Still searching for the truth

Print edition : May 13, 2000

A year after the start of the Kargil war, proceedings against Brigadier Surinder Singh with regard to revelations made about the mishandling of the situation that led to the war take a new turn.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

TRIUMPH has been declared and the medals have been handed out: but the last battle of the Kargil war continues to be fought from a small room at 25 Division headquarters in Rajouri. Brigadier Surinder Singh, the Commanding Officer of 121 Brigade at Kargi l when combat broke out in the summer of 1999, remains subject to one of the most extraordinary witch-hunts in Indian military history. Surinder Singh's warnings to his superior officers of the prospect of a serious military engagement in Kargil should h ave made him a war hero. Instead, he has spent the last year fighting a lonely legal battle to salvage what remains of his career and his professional reputation.

Last year, when news of Surinder Singh's earlier warnings broke in the Indian press, Union Defence Minister George Fernandes announced that the officer would be punished. Since then, the Minister's men have been using tactics that would embarrass a medie val inquisitor.

Brigadier Surinder Singh.-PANKAJ RISHI KUMAR

Army headquarters' most recent assault on Surinder Singh began just before New Year's eve. Surinder Singh had reported to Leh in August 1998 to face a Court of Inquiry (CoI) investigating how information on his earlier warnings had made their way into th e media. He challenged the CoI's legality at the outset, pointing out that all its members were subordinates of a superior against whom he had filed official complaints - the Commander of 3 Infantry Division, Major-General V.S. Budhwar. Proceedings drag ged on. By December, Surinder Singh had not cross-examined witnesses, a process that he said he would undertake after all the evidence was recorded. Nor was the Brigadier given the opportunity to make a statement; 10 days of leave he had asked for to pre pare one was denied.

Then, on December 29, orders arrived asking Surinder Singh to report to Rajouri on attachment. An attachment is a legal procedure that takes place after the conclusion of a CoI. Army Rule 182 mandates that the proceedings of a CoI may not be used as evid ence, so attachment marks the beginning of a formal legal process against officers accused of offences. The Commanding Officer of the formation to which an officer is attached records evidence once he is satisfied that the CoI has made out a prima fac ie case. This recording of evidence is known as a "summary of evidence". Once the process is complete, the Commanding Officer applies his mind to the summary of evidence and either dismisses the case or sends it on to a Court Martial, consisting of a minimum of five officers.

News that the CoI had completed its work came as more than a small surprise. Under Army Rule 184, officers are entitled to a copy of the findings of any CoI held against them. None had been given. The rule was modified by a dubious administrative order h olding that only the evidence had to be provided, not findings or opinions, but even this had not been made available. Surinder Singh wrote to his superiors asking why he was being attached when the CoI had not ended. 25 Division Headquarters wrote back saying that it knew nothing about the matter. Other responses were even more mystifying. A February 14 letter sent from Colonel K.S. Sethi to the General Officer Commanding at the Northern Command made clear that his "formation had taken no decision for taking any action so far".

The initiation of Surinder Singh's attachment without the formal conclusion of the CoI was not the only sign of the Army establishment's motives. In Rajouri, sources told Frontline, Brigadier Ranjit Singh, the Deputy General Officer Commanding of the Romeo Force, a counter-terrorist formation, was detailed to begin recording the summary of evidence. Since 25 Division chief Major-General B.S. Yadav had not even met Surinder Singh at this stage to question him on the issues at stake, it is evident that he could not have applied his mind to the findings of the CoI, which in any case did not formally exist. At one stage, four witnesses arrived in Rajouri, only to be sent back without being examined. Surinder Singh was left attempting to find out wh ether the CoI against him had terminated, and whether it had found anything.

MEANWHILE, other curious events had begun to unfold in Leh. In early April, again without explanation, Surinder Singh was asked to return to 14 Corps Headquarters to appear as a witness in a fresh CoI. In January, Brigadier Atma Ram had started an invest igation into the vacation of posts along the Line of Control (LoC) during the winter of 1998-1999, one of the key reasons for the ease with which Pakistan troops and irregulars were able to occupy the area. The basis for the Atma Ram CoI were findings ma de by General A.R.K. Reddy, who conducted an in-house investigation of events that preceded the Kargil war. Although General Reddy did not formally record evidence, he found that both Budhwar and Suridner Singh had been responsible for a series of lapses that left key LoC positions undefended in the spring of 1999.

The appointment of this second CoI had one key problem about it. As a Brigadier, Atma Ram could not investigate the conduct of Budhwar, a superior officer. The Army establishment rejected protests by Surinder Singh against the unconcealed effort to targe t him alone for the errors. Their confidence was presumably based on the fact that the decision to vacate Bajrang Post, a vital LoC position, was not recorded in daily situation reports by the 121 Brigade's Brigade Major. As such, the evidence suggested that the decision to pull back from Bajrang Post on March 2, 1999, was made without Budhwar's consent. But things did not quite go according to plan. Briefing notes were discovered which made clear that Budhwar had authorised the withdrawal, and that had made no effort to ensure its early reoccupation.

