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An unfinished war

Print edition : Jun 20, 2003 T+T-
Brigadier Surinder Singh.-

Brigadier Surinder Singh.-

The dismissed Kargil Brigade Commander Surinder Singh's battle with the security establishment shifts to the Delhi High Court, where the latter is likely to oppose an independent probe into the Kargil War as being harmful to the national interest.

The truth about what went wrong, where and why should not embarrass anyone and it is a must that we don't repeat the mistakes of the past.

- Defence Minister George Fernandes, speaking on post-independence wars, in New Delhi on August 14, 2002.

ON September 3, lawyers representing the Union of India are scheduled to file in the Delhi High Court documents arguing that an independent investigation of the Kargil War is not in India's interests. Their written replies to a petition filed by dismissed Kargil Brigade Commander Surinder Singh will reportedly say that the disclosure of classified documents will jeopardise national security and that legal redress to the officer will undermine military discipline. They are unlikely, of course, to mention that many of the classified documents concerned contain no worthwhile military secrets and have in any case already been published almost in their entirety in Frontline. There will be no references, either, to the many military histories that have blown apart the official accounts of the course of the war. And neither, of course, will they note that the sacking of Surinder Singh rates as one of the most disgraceful abuses of military law in the annals of the Indian Army.

Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of Surinder Singh's dismissal from service is that it took the Army the best part of two years to work out what crime it thought he had committed. His problems began early in the course of the war, when he found himself in confrontation with his immediate superior, 3 Infantry Division Commander Major-General V.S. Budhwar. Budhwar believed that the 121 Brigade in Kargil was facing only small numbers of terrorists, while Surinder Singh was certain he was facing a full-blown intrusion by regular Pakistani troops. On top of it all, media reports began to emerge suggesting the Brigade, and the Division and Corps above it, had failed to act on intelligence that suggested a heightened possibility of war. The choice was now clear. Either Surinder Singh could be held responsible for failing to guard Kargil properly, or his superior command - starting with Budhwar, on through Corps Commander Lieutenant-General Kishan Pal and on eventually Chief of the Army Staff General V.P. Malik - could be made to answer for larger errors of strategic judgment.

It did not take the Army a great deal of time to make the choice. In June 1999, Surinder Singh was removed from his command and shunted off to a succession of obscure posts. The problem was, there was no strong evidence of wrong-doing by the Brigadier. In June 1999, a Court of Inquiry began investigating charges that Surinder Singh had leaked documents to the media. Made up of three officers directly subordinate to Budhwar, his key adversary, its agenda was in no real doubt. The court even issued summons to Surinder Singh's legal counsel, Kapil Sibal and R.S. Randhawa, and journalists who had reported on the controversy, sparking off a furore which eventually forced Defence Minister George Fernandes to apologise before Parliament. Even Gestapo-style tactics - denying Surinder Singh leave to attend his daughter's wedding, for example, or pulling him off a military flight to Chandigarh, where he was going to visit his critically injured brother - failed to throw up evidence of leaked documents. Instead, the Court of Inquiry found Surinder Singh guilty of making photocopies of classified documents and carrying them from his office to his bunker, a charge outside its terms of reference.

Unsurprisingly enough, the Court of Inquiry refused to listen to Surinder Singh's obvious defence that he had made the copies to be sent along with his complaint about Budhwar to Gen. Malik. Soon afterwards, in August 2000, he was served fresh notice, asking him to show cause for the allegations made against him in the official Kargil Review Committee and the Army's in-house General A.R.K. Reddy inquiry. The allegations related to the vacation of Bajrang Post in Kaksar, which was abandoned by the 4 Jat Regiment in the winter before the Kargil War. Copies of both documents were, however, denied to the Brigadier, making it impossible for him to file a coherent response. Nor was evidence that Surinder Singh had direct responsibility for the Bajrang Post fiasco made available. During this second Court of Inquiry, no written evidence was produced to show that Bajrang Post had been upgraded from a winter-vacated post to a winter cut-off post, which would have obliged 4 Jat to stay there. Surinder Singh was also able to produce evidence that he had asked his subordinates to pass on the news of the vacation of the post to the 3 Division headquarters in Leh. Budhwar claimed to have verbally reprimanded Surinder Singh for the action but could give no sound explanation as to why he had not punished him at that very time for what would have been a gross act of negligence.

