A new chief for the Army

Print edition : January 31, 2003

General Nirmal Chand Vij talks to reporters after being appointed Chief of the Army Staff, in New Delhi on January 1. - B. MATHUR/REUTERS

General Nirmal Chand Vij takes over as the country's new Army chief at a time when the Indian Army's need to learn from history has never been more acute.

INDIA'S new Army chief, General Nirmal Chand Vij, was in Kargil on the afternoon of May 5, 1999, as the Director-General of Military Operations of the time. 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, who had the overall responsibility for all operations of the Indian Army, was completely clueless about the war that was about to break out. Although serious fighting had broken out, the unit, for reasons that are best understood by it alone, failed to notify the 121 Brigade Headquarters in Kargil. The Brigade came to know of the fighting around Yaldor only that evening, several hours after Vij had left. News that casualties had been sustained in the fighting was made available to the Brigade only two full days later. The Uttam Yuddh Seva Medal that Vij won in 2000, for his work as Director-General of Military Operations during the Kargil war, is perhaps the one that he wears most proudly.

Yet, surprisingly little is known about his specific contribution to the conduct of the Kargil campaign. Lieutenant-General Y.M. Bammi's new comprehensive military history of the war, Kargil: The Impregnable Conquered, has just two brief references to the new Army Chief. The then Chief of the Army Staff, General Ved Prakash Malik, Bammi notes, was "very ably assisted by Lieutenant General NC Vij, Director-General of Military Operations, and his staff". In A Ridge Too Far, another major war history, by Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, there is no reference to Vij. This correspondent found just one media reference of a visit by Vij to Kargil after May 5, 1999. By contrast, Malik reached the battlefield with unprecedented regularity, although he admitted recently that the Indian Army chief "does not get involved at the tactical level unless a very serious situation requires his intervention". Since Vij shared the honours of the Kargil War, it seems enough reason to hold him responsible for the errors of the higher command as well. Criticism of the conduct of the war in a welter of recent books, based on documentary access granted to their officer-authors by Malik himself, has been harsh. One account, Ashok Kalyan Verma's Blood On The Snow, points out that it took "more than one month for higher commanders in 15 Corps and the Northern Command to believe what their troops were telling them about the strengths and degree of preparedness of the intrusions." Further he states: "By continuing to play down the lethality of the enemy confronting them, the higher commanders were undermining their own credibility."

Bammi suggests that the blame goes higher. Brigadier Surinder Singh, he argued, was officially censured, among other things, for the faulty conduct of the operations. But near-suicidal attacks seeking overambitious results in the Drass sector continued until end-May, 1999, well after he was out of the way, with the consent of senior officers. It was only after June 1, when the commanders of the 8 Mountain Division and the 70 Brigade refused to be pushed around, that "attacks were launched with proper planning and preparation." Even former Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit, no radical, charged in his book India-Pakistan War and Peace that the official Kargil Review Committee had shown a "deliberate reticence" in addressing the failures of the command structure.

As one of the senior officers involved, Vij faces the serious charges that these recent military histories have brought to bear upon the top levels of the Indian Army's leadership. While all players in crisis situations will, almost inevitably, make mistakes, the fact is that only some lower-level functionaries have been made scapegoats for the glaring conceptual errors in operations during the early stages of the Kargil War. While Surinder Singh was sacked, the Headquarters of the 70 Brigade, demonstrably more successful than its counterparts to the East, received no commendation at all. Its commander, Brigadier Devinder Singh, received a Vishisht Seva Medal, normally granted for peace-time operations. However, senior officers from the corps level onwards were liberally granted war-specific Yuddh Seva Medals despite their well-recorded failures. At least one commentator, M. Diwakar, suggested that this may have been done not to commend valour, but to "immunise senior officers from probes". Bammi, in turn, has pointed out that the numbers of medals given out for the Kargil War exceed, by far, the considerably more bloody 1971 war with Pakistan. Off-battlefield concerns seem to have shaped the politics surrounding the grant of medals to senior officers.

GENERAL VIJ'S most controversial war-time action, perhaps appropriately, took place over 1,000 km from the nearest battlefield. On May 31, 1999, he and Air Vice-Marshal S.K. Malik drove with Defence Minister George Fernandes to an emergency meeting of the Bharatiya Janata Party's National Executive in New Delhi. Vij gave the BJP politicians who had gathered there a detailed briefing on the state of play along the Line of Control (LoC). It was the first time in the Indian military's history that a serving officer had given a political party such a briefing in gross violation of service rules. The breach was rendered all the more appalling by the fact that the BJP's National Executive, unlike Fernandes, was not bound by the oath of office and secrecy. On the basis of the briefing, the BJP issued a resolution urging the international community to condemn Pakistan for having sent its soldiers across the LoC.

Speaking to journalists that evening, BJP spokesperson M. Venkiah Naidu said that both officers had been brought to the meeting by Fernandes, who alone had been invited by party president Khushabhau Thakre. This, informed sources told Frontline, was indeed the case. However, Vij chose not to caution Fernandes that the act would be improper. Neither, the sources said, was Malik informed of the move. The charitable interpretation of the affair is that Fernandes simply did not understand the import of what he was doing. Neither of the serving officers, however, could have been unaware that they were treading on delicate ground. While nothing particularly controversial was disclosed to the BJP's National Executive, because the Army Headquarters in New Delhi still had a relatively hazy idea of just what was going on in Kargil, few missed the significance of the event. Venkaiah Naidu urged journalists not to raise the issue in "the national interest"; several proved willing to oblige.