Brigadier Atma Ram's pursuit of the truth was now deemed void on the ground of his rank, and consigned to the dustbin. A fresh CoI, this time consisting of a Lieutenant-General, a Major -General and a third officer, was set up. Surinder Singh was again a sked to give evidence on the Bajrang Post affair in early April. Should this fresh CoI be allowed to do its job, interesting revelations might emerge. The Kargil Review Committee (KRC) consisting of K. Subrahmanyam, B.G. Verghese and K.K. Hazari, had hel d Surinder Singh exclusively responsible for poor patrolling in the winter of 1999, arguing that "his actions on the ground, particularly patrolling, which were entirely within his own resources, did not match his expressed concerns". The material on Bud hwar's role during the period discovered by the Atma Ram CoI could force a reappraisal of the Army's stand.

Indeed, the whole truth about just what happened to posts and patrols during the winter of 1998-1999 still remains to be told. Although Bajrang Post is the only position to have been formally recorded as being vacated owing to snowfall, officers say dela ys in returning to positions vacated in winter were routine. In many cases, encouraged by the casual approach of their superiors, patrols claimed to have reconnoitred or secured positions that they had never reached. The 4 Jat Regiment, for example, clai med to have found Bajrang Post, on the southwestern spur of Peak 5,299 metres in Kaksar, intact on April 12, 1999. The post was later discovered to have been occupied by Pakistan's soldiers. No explanation has been given for why Bajrang Post was not held in April when Pakistan's soldiers were able to do so.

Army officers acting at Fernandes' behest are not the only ones to have functioned as undertakers of the truth about Kargil. The KRC, for one, gave Surinder Singh a less-than-fair hearing, and there is at least some reason to believe that its members wen t out of their way to discredit his testimony. Surinder Singh was the sole officer to be attacked by name in the KRC's Report. The Report addressed the contents of a briefing to Chief of the Army Staff V.P. Malik that was made at the 121 Brigade on Augus t 29, 1998, where the contours of a possible Pakistani offensive in Kargil had been considered. The briefing, recorded in a note marked "BRIEF: COAS" and numbered 124/GSD/VIS, pointed to the movement of additional Pakistani troops into the Kargil sector and the prospect of infiltration down important nullahs (mountain streams), and demanded additional troops and enhanced surveillance capabilities.

Maj.-Gen. V.S. Budhwar.-PANKAJ RISHI KUMAR

Surinder Singh's briefing note had, in paragraph 8 (a), warned that the 24 Sindh Regiment, a reserve battalion in Gilgit, had moved forward to Olthingthang, along with two other infantry battalions. The KRC rebutted this observation, arguing that only on e battalion had in fact moved forward at the time. Two other battalions moved later, between October 1998 and February 1999, well after Malik's briefing. "The obvious conclusion," the KRC Report records on page 131, "is that Brigadier Surinder Singh's br iefing notes were based on information which he is unable to provide a basis how he came by it at the time of his briefing to the COAS". The Report's authors evidently saw no reason to give credit for the fact that a Brigade strength movement did indeed take place just after the briefing.

But sources close to Surinder Singh charge the KRC with more than just an uncharitable interpretation. The Brigadier, they say, provided details of just where he had got the information on troop movements, producing details of reports from the 3 Infantry Division and the Northern Command headquarters. None of these, they say, are reflected in the KRC Report. Nor was a letter sent by the then Northern Command chief suggesting that Surinder Singh's requests for more troops and equipment should be consider ed. And while Surinder Singh was attacked for not pushing his troops to undertake more aggressive winter patrolling, there was no investigation by the KRC of the role of Budhwar and his bosses in the Northern Command in that winter's defence posture.

Disturbingly, the KRC appears to have applied different standards to civilian witnesses whom it summoned, and key Army officials. Surinder Singh was kept in New Delhi on the KRC's request for some 25 days in December 1999. In the end, he was not provided with a copy of his own deposition, a procedure that was followed in the case of all the civilians who deposed. Instead, the officer was made to sign his deposition within the KRC's offices at the National Security Council Secretariat. Although it chose to attack him, he was provided no opportunity to respond to the charges that the Report's authors made. Not even a copy of the publicly-released Report was made available to him. Should it emerge that the KRC did suppress evidence, it would do little for the already frayed credibility of the government's only investigation of the Kargil war.

WHAT direction the witch-hunt against Surinder Singh will take is not clear. It appears certain that options other than a court battle are running out. Late last year, Surinder Singh had petitioned President K.R. Narayanan through Malik, as procedure man dates, for an interview to explain his position. That request was turned down on January 22, through a letter from Brigadier H.C. Singh on behalf of the Adjutant General - an office which had not been petitioned in the first place. The unconcealed bias at the Northern Command, and the sordid sequence of events in Leh, give little reason to believe that in-house Army proceedings will be allowed to uncover just what happened at 121 Brigade in the months before combat broke out.

It is no one's case that Surinder Singh was some military genius. His warnings centred on infiltration, not a conventional engagement. But those warnings, had they been acted on, could have led to early detection of Pakistan's intrusion. No politician, n o bureaucrat, no other military official has been punished for the strategic and tactical failures that led to the loss of over 500 Indian soldiers' lives on the Kargil heights in the summer of 1999. Instead, the one officer who tried to secure measures that could have saved at least some of those lives is paying the price for his superior officers' errors. Sadly, the officially authorised fiction of India's unequivocal triumph in Kargil has silenced the media. An inquisition has thus been able to masqu erade as a search for the truth.

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