Conquering heights

Published : Jul 30, 2004 00:00 IST

Defence Minister of the time George Fernandes (second from left) arrives in Siachen on December 25, 2001, to monitor the situation in the wake of the troop mobilisation following the attack on Parliament House. - AFP

Defence Minister of the time George Fernandes (second from left) arrives in Siachen on December 25, 2001, to monitor the situation in the wake of the troop mobilisation following the attack on Parliament House. - AFP

FOR years, the Indian official position on Point 5353, a key peak in the Dras sector, has sounded like something out of Brave New World: `it never happened', `we never had it', and even `it doesn't exist'.

Now, a Frontline investigation has unearthed new evidence that Indian soldiers had made an abortive attempt to capture Point 5353 in the first days of the Kargil war. The evidence blows apart contradictory claims by former Defence Minister George Fernandes and top military officials that the feature does not lie on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC), that it was not a war objective and even that it was under Indian control.

Point 5353 is the highest feature in the Dras sector and allows Pakistani troops to observe National Highway 1A as well as an alternate Dras-Kargil route that is now under construction. Since it provided Pakistani artillery observers an excellent view of the route used by Indian military convoys, it was a key objective during the early fighting in the Kargil war. Troops under Major Navneet Mehra's command were asked to evict Pakistani intruders on Point 5353 by 6-00 a.m. on May 18, 1999.

Major Mehra's plan was to set up three fire-bases along the base of the peak to support the infantry assault by two groups. Although backed by some artillery, both groups faced a difficult climb, coming under direct fire from the Pakistani positions on Point 5353 and Point 5165. However, Major Mehra's despatches note that his commanding officer, Colonel Pushpinder Oberoi, had given specific orders "to go for it at any cost". Colonel Oberoi's troops failed to execute his instructions. Ill-equipped for the extreme cold, and not properly acclimatised to the altitude, the troops withdrew after suffering 13 casualties. The attack was finally called off at 3-00 a.m. on May 19, 1999.

After news broke that Pakistani troops occupied Point 5353, the Indian Army denied the peak had ever been held by India, or that it was on its side of the LoC. A press release issued on August 11, 2000, asserted that the "point was never under our control either before or after Operation Vijay in Kargil". Fernandes seemed to disagree. Asked about the status of Point 5353 at a subsequent press conference, he insisted that "every inch of the land is under our control". Fernandes' subsequent statements added to the confusion. Speaking to an audience in Mumbai, he said: "Point 5353 is the point over which the LoC goes. Fact is, out troops had never occupied that."

Bureaucrats at the Union Government's Press Information Bureau (PIB) then proceeded to blow apart their own Minister's claims. On January 1, 2001, the PIB issued a photograph of Fernandes standing on what it claimed was Point 5353. A furore broke out, as what Fernandes had himself stated suggested Indian troops had no business to be there. Later, the PIB was forced to sack a junior staffer for what it called an administrative error. There was, however, no clear explanation of just how the error had taken place. Critics noted that the PIB officer could not have invented the slogan for the photograph on a whim and suggested that Fernandes was either misinformed about his location or that his staff were seeking to secure a quick propaganda coup.

War-time media reports, based on briefings by the Army, suggest that fresh efforts to take the peak were made from July 21, 1999, well after fighting had officially ended. Fighting was reported from the area by the Press Trust of India, and one senior military official reported that Point 5353 was among three areas that continued to be held by Pakistani intruders despite the official withdrawal. While Indian efforts to recapture Point 5353 were unsuccessful, available evidence suggests that the then Commander of 56 Brigade, Brigadier Amar Aul, responded by occupying two heights, Point 4875 and Point 4251, on the Pakistani side of the LoC. Subsequently, local commanders hammered out a deal, where both agreed to leave points 5353, 5240, 4251 and 4875 unoccupied.

Towards the end of October, and for reasons that are still unclear, 16 Grenadiers was ordered to take Point 5240 and 1-3 Gurkha Rifles was asked to occupy Point 5353. While 16 Grenadiers' attack proceeded as planned, despite bad weather, 1-3 Gurkha Rifles never made its way up to Point 5353, for reasons that remain unclear. When Pakistani troops detected the Indian presence on Point 5240, they promptly reoccupied Point 5353. No proper explanation has ever been offered for just why 1-3 Gurkha Rifles did not proceed as planned to Point 5353, but some officers within the Army believe Brigadier Aul was unwilling to sacrifice the large numbers of troops the murderous battle condition would most likely have claimed.

Interestingly, however, 16 Grenadiers' records on the Point 5353 assault refer to the height as "a minor objective". So do entries in Colonel Oberoi's confidential service records. The assessment was vindicated during artillery clashes in 2001-2002, when Pakistani observation posts on Point 5353 were unable to bring accurate fire to bear on either the highway or the nearby Indian positions. Indian troops were able to tie down the Pakistani position with accurate fire, rendering it near impossible for its superior altitude to be used to good effect. While Point 5353's loss may not constitute a major military loss, the continuing controversy over the issue does point to the institutional use of deceit and dishonesty to cover-up military failures before, during and after the Kargil war.

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