Fact and fiction on Point 5353

Print edition : September 30, 2000

The defence establishment's response to the controversy over Point 5353 plumbs new depths.

IN August, news broke that Pakistan holds one of the most important mountain features in the Drass Sector, Point 5353-metres. Since then, there has been a welter of fresh revelations, the most important of them being lawyer and Rajya Sabha MP R.K. Anand' s disclosure that five other positions on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC) are held by Pakistan. Anand also made public Army's internal correspondence on the causes of the debacle over Point 5353. The revelations did not lead to a considered rebuttal, but generated a wave of hostile official polemic, often through pro-establishment journalists. One so-called security affairs expert charged that the revelations were part of a Pakistani intelligence plot to generate a "divisive debate" in Indi a.

Addressing an audience of businessmen in Mumbai in early August, Union Defence Minister George Fernandes put forward the sole cogent official response to the revelations about Point 5353. "5353," he said, "is the point over which the LoC goes. The fact i s, our troops had never occupied that. The normal practice among them has been that where the line goes over a peak, then nobody occupies it." The Minister then proceeded to assault what he perceived to be irresponsible media organisations, much to the d elight of the assembled Mumbai businesspersons, many of whom have had their own skirmishes with reporters. But an analysis of Fernandes' statement shows not only little concern for fact, but an alarming willingness to use falsehood to ensure that his cho sen team in the defence establishment can continue to be incompetent with impunity.

"5353 is the point over which the LoC goes"

Assertions that the LoC is imprecisely defined on the ground, and that the territorial status of Point 5353 is therefore unclear, have formed the central component of official discourse on the controversy. A few hours spent poring over old newspapers are all that it takes to set the record straight. Sadly, few of the many commentators who have engaged with the revelations made in Frontline and other publications on the status of Point 5353 have seen it fit to make the effort.

During the Kargil war, Pakistan had put forward claims that the LoC was undefined on the ground, and that its territorial contours were imprecise. An irate spokesman of the Union Ministry of External Affairs responded on June 19, 1999. "The LoC is well d efined and delineated," he said, "and is the very cornerstone of Indo-Pakistan relations." Pointing out that detailed co-ordinates of the LoC were given in 19 annexures to the agreement of December 11, 1972, arrived at between Lieutenant-General Abdul Ha mid Khan and Lieutenant-General P.S. Bhagat, the spokesman added that "so far as the de jure position is concerned, there are no doubts."

Speaking in New Delhi on June 23, 1999, his first press conference after military operations began in Kargil, Chief of the Army Staff V.P. Malik was even more explicit. "In today's display," he said after a formal presentation, "we have also given you de tails of the LoC; its delineation; how it was delineated." "With marked maps, a military man without a GPS (Global Positioning System) can make an error of a few hundred metres on the ground, but an error of 8 to 9 kilometres is unimaginable."

No one appeared to be in any doubt about just where Point 5353 was during the Kargil war itself. The Press Trust of India (PTI) put out official responses to Pakistan claims that Point 5353 was on its side of the LoC on July 28, 1999. "The maps signed by the Indian and Pakistani DGMOs (Directors General of Military Operations) in 1972 clearly indicate that it belongs to India," the PTI despatch noted. On July 30, a PTI depatch repeated the assertion in a report on fighting around Point 5353: "In this se ctor, Pakistan claims some mountains to be a part of this territory whereas the maps signed between the Directors General of Military Operations in December 1972, are contrary to this claim."

Maps published in Frontline, and also separate documents made available to the press by Anand, both make clear that Point 5353 is at an aerial distance of almost a kilometre from the LoC on the Indian side. On the ground, that would mean a trek of several kilometres, given the terrain's savage contours. How what was "well defined" and "well delineated" only a year ago has now become so confused is a question only the defence establishment's apologists can answer.

"Where the line goes over a peak, nobody occupies it"

Leaving aside the so far undenied fact that Pakistan is indeed in occupation of Point 5353, this second element of Fernandes' argument raises more than a few interesting issues. Right through the Kargil war, Indian officials made clear that the fight for Point 5353 had been joined. But that fight would have served little purpose had the strategically located peak not fallen inside Indian territory.

Northern Command chief H.M. Khanna announced in Srinagar on July 21, 1999 that while the bulk of the Pakistan intrusion had been vacated, "some 50 to 70 intruders still held three positions along the LoC in Kargil". Two days later, The Tribune, ci ting official reports, noted that "fierce fighting was on in Batalik and Kaksar sub-sectors as the Indian troops launched operations to evict the intruders from the three pockets they were holding." "Fighting," the report noted, "was under way at Point 5 353 in Drass, Muntho Dhalo and Shangruti Ridge in Batalik, and also at a position in Kaksar." These are much the same areas as Anand referred to in his press conference.

Nothing much changed over the next few days. On July 24, The Tribune again reported that "Pakistani intruders continued to hold their position in the small pockets of intrusion". The same day, the Asian Age's special correspondents in New D elhi and Srinagar quoted Union Defence Minister George Fernandes as saying that "a very few Pakistani soldiers are occupying one point each in Drass. Batalik and Mushkoh." "These points," he insisted, "will be cleared at any time." Officials did their be st to prove their Minister right, announcing both on July 25 and July 26, 1999 that the last of the intrusions had been cleared.

