Published : Aug 19, 2000 00:00 IST

Vijay Diwas and all that notwithstanding, Pakistan still occupies a key Drass feature. All is not well in Kargil.

PAKISTAN soldiers atop Peak 5353 metres on the strategic Marpo La ridge would have had a grandstand view of Vijay Diwas celebrations, marking the official end of the Kargil war. At least some of them must have had wry smiles on their faces watching the J uly 26 spectacle. For although Peak 5353 metres is well inside the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC), Pakistani troops held the mountain through the Kargil war - and continue to do so today. From the peak, observers on Peak 5353 can direct accurat e artillery fire on to up to 20 km of National Highway 1A, and cripple Indian defensive positions from Mushkoh to Bhimbet.

Reports of the Peak 5353 fiasco in The Hindu Business Line provoked vague and factually inaccurate denials from the defence establishment. On August 11, Army headquarters claimed that Point 5353 was placed right on LoC, not on the Indian side. This asser tion stands exposed by the Army's own one-inch maps, in Frontline's possession. The same day, Union Defence Minister George Fernandes followed up this piece of prevarication with his own, claiming when asked about Point 5353 at a press conference in Bangalore that "India is owning the land". "Every inch of the land is under our control," he insisted. The panic is not surprising.

Put simply, the Pakistan occupation of Point 5353 means that Operation Vijay's core objective in Drass of securing the highway, had failed. Officials have no answers. Asked if Pakistan was indeed in occupation of the peak, 8 Mountain Division Commander M ajor-General Satnam Singh replied that it was "too early to say". Asked again, the officer said that as he had just been posted to the area, he would "provide authentic information" during this correspondent's "next trip to Kargil". Satnam Singh's staff officers also refused comment. Given that the strategic importance of Point 5353 is already driving an escalation of hostilities through the Kargil area, conflict more serious than the occupation of Point 5353 might soon be under way.

The strange story of Peak 5353 began with the end of Operation Vijay, and the proclamation of a national triumph at Kargil. Point 5353, like the features around it, had been occupied by Pakistan troops at the start of the Kargil war. Indian soldiers, how ever, were nowhere near its summit when hostilities were pronounced to have ended, in the wake of a United States-authored Pakistani pullout. All that had been achieved was the occupation of two secondary positions on the Marpo La ridgeline, Charlie 6 an d Charlie 7. Indian troops had also been unable to evict Pakistani soldiers from Point 5240, some 1,200 m 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 heigh ts on the Pakistani side of the LoC, 4875 and 4251, just before the ceasefire came into force.

Aul's tactics, evidently under political pressure to bring about a quick end to hostilities, 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 Br igadier and a Pakistani interlocutor, who called himself Colonel Saqlain, led to both sides committing themselves to leave unoccupied Points 5353, 5240, 4251 and 4875. Both Indian and Pakistani troops were pulled back to their pre-Kargil positions, leavi ng an aerial distance of about a kilometre between the armies along most of the Marpo La ridge. The deal was not an ideal one, for 5353 was of enormously more strategic importance to India than either 4251 or 4875 was for Pakistan, but it was better than nothing.

Towards the end of October, things began to go wrong. Aul tasked the 16 Grenadiers to take Point 5240 and the 1-3 Gurkha Rifles to occupy 5353, choosing to violate the August agreement rather than risk the prospect that Pakistan might reoccupy these posi tions. While the 16 Grenadiers attack proceeded as planned, despite bad weather, the men of 1-3 Gurkha Rifles, for reasons which are still not clear, never made their way up 5353. When Pakistan troops detected the Indian presence on 5240, they promptly l aunched a counter-assault on 5353. Seven days later, in early November, the Grenadiers unit on 5240 watched Pakistan take up positions on the more important peak. Saqlain, who is now believed to be facing court martial proceedings in Pakistan, was left c omplaining that Aul's ill-considered course of action was treacherous and dishonest.

Pakistan moved rapidly to consolidate its position on 5353. Concrete bunkers came up on the peak, and a road was constructed to its base from Benazir Post, Pakistan's most important permanent post in the area. Meanwhile, Aul considered plans to retake th e peak. He did not have much choice. India's positions on 5240 and Pathar post were under threat, along with positions of the 2 Naga in Mushkoh, the 2 Grenadiers in Drass, and the 8 Sikh in Bhimbet. Offensives were discussed in January and February, and again in May and August, but had to be abandoned each time because of the risks involved. With 5353 and its adjoining area now linked by road to Pakistan's rear headquarters at Gultari, and with the defensive positions heavily fortified, any attack would mean a full-blown resumption of hostilities in Drass.

