General suspects

Published : Jul 04, 2003 00:00 IST

A review of the spoils of the Kargil war.Frontline

This article examines the other side of the story. It profiles those who grabbed the media-generated glory of Kargil and succeeded in glossing over their failures. The mass of evidence regarding their failures was not examined by the official Kargil Review Committee, although it had unfettered access to classified military and intelligence material, at least some of which had made its way into the media during the war itself. Errors of command and strategic judgment take place during the course of all wars, and these are not in themselves unpardonable. What is particularly offensive about the official handling of Kargil is that men down the line were victimised in a witch-hunt that was unprecedented in the history of the Indian Army. In September, when the Defence Ministry presents its responses to Brigadier Surinder Singh's petition, it will have an opportunity to set the record straight, and agree to an independent and transparent investigation of what went wrong. Sadly, of course, the odds are that this will not happen.

General Malik is now a senior consultant with the Reliance Group-funded Observer Research Foundation that focusses on military affairs. General Malik also writes regularly on military and strategic issues in popular publications.

THE Army chief, General Malik once wrote, "does not get involved at the tactical level unless a very serious situation requires his intervention." Yet Malik himself, who regularly appeared on television during the Kargil war, appeared with an almost disquieting frequency on the battlefield as well. And thereby hangs a tale.

What we do know is that for most of early May Malik did not believe that the situation in Kargil was "very serious". On May 9, 1999, he left on an official goodwill visit to Poland. By then it was clear that something was up along the Line of Control (LoC). The first intrusions into the Garkhun area had been detected on May 3, and confirmed by patrols of the 3 Punjab Regiment on May 7. A day earlier, troops of the 12 Jat Regiment were ambushed in the Turtok region, where Pakistani helicopters with under-slung loads had been seen in April. Two sets of intrusions were detected on May 12 in Dras by a patrol of the Ladakh scouts and Army Aviation helicopters. Troops in Kaksar discovered an intrusion on May 14. And so it went on.

Malik was abroad until May 20; he paused on his way back from Poland for a brief European vacation. His actions in the context of the military situation were probably based on the stated convictions of his subordinates. Although the 15 Corps moved the 56 Brigade east to Dras on May 15, the Northern Command seemed confident that the intrusions were minor and that could be easily contained.

At the same time, Malik's assertions in a recent article that it was only in the third week of May that the "fog of war started to lift" and the scale of the intrusions became clear just do not stand scrutiny. On May 19, at a closed-door meeting of the Unified Headquarters in Srinagar, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah had said that the "recent infiltration was not a short-term plan but a sinister design of Pakistan aimed to isolate certain areas and cut off Kargil-Leh from the valley". Abdullah, the minutes of that meeting record, "opined that these were not mere militants but supported by some Pakistani regulars too".

Hoping to hush up the scale of the blunder, the Northern Command worked with 15 Corps to push troops up the mountains in a series of ill-conceived and badly executed rushes up the mountains. One of the reasons for Brigadier Surinder Singh's removal from office was his refusal to go along with these tactics. In fairness to General Malik, he did a good deal to restore sanity, insisting on a 16-to-1 superiority against the intruders, and pushing the employment of air power. Nonetheless, he chose to defend the subordinates who had misled him in early May, and played along with the hounding of "dissidents'' and junior members of the staff. In deference to tradition, Malik himself received no medal for his role in Kargil war. His key commanders, responsible for gross failures of judgment, and the frittering away of soldiers' lives to cover them up, received honours.

General Khanna retired shortly after the Kargil war, and now lives in Pune. He won a Sarvottam Yuddh Seva Medal for his role in the Kargil war, a medal awarded shortly after his Air Force counterpart, the Western Air Command chief Air Commander Vinod Patney, won a similar honour.

SEARCH the literature for material on just why General Khanna might have won a war medal. The odds are that your notebook will be just as blank at the end of the exercise as it was at the beginning.

