'The Army leadership has been politicised'

Print edition : August 14, 1999

Interview with Moti Dar, former Vice-Chief of the Army Staff.

Former Vice-Chief of the Army Staff, Lieutenant-General Moti Dar, has broken his official silence over the handling of the Kargil war. While most retired military officials familiar with strategic policy have remained silent so far on the way the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government and the defence establishment conducted the campaign, Dar believes that officers like him have a special duty to speak out. "This is not an issue on which institutional loyalties or personal friendships are paramount ," he said. "This is an issue of India's defence. We have to make sure that what happened at Kargil is never allowed to happen again."

Dar, a highly decorated officer, was injured in the war of 1971. He retired as the Vice-Chief of the Army Staff three years ago. From 1967 to 1970, he served as Brigade Major of the 121 Brigade, which is responsible for Kargil's defence and which is now at the core of the controversies regarding on the handling of the war. From 1981 to 1984, he was again connected with events in Kargil, while commanding the 114 Brigade in Leh. In 1983, he participated in major exercises in the Kargil area, which formed the basis for subsequent strategic policies in the area. Lt.-Gen. Dar was also involved in designing strategies for the defence of the Siachen Glacier, and was closely connected with counter-terrorist operations in Jammu and Kashmir.

In his interview to Praveen Swami, Dar challenged many of the official claims on the conduct of the Kargil campaign, and pointed to the growing politicisation of the Army's top leadership. Excerpts:

When you were posted in Kargil, what form of patrolling and observation was in place? Did your perceptions of threat vary from time to time, or was there a fixed paradigm?

BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

No, we had a permanent assessment of what the threat to Kargil was, and had a fixed defensive system. We used to hold in strength most of the valleys which offered the most easy routes for infiltration. Up on the ridges, we used to have posts to monitor movements. From these major posts, we used to put out extensions and carry out patrols. For example, near Kaksar, we had a strong position on the shoulder of the ridge. We used that as a base to put out extensions. In the Chorbat La area, we used to have a base in the Indus valley, which used to move halfway up the mountains in the summer. At that time, patrols used to move up to the top regularly. Remember, in 1967 we had far fewer troops than are available now. We had a battalion for Drass, one each f or Channigund and Kargil, and just half a battalion for Batalik. There were two companies of the Jammu and Kashmir Militia, which later became the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry. So, some areas, like Marpo La, were thinly held.

There has been considerable controversy over the vacation of posts in the winter - about how many posts were actually on the Line of Control (LoC) to monitor movements in the winter, and what they were doing. What was the system during your tenure in Kargil?

There was absolutely no concept of vacating posts in the winter. If the snow was exceptionally bad one year, some posts might move a little further up or down. Equipment then, compared to now, was rudimentary, but we managed as best as we could. The wint er is bad in Kargil, but not so bad that military activity becomes impossible. Our men, who used to get supplies through local porters and ponies, used to stay up. Each of the pickets used to be stocked up for the winter. I used personally to visit the f orward pickets and make sure that patrols moved as they ought to.

So, in your considered professional view, there is no way that the spring intrusion by Pakistan could have gone undetected until May, had the pickets and patrols been functioning as they should have?

Definitely. There is absolutely no doubt about it. If the posts were up on the heights through the winter, if link patrols between them were executed on schedule, and if long-range patrols were regularly carried out, there is no way that the intrusion co uld have passed undetected. Local commanders also ought to have been maintaining contact with local village communities, who have excellent information on any unusual movements in the area. I am totally mystified and perplexed as a military professional, how something of this kind could have happened. Frankly, it is incredible.

Senior Army officials say that simply by having posts, patrols and so on, such an intrusion could not necessarily have been detected. In fact the Army has put this proposition on record in a letter to Frontline.