As Director-General of Military Operations, Vij may also have played a key role in another Kargil-related fiasco the loss of Point 5353-metres in the Drass sector. Point 5353 is the highest feature in the area, and offers Pakistani soldiers now ensconced on its flanks an excellent position from where to direct artillery fire on the Srinagar-Leh highway. At the end of the Kargil war, Indian troops were yet to reach Point 5353, and had secured the occupation of only two secondary positions on the Marpo La ridge line, Charlie 6 and Charlie 7. Indian troops had also been unable to evict Pakistani soldiers from Point 5240, some 1,200 metres as the crow flies from Point 5353.56 Brigade Commander Amar Aul, in charge of the operations to secure Point 5353, responded by occupying two heights, Points 4875 and 4251, on the Pakistani side of the LoC, just before the ceasefire came into force. Aul's tactics were designed to secure a subsequent territorial exchange. In mid-August 1999, his efforts to bring about a deal bore fruit. Extended negotiations between the Brigadier and a Pakistani interlocutor, who called himself Colonel Saqlain, led to both sides committing themselves to leaving Points 5353, 5240, 4251 and 4875 unoccupied. Both Indian and Pakistani troops were pulled back to their pre-Kargil positions, leaving an aerial distance of about a kilometre between the armies along most of the Marpo La ridge.

The deal was not ideal, for Point 5353 was of enormously more strategic importance to India than either Point 4251 or Point 4875 was for Pakistan, but it was better than nothing. Malik, informed sources say, backed the deal, hoping to generalise it into a wider arrangement on the LoC. His hope was that such a withdrawal agreement would help move troops out of the appalling terrain on which both sides now committed them year-round. Vij would, in all probability, have played a key role in these negotiations, discussing their working with his Pakistani counterparts.

FOR reasons that are still unclear, the deal fell through. In October, rather than risk reoccupation of Point 5353 by Pakistan, India launched a military assault. The 16 Grenadiers succeeded in reoccupying Point 5240, but the parallel occupation of Point 5353 that had been planned by the Gurkha Rifles never got off the ground. A Pakistani counter offensive took the key peak seven days later, unopposed. Ever since news broke of the Point 5353 fiasco, the Indian military establishment responded with a series of bizarre claims. Fernandes first insisted that India was in occupation of the peak, and even proclaimed that he had set foot on it. Then, the Union Defence Ministry claimed that the peak was on the LoC, not the Indian side. Now, Bammi has blown the lid off these official lies. The 1 Naga Regiment offensive in Drass which began on May 17, 1999, the book records, was intended to "secure a firm base on the ridgeline West of Pt 5100, and extend it toward Pt 5353, on which no enemy had then been reported." The attack failed in the face of greater-than-anticipated resistance from Pakistani soldiers.

At an Indian artillery position during the Kargil War.-NISSAR AHMAD

Vij had nothing to do with this failure, which Bammi attributes to local command failures. "1 Naga," he writes, "were launched into action without proper planning and preparations." He would, however, have a clear idea of just what went wrong with subsequent military efforts to retake Point 5353, and why Malik's efforts to secure a 1-kilometre pullback sank in the wake of an evidently ill-executed military operation. There is no reason to believe that Vij was in any way personally culpable for one of the less edifying enterprises of the Kargil War, but it is probable that he had a bird's eye view of the debacle, right from its conception. There is clearly an urgent need for the Army to stop its discredited campaign of disinformation on the Point 5353 issue, and, apart from merely admitting that it took place, also to assign responsibility. It is, of course, profoundly unlikely that Vij will ever make known the whole truth about these events - at least as long as he is in office.

The new Army chief, somewhat worryingly, appears not to have had the time to learn some of the key lessons of the Kargil War. Speaking in Bangalore on December 22, 2002, he asserted that paratroopers were "never found wanting in jobs entrusted to them." While the Para Commando Regiment indeed has a history of exceptional service, the Kargil War threw up evidence that all was not well in this elite Army regiment. 10 Para Commando, for example, faced heavy casualties after a freewheeling effort to interdict Pakistani maintenance routes to the Shangruti complex. Its troops, Bammi found, opened fire in haste, betraying their positions, and were then unable to dig in because their officers had not bothered to equip them with the customary tools. Bammi's account charges the unit's commanders with being "over-confident", a result of the fact that they had "underestimated the enemy's strength and reactions". Similarly, 9 Para Commando faced horrific casualties in an ill-conceived offensive on Sando.

While a few tragically misconceived operations may not alter the general course of a war, pretending that all is well when it demonstrably is not does not bode well for the future. Vij also appears to have paid little attention to the most important lesson of Kargil. Conflicts of the future, he told soldiers during his Bangalore visit, "would be short, not necessitating the movement of troops in massive numbers". The formulation seems disturbingly close to the Generals who, in the years before the Kargil War, came to believe that full-scale conventional engagements belonged to the past. The delusion, encouraged by a misreading of the consequences of the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, led to planning premised on the belief that counter-insurgency operations needed to be the Army's sole focus. Former Army chief S. Padmanabhan, as northern Army commander, and the then 15 Corps Commander Kishan Pal, were among those whose counter-insurgency concerns led them to misread the Pakistani intrusion as a limited action by Mujahideen groups.

Vij has assumed office at a time when the Indian Army's need to learn from history has never been more acute. He will need to find the courage, sadly missing in his recent predecessors, to set wrongs right.

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