It is not really surprising. General Khanna took office on the eve of the Kargil war, and had no real sense of the terrain or the issues in the region. On May 14, he left Nagrota for Pune to consult his predecessor, General S. Padmanabhan, who later went on to become Chief of the Army Staff. On his return six days later, Khanna found himself bypassed in all but form by Malik, who chose to put his faith in the 15 Corps Commander. Khanna did not help his cause by advising Union Defence Minister George Fernandes that the intrusions were of a minor nature; Fernandes went on to earn notoriety by promising on May 15 that the intruders would be evicted "in 48 hours". A day earlier he had announced that the Army was "well prepared" to deal with the situation; a day later he asserted that the Army "had cordoned off the area entirely" and that the Indian objectives would be realised "within the next two days".

That Generals misinform the Defence Minister says something about standards in the Army. That the Minister himself seemed not to care is even more alarming. Crucially, Padmanabhan's own role in the Kargil fiasco has passed almost unnoticed. In 1991, the 28 Infantry Division was moved out of the region and given counter-insurgency duties. Despite the transformed security climate after the Pokhran-II nuclear tests of May 1998, violent artillery exchanges broke out in Kargil. No effort was made to plug the gap; instead, Kargil was further denuded of troops, and Brigadier Surinder Singh's repeated requests for more manpower were denied.

Many in the Army believed that Padmanabhan, reputed for his initiative and integrity, would end the Kargil witch-hunt when he took office. In retrospect, the reasons for his not having done so are obvious.

General Krishan Pal is now Quarter-Master General of the Army, a key post with control of enormous resources and powers of procurement. Scheduled to retire in August 2003, General Pal was awarded the Uttam Yudh Seva Medal for his role in the Kargil war.

IN his own judgment, General Pal was the hero of the Kargil war. He described the campaign he ran as "an example of General-ship unparalleled in the history of warfare".

Was it so? On May 19, in the face of what intelligence experts and his own troops were telling him, Pal told the Unified Headquarters in Srinagar that the Kargil "situation was local and would be defeated locally". He insisted that there were "no battle indicators of war or even limited skirmishes". "The Army convoys were moving unhindered," he continued, making a claim that could only be described as hallucinatory, "and soon the civil convoy would also commence."

Of the many failures of judgment and strategic sense that littered Kargil war, this one was spectacular. Major-General Ashok Verma's analysis of the pre-Kargil events places blame on Pal's "obsessive counter-insurgency mindset". Pal, like several of his predecessors, was simply unwilling to believe that a near-conventional war was possible in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly after Pokhran-II. In early April, even as the intrusions were on, Khanna and Pal attended a war game that examined how a conventional military attempt on Jammu and Kashmir could be made by Pakistan. Major-General Mohinder Puri and Brigadier Devinder Singh played out a brigade-size assault on Dras, where the capture of Tololing and Tiger Hill were specifically discussed. Pal was dismissive. Until May 26, he refused General Puri's offer to move the 8 Mountain Division, then located on the outskirts of Srinagar, to take charge of operations in Dras.

Just when did Krishan Pal wise up? His statements have been appallingly inconsistent. In an interview to Frontline in August 1999, he claimed to have "a good degree of clarity about just what was going on" by May 17. "I distinctly remember making it clear," he asserted, "when I first briefed the press in Srinagar on May 19 that the depth, extent, logistic support, fire support and magnitude left no doubt in my mind that it was a Pakistan Army-backed operation." Yet, two authoritative military accounts, General Verma's Blood on the Snow and Lieutenant-General Y.M. Bammi's The Impregnable Conquered, have him telling Malik on June 10 that just a handful of irregulars were involved in the operation. And, in a subsequent television interview, he admitted that it was on June 13, after the fall of Tololing, that he came to understand the scale of Pakistan's involvement.

In another time, General Pal would have been held accountable. Instead, he won a medal.