EVIDENCE, quite obviously, was no longer considered essential; neither was procedure. On June 2001, Surinder Singh was summarily dismissed, using extraordinary provisions that enabled the armed forces to terminate the services of officers at the pleasure of their supreme commander, the President of India. The order cited the findings of two Courts of Inquiry but made no mention of the fact that Surinder Singh had not been given an opportunity to defend himself in the next legal platform the charges ought to have been heard in, a court martial. Indeed, Surinder Singh had been formally attached to the 25 Infantry Division in January 2000, before the second Court of Inquiry commenced. Attachment is a military law procedure that precedes a court martial, but that was not held. Instead, Surinder Singh was indicted on the basis of the A.R.K. Reddy report, even though one-man inquiries are unknown to military law. Notably, not one of the inquiries into Surinder Singh's conduct had contested his competence to conduct 121 Brigade's military operations, the reason for which he was presumably removed in the first place.

But legalities aside, how credible is the Army's charge that Surinder Singh ought to take responsibility for the debacle in Kargil? The story of Bajrang Post is instructive. For weeks after the war took place, the Army repeatedly denied that any posts in the Kargil sector had been vacated during the war - and this despite the fact that Gen. Malik had told journalists in Pune that several posts had been vacated. Then, the Kargil Review Committee decided to admit that one post had indeed been vacated. The admission, it is now clear, was not prompted by any great concern for the truth. General Y.M. Bammi's The Impregnable Conquered, one of several authoritative military histories of the war produced with the cooperation of the Army, makes clear that at least one other post that ought to have been occupied through the winter, at Marpo La, in the Dras sector, was also vacated. No one was, for reasons the Army alone understands, punished for that action. The Kargil Review Committee only brought up the Bajrang Post affair to single out Surinder Singh for adverse mention, an act that violated its own terms of reference.

What is important, however, are the real reasons why posts were vacated in the build-up to the 1999 war. In the mid-1985, 28 Infantry Division was placed along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kargil, facing Pakistan forces, and freeing 3 Infantry Division to focus on the India-China border. Five years on, the division was pushed west, to join in counter-terrorist operations in the Kashmir Valley. Even though the situation there had eased not a little by 1997, the formation was never moved back. Although artillery exchanges with Pakistan escalated along the Kargil sector from that year, Indian commanders saw no reason to move troops back east. The reason was simple. Particularly after the Pokhran-II nuclear tests of 1998, the Indian military establishment believed that a full-blown war was impossible. In this, it was not alone: no less a person than Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee himself described atomic bombs as "weapons of peace". Meanwhile, faced with a series of infiltration attempts and terrorist attacks on the National Highway through Dras, 121 Brigade had to juggle its LoC responsibilities with new demands for personnel to keep road movement safe. Forced to choose between an ostensibly quiet frontier and a potential disaster on the Srinagar-Zoji La route, it seems probable everyone from the corps level down to the brigade level quietly looked the other way when posts were closed.

Experts have attributed the problems in Kargil to strategic negligence. In his book, Kargil: Blood on the Snow, Major-General Ashok Kalyan Verma traces the problem to Kishan Pal's "obsessive counter-insurgency mindset". Documents annexed to Surinder Singh's court plea, which were first published three years ago in Frontline, show that the Brigadier repeatedly asked for additional troops. His pleas were denied with equal regularity; in private, Surinder Singh was decried as an alarmist. The sad fact is that Kargil has now been secured by creating a Siachen-like wall of posts in the high mountains, an exercise involving resources he simply did not have. 70 Brigade was moved into Dras in May 1999 to secure it against potential infiltration by terrorists. By then, of course, the war had begun, and the formation was moved post-haste to Batalik where it served with great distinction. Brigadier Surinder Singh also has other legitimate reasons for complaint. It has now become known that the first intrusions were detected not in the Kargil sector, but in adjoining Turtok, by 102 Brigade commanded by Prakash Chand Katoch. These April intrusions, which are now the subject of separate litigation by another controversially removed soldier, Major Manish Bhatnagar, were never reported to 56 Brigade in Kargil.