Movements on the ridges in particular can be detected fairly easily. If there had been small patrols tasked to carry out observation, the arrival of the infiltrators and their activities, including the setting up of improvised bunkers and ammunition stor es would have certainly been seen. Observation posts set up outside the pickets would also have spotted the intrusion. I am unclear whether there were helicopter patrols in winter, which we used to have in our time. If there were such patrols, they shoul d have certainly spotted something. We used to fly along the LoC regularly. In fact, I remember an incident when I strayed a considerable distance across it by accident! Now, I am not underestimating the difficulties of physical observation, particularly when the weather is bad. There is certainly a very strong case for upgrading our surveillance capabilities, using electronic sensors and improving our airborne platforms. But I cannot believe that a thousand, two thousand, infiltrators could not be dete cted by routine physical patrolling.

How would you respond to the counter-proposition that patrolling does not succeed in detecting intrusion in other areas? For example, large numbers of infiltrators routinely cross the LoC in Kupwara, Uri, Gurez and other areas.

There are two factors here. First, there is thick forest cover in those areas along the LoC. In Kargil, the mountains are bald. The forest cover in, say, Kupwara, makes detection of movement considerably more difficult than in Kargil. But the more import ant point is that infiltration is routinely detected in Kupwara or Uri. Patrols make fire contact with infiltrators almost every day along those parts of the LoC despite the Pakistani artillery and small arms support designed to suppress our defensive po sitions. Every year, hundreds of Pakistani infiltrators are shot dead on the LoC, and hundreds more are repulsed. If, in Kargil, some amount of infiltration had not been detected, but other groups had been detected and challenged, that would be explicabl e. What has happened defies explanation, and the public deserves an explanation.

Coming back to the issue of local intelligence, there is now a perception that the local population in Kargil is hostile to India, a claim that sections of the media and some politicians have made. Was this true of your time?

Perhaps the best way of answering this is that in our time, the flow of intelligence from the local community was excellent. We had a very good idea of what was happening in Skardu and Olthingthang, down to company-level movements. Most of it came from l ocal people with relatives on the other side. I, like my predecessors, made it a point to attend local ceremonies and maintain regular social contacts with the community. What really worked for us was the contrast between the development of this side of Jammu and Kashmir, minimal as it then was, with the abysmal condition of the people in Gilgit, Hunza and Baltistan.

In 1967, we launched a border demarcation exercise, since there was some disputes between Pakistan and India on just which areas each country was entitled to hold after the 1965 war. The largest problems were in Kaksar, where we had returned the key feat ure over Kargil, Point 13620, and in Darulang. Anyway, we eventually arranged a meeting on the Long Ridge on Kaksar with the Pakistani command, and both sides took surveyors along to resolve the problem. I remember taking up copies of Filmfare and cartons of Panama cigarettes, which were very popular with Pakistan troops. The Pakistani commander, Brigadier Ghulam Murtaza, who was from the northern area, bitterly complained about the Punjabi domination of the region. The state of civil infrastruct ure there was pathetic compared to what we had. So, the population in Kargil had no reason for complaint. If things have changed since then, and I do not believe they have, then people ought to do some thinking.

How do you see the future of military deployment in Kargil shaping up? There is talk that a second Siachen has been imposed on India.

It is very sad that people are responding to this situation in a defensive way. Pakistan has very poor and stretched lines of communication in this area. There is one route from Astor, another from Skardu and one from Happalu. None of them used to be in good shape. We always used to consider Kargil an excellent theatre of offensive operations for India because of its superior communications infrastructure. The point was finally proved in 1971. Even today, the fact that we have a highway there should be seen as an asset rather than a cause for concern. Secondly, our troops are far superior and better equipped than theirs. The Northern Light Infantry is not, strictly speaking, even a part of the Pakistan Army. So, rather than get into a defensive rut, we should consider what our options are and make sure the system functions in the future.

In a broader sense, are you concerned about events in Jammu and Kashmir? Recent developments have been quite alarming.

Yes, they have, and it is very disturbing. In some ways, things have deteriorated quite sharply since, say, the situation that prevailed after the elections of 1996. I think the most important thing that has happened since then is the nuclear tests in Po khran, which have transformed the situation in ways that we have yet to understand or deal with properly. What I find most disturbing is that the Army leadership itself has been politicised in a very crude way, so much so that political assessments are o bscuring and confusing military judgment. What is desperately needed now is an objective and impartial inquiry into what has happened. Pinning blame should be secondary to the important task of determining what happened and finding ways of ensuring that it does not happen again.

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