Fernandes and Lieutenant-General Nirmal Vij, the Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO), were, in fact, being economical with the truth. On July 28, PTI reported that fighting continued in several areas. One soldier was killed in shelling in the Batalik area while another died in the Muntho Dalo area. The Pakistan Army, PTI recorded, "also launched a counter-attack on Sando Top and Zulu Spur." The Zulu Spur forms the junction of ridges from the Mushkoh Valley and the Marpo La area. Most importan t of all, PTI noted that "in Mushkoh sub-sector of Drass both sides exchanged small arms fire around Point 5353". What Indian troops were doing there if the peak is not on the Indian side of the LoC remains a mystery - particularly if, as the Army's publ ic relations staff insist, the peak is of little strategic significance and poses no real threat to National Highway 1A.

Pakistan, which now denies that it holds any territory on the Indian side of the LoC, clearly understood the gains it had made. On July 26, even as officials in New Delhi announced that the last Pakistani intruder had been evicted from the Indian side of the LoC, the Pakistan Army's Brigadier Rashid Qureshi made a significant, but little noticed, statement. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported that "contrary to Indian claims, the Pakistan Army is still holding some strategic heights along the Li ne of Control and can effectively tackle any Indian attack." "We are in a position to target Indian vehicles on the Kargil-Drass road," it quoted Qureshi as saying.

But in the triumphal glow provoked by the end of Operation Vijay, news regarding Point 5353 disappeared from the press. No reportage on the fighting in the area appeared after the PTI report of July 28. A similar fate befell operations in the Batalik are a. On July 9, Army spokesperson Bikram Singh announced that "valiant Gorkha Rifles soldiers, who had recaptured Khalobar and Point 5287, regained point 4821 and Kukerthang". "The gallant Bihar regiment," he continued, "took control of the Tharu hills in an overnight operation." "Now," he concluded, "only one or two pockets where the intruders are giving resistance are left to be recaptured." Nothing about those pockets, which included the Shangruti feature on the LoC, was heard of again.

"Fact is, our troops had never occupied that"

The argument that Point 5353 was never held by India has been regularly used by the Army public relations apparatus to rebut the charge that operational incompetence and strategic errors led to its occupation by Pakistan during the Kargil war. The claim is, in fact, true. India did not hold Point 5353 before the war broke out. What has not been reported widely is that this statement of fact rebuts nothing, for no one ever claimed that the peak was physically held by India before the war. Indeed, reports that appeared in Frontline and Business Line made quite clear that the peak was not held by either side in the build-up to the conflict.

Point 5353, along with the features around it, was occupied by the Pakistani troops at the start of the Kargil war. When the hostilities ended, the Indian troops had succeeded only in taking back Charlie 6 and Charlier 7, two secondary positions on the M arpo La ridgeline. The Indian troops had also been unable to evict Pakistani soldiers from Point 5240, some 1,200 metres from Point 5353 as the crow flies. Amar Aul, the 56 Brigade Commander in charge of the operations to secure Point 5353, responded by occupying two heights on the Pakistani side of the LoC, 4875 and 4251, just before the ceasefire came into force.

Aul later tried to use these two heights to bring about a territorial exchange. In mid-August 1999, his efforts bore fruit, and both sides committed themselves to leave Points 5353, 5240, 4251 and 4875 unoccupied. Indian and Pakistani troops pulled back to their pre-Kargil position as part of a larger agreement between their respective DGMOs. In October that year, however, the deal broke down. Aul tasked the 16 Grenadiers to take Point 5240 and the 1/3 Gorkha Rifles to occupy Point 5353, choosing to vio late the August agreement rather than risk a Pakistani reoccupation of these positions. The operation was mishandled, and when the Pakistani troops detected the Indian presence on 5240, they promptly launched a counter-assault on Point 5353.

Pakistan rapidly consolidated its position on 5353 after the abortive Indian offensive. Concrete bunkers came up on the peak, and a road was constructed to the base of the peak of Benazir Post. And with Point 5353 and its adjoining area now linked by roa d to Pakistan's rear headquarters at Gultari, any attack will lead to a full-blown resumption of hostilities. No official from the Army or the Defence Ministry has, until the third week of September, denied this sequence of events.

Nor has a denial been made of significant new revelations made by Anand. Anand made available the correspondence between Captain Navneet Mehta, who led an unsuccessful attack on Peak 5353 in May 1999. The correspondence outlines the errors that led to th is debacle. Aul has not been called to account for his actions. Nor has the Army denied or accepted this highly decorated solider's part in the debacle. Neither have his superiors seen it fit to explain why Pakistan was left in possession of the peak, an d why the subsequent exchange-deal was terminated to India's evident disadvantage. Most significant, Anand's claim that Point 5353 was indeed held by India in 1992-1993, successfully cutting off Pakistani supply routes, has not been rebutted.

In the wake of Anand's intervention on the 5353 debate, General Malik has chosen to distance himself from the entire controversy. At an August 31 press conference, held to inaugurate the Army Wives Welfare Association's website, Malik said the issue had now entered the "political domain." "We are going through his statement," Malik said. "We have the answer, but let the government react." Coming from an Army chief who allowed his officers to brief the Bharatiya Janata Party on the conduct of the Kargil war, and permitted his soldiers to host a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-organised religious function in Leh, the new disdain for politics is interesting.

The worrying lack of answers about Point 5353 is not the only problematical aspect of the affair. Many of the Army's responses to Point 5353 stories were put out not through attributable statements, for which officials could later be held accountable, bu t through off-the-record briefings held behind closed doors. In effect, a section of the media allowed itself to be used as the public relations wing of an incompetent defence apparatus. One Calcutta-based daily even apologised for the unpardonable sin o f having failed to censor Anand's press conference on behalf of the defence establishment.

India's defence establishment and much of the press have chosen to hide from uncomfortable truth. But the silence does no one any favours, least of all the soldiers who could one day have to pay again with their lives for the failures of the Kargil war.

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