areas. Pakistan aimed at a quasi-permanent deployment giving them ownership of the strategic heights dominating the lifeline to Leh. A brilliant military manoeuvre but they obviously did not factor the valour of the Indian soldiers and their junior leaders. The ethos of the Indian army wherein ‘Unit and Regimental Izzat’ is above all else and ‘ Nam, Namak Nishan’ the driving force.

Pakistan strategy and planning was near perfect, however, there is an old dictum which goes “Good Strategy but poor tactics will lead to defeat, however even poor strategy but good tactics can be a factor”. The Indian army by far one of the most battle-hardened and combat rich force in the world proved once again that they are capable of achieving the near impossible when the nation requires it. India and the Armed Forces were definitely taken by surprise by this bold and imaginative plan.

The first reported intrusion was in the Batalik sector by a shepherd on 03 May. The enormity of the intrusions and intent dawned on the Indian Army only at a much later date in mid-May. There was an intelligence failure at all levels from the tactical to the strategic. Adequate forces were not available across Zojila. Everything seemed impossible, the reportedly disconnect between the Indian Army and the Air Force coupled with the political direction not to cross the LoC severely limited military options. Massive efforts supported by good weather enabled the opening of Zozila pass a month earlier than normal. The Pakistan Army was comfortable in their belief that they had a couple of more weeks to reinforce and the stock was surprised by an extremely violent and concerted effort by the Indian Army and Air Force in May end /early June. The Army induction of 8 Mountain Division under the dynamic leadership of then Major General Mohinder Puri, a soldier and leader par excellent was a game changer. The Division went about their task of recapturing the peaks with unmatched professionalism and valour.

The battles of Tololing and Tiger Hill changed the course of the war. The Chief Gen VP Malik’s regular visits gave added impetus and priority to the momentum of operations. No one and least of all the Pakistan army expected their dominating positions at Heights of nearly 17000 feet plus to fall one after the other. Pakistan initially denied having carried out any intrusions claiming it to be the handiwork of non-state actors and went to the extent of not even accepting the bodies of their dead soldiers who were then given an honourable burial by Indian Army. later Pakistan confirmed that 453 soldiers were killed. The US Department of State made an early, partial estimate of close to 700 fatalities. According to numbers stated by the then PM Nawaz Sharif, there were over 4,000 fatalities.

The Kargil war led to many much needed structural changes in the Armed forces. The Kargil review committee was followed by the Group of Ministers report. Many of the recommendations have been implemented, however, the appointment of CDS is still under consideration. Media played a vital role in the war, igniting the imagination and interest of all Indians and the world, literally bringing the battle to the bedrooms. Information operations thus became an integral part strategy, though it is surprising that we lost the information war post-Pulwama despite a well-executed precision strike by the Indian Air Force on terror camp at Balakot.

During the Operations the then Director General Infantry Gen Shankar Prasad sent me to Kargil; to get first-hand feedback on the efficacy of infantry operations. What was heartening was the self-belief and the morale of our soldiers and leaders always willing to achieve the impossible. The report led to changes in the infantry battalion organisation and the scaling of weapons and equipment.

Vikram Batra, Manoj Pande, Sanjay Kumar, Yogendra Yadav, Anuj Nayyar, Vijayant Thapar among many other war heroes will long be remembered by a grateful nation. During the many battles, 26 officers were martyred and 66 injured, while 527 soldiers were martyred and 1,363 injured. A heavy cost to pay. Today as we celebrate two decades of victory, let us recollect the many sacrifices of our martyrs, the soldiers and air warriors who ensured victory against all odds lighting a candle in prayer.