THE sheer scale of strategic disaster becomes clear through one of the Kargil War's least known stories. On April 6, 1999, even as the Pakistani offensive was well under way, a war-game modelling precisely this eventuality was being played out at the 15 Corps Headquarters in Srinagar. Major-General Mohinder Puri, the commander of 8 Division, which would soon lead the battle in Dras, played the role of Pakistan's Army chief, while 70 Brigade Commander Devinder Singh acted as the General-Officer Commanding of Pakistan's 10 Corps area. Much of the exercise was devoted to how a full-blown attack on the Kashmir Valley could be repulsed. Towards the fag end of the exercise, the group gamed a brigade-strength assault on the stretch between Zoji La and Kargil, aimed at interdicting National Highway 1A. Pakistani occupation of both Tololing and Tiger Hill formed a part of these deliberations. Kishan Pal and Northern Army Commander Hari Mohan Khanna dismissed the plan - already under way - as impossible to execute.

When war did break out, Kishan Pal's counter-insurgency concerns - shared, in fairness, by his predecessors - led him to commit gross errors of judgment. At one meeting of the Unified Headquarters in Srinagar, he proclaimed that there were "no battle indicators of war" and that traffic on National Highway 1A was moving smoothly. This in the face of strenuous objections by Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, who went on record to state that the infiltrators were not small groups of terrorists but regular Pakistani troops! The casual attitude was evidently shared by Khanna, whose assessment led George Fernandes to pronounce that the intrusion would be evicted in two days. Verma's book also records that, as late as June 10, Kishan Pal told Gen. Malik that just 45 terrorists, not Pakistani regulars, were active in the entire Batalik sector. It was only on June 13 that Kishan Pal, by his own admission in a television interview, accepted that Pakistani regulars were involved in the intrusion. All the while he had been pushing his subordinates to move quickly up the mountains - helping for an early resolution to the intrusion that had proved so costly.

Commanders on the field, like Surinder Singh, were simply in no position to make the rapid progress Kishan Pal and other superiors demanded. It was only after a massive military build-up was in place, and Malik accepted that a 16:1superiority against enemy forces was needed, that progress was recorded in the Dras sector. Even then, victories were hard won. Surinder Singh, publicly available evidence shows, paid the price for mistakes made by others. Budhwar, guilty of crimes like building a private zoo and ordering the capture of protected species to populate it, lost out on promotions but not his job. Kishan Pal, who comes out in a very poor light in both Bammi's and Verma's professional military analyses, will retire as Quartermaster-General of the Indian Army in August. General S. Padmanabhan, Northern Army Commander in all the key months in the build-up to the war, retired as the Chief of the Army Staff. Although Gen. Malik had no direct role in shaping the Kargil operations, he failed to protect his subordinates who were chosen to be sacrificial lambs.

And that is not, of course, counting the politicians. Vajpayee was joined in his conviction that wars were no longer possible after Pokhran-II by a host of top politicians, and almost all of the professional courtiers who make up the Indian security establishment. None seemed to have taken the trouble of consulting any undergraduate primer on the military implications of nuclear weapons, which would have taught them that militarily weaker states can use the nuclear umbrella as a deterrent against full-blown reprisals by stronger adversaries in cases of sub-conventional wars.

Now the matter is before the Delhi High Court. Indian courts have traditionally been reluctant to question military wisdom. Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat's unceremonious sacking, a key reason for the culture of pusillanimity that now prevails among the military top brass, found no legal redress. It took decades for the victims of the notorious Samba spy witch-hunt to clear their names in court; lives and reputation were destroyed in the process. Surinder Singh's petition asks not only for professional restitution, but also for a full-blown investigation into the Kargil War, modelled on the Shimon Agranat Commission, which was set up after the Yom Kippur war between the Arabs and the Israelis. The National Democratic Alliance, a fervent admirer of Israeli military might, ought to have no objections to emulating Israel's standards of military justice and transparency either. The odds are, of course, that it will find some reason not to do so.