Now the Chief of the Army Staff, General Vij won an Uttam Yuddh Seva Medal for his role in the Kargil war. Some people believe that he is in the race to become India's first Chief of Defence Staff, an apex post approved in principle by the government. The proposal has not been implemented so far owing to political anxieties and inter-service rivalries.

NO one seems quite sure just what General Vij won his war medal for. There is barely a reference to him in the literature on the war, and only the odd, inconsequential mention in newspaper reports. He has more than made up for that, of course, in the course of his military-triumph-that-isn't - Operation Sarp Vinash.

Vij's sole forward line encounter with Kargil was a fleeting one. He flew into the headquarters of the 121 Infantry Brigade on the afternoon of May 5, 1999. Two days earlier, patrols of the 3 Punjab Regiment had detected the first signs of a major Pakistani intrusion into the area. Ironically enough, Vij, then Director-General of Military Operations, with overall responsibility for all operations of the Indian Army, was not aware that a war was about to break out.

Although serious fighting had broken out, 3 Punjab failed to notify the 121 Brigade Headquarters. The Brigade only came to know of the fighting around Yaldor on the evening of May 5, several hours after Vij had left. News that casualties had been sustained in that fighting was made available to the Brigade only two days later.

The current Army chief's most controversial war-time action, perhaps appropriately, took place over a thousand kilometres from the nearest battlefield. On May 31, 1999, he and Air Vice-Marshal S.K. Malik drove along with Defence Minister George Fernandes to an emergency meeting of the Bharatiya Janata Party's National Executive. General Vij then gave the gathered politicians a detailed briefing on the situation along the LoC.

It was for the first time in the history of the Indian military that a serving officer had given a political party such a briefing. It seemed completely out of step with service rules. The breach was rendered all the more serious by the fact that the members of the BJP's National Executive, unlike Fernandes, were not bound by the oath of office and secrecy that a Minister has to take.

Speaking to journalists that evening, BJP spokesperson M. Venkaiah Naidu said that both officers had been brought to the meeting by Fernandes, who alone had been invited by party president Khushabhau Thakre.

Since briefing BJP leaders is not in itself a ground for granting medals, questions clearly remain to be answered.

Major-General Budhwar serves as Director-General (Resettlement) in New Delhi. He has over a year and a half to go before retirement. Despite severe criticism of his role in combat, and evidence of illegalities committed before it, he faced no censure. His only punishment was that he received no medal.

DURING the build-up to the Kargil war, life at the military station in Leh went on as usual. There were parties, and picnics to Pangong lake. On occasion, an Army Aviation Corps helicopter would be wheeled out to take visitors for a luxury taxi-ride through Ladakh. Even after the war began, things did not change much. "There was an unreal and un-warlike atmosphere prevailing in Leh," the Commandant of the Military Hospital there, A.K. Sinha, recalled later. "Families kept arriving for holidays. The arrival of the dead bodies of Havildar Nizamuddin of 22 Grenadiers and Havildar Padam Singh of 16 Grenadiers around May 10, a week after the intrusion had been reported, created some initial awareness."

Commanding la dolce vita Ladakh-style was Major-General Budhwar. His focus was obsessive, but none of it was on matters military. On May 16, 1998, 3 Division sent out instructions to its field units informing them of their commanding officer, Major-General V.S. Budhwar's new pet project: building a zoo for Leh, a town with a few thousand residents. Lieutenant-Colonel U.K. Singh sent out a second missive, marked 6361/9/ZOO/Q1, on June 8, 1998.

"Please ensure," the letter read, "that various types of wild animals/birds are procured and despatched to zoo at Leh at your earliest." "Cages required for transportation of animals/birds," it continued, "will be made under arrangements of respective b(riga)de(s)." "No representation," it concluded, "will be entertained."

He also found time to host top Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh cadre during the 1998 Sindhu Darshan Festival, which was run and managed at Army expense.

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