By hiding the ground positions in Drass from the Indian public, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government and the Army leadership succeeded in securing a public relations victory on Kargil. But its first-round of cover-up on Drass has forced it to resort to another such round. Contrary to official claims that all is well in Kargil, there have been a series of exchanges of small arms fire centred on 5353, spilling into the Mushkoh Valley. On at least one occasion this summer, the fire almost escala ted into full-blown artillery exchanges. The worst of the fighting has come in the Batalik area, east of Kargil, where Indian troops have been ordered to take any unoccupied positions they discover on the Pakistan side of the LoC, a move designed to brin g about a deal on Point 5353.

India's operations in Batalik have already seen their first casualties. On April 8, a company of the 14 Sikh Regiment occupied Point 5310, a kilometre away (as the crow flies) on the Pakistan side of the LoC. Subedar Bhatnam Singh and one soldier were ki lled in an avalanche during the operation.

Pakistan's retaliation was prompt. On the night of July 27, a group of 24 porters and four soldiers carrying material for an offensive from Gol Tekri to Rock Fall, along the Hanu Langpa, facing the key Chorbat La range, were ambushed by Pakistani troops or irregulars. One porter was killed, and three are presumed dead. It is still not clear what the porters were doing moving to Rock Fall at night, but there is little doubt that the Pakistani ambush was laid deep in Indian territory, for Kalashnikov shel ls were recovered from the site. The incident followed the destruction in May of a new Pakistani post with a shoulder-held missile.

Such escalating tensions have placed enormous strains on soldiers strung out in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Pakistan posts along the LoC. Soldiers when Frontline spoke to complained that although supplies and food were more than adequate , working at such altitudes imposed near-unbearable strains. Estimates suggest that at least a dozen men have died of cold and altitude problems since the war. At one post in the Batalik sector, six jawans have to sleep on a hill feature with their sleep ing bags tied together. Access to the sole source of water, or to makeshift toilets, means rappelling down a 12 metre rock-face. "Our rations are excellent", one soldier from the Jat Regiment said, "but you just don't feel like eating anything, even choc olates or dry fruit, at those altitudes. You can't eat, you can't sleep, and after a while, you have nothing to talk about with the other men in your post." "Our sole source of contact with the outside world," he continued, "is the radio."

Clearly, the renewed prospect of a limited engagement in Kargil is the outcome of command failure of the worst kind. The Point 5353 fiasco is just one of several examples of the complete absence of strategic thought that preceded the Kargil war, and evid ently proceeded apace thereafter. None has, however, been punished for these errors. Aul has received a plum posting in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, as have his subordinates. Major-General V.S. Budhwar, responsible for many of the tactical errors tha t led to the Kargil war, has faced no form of censure. Neither has the then 15 Corps Commander, Kishan Pal, who insisted until late May that the Pakistan intrusion was "local and would be contained locally". Only one official of any consequence, then 121 Brigade Commander Surinder Singh, has faced disciplinary action.

That some 30 court martial proceedings are pending against officers of the rank of Major and below illustrates just who the army establishment has chosed to make scapegoats of. Documents to which Frontline has access make clear that responsibility for events lies higher. The then Kargil District Magistrate, Shaleen Kabra, for example, told the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) in September 1999 that "reports received from the locals of Drass as well as Batalik areas suggest some kind of complacency a bout patrolling". "It may be mentioned," he added, "that any patrol is likely to take civilian porters." Villagers, however, insisted that none of them was hired during the preceding winter. Kabra also pointed to deficiencies in Military Intelligence, st ating that the organisation relied on "discarded sources of the intelligence agencies". As a normal security precaution, intelligence agencies discard and recruit sources every five years.

Kabra had no reason to lie, but the KRC in its Report chose to ignore his assertions. It also ignored case studies presented by the Intelligence Bureau, including statements by three regular army porters that no-long range patrols were carried out after October 1998. Evidence that strategically important seasonal posts remained unoccupied despite a late winter was also brushed aside. One key piece of evidence came from the owner of a plot of land in Kha Baroro which is leased out to the Army. The owner of the plot stated in a signed declaration that the picket on his land withdrew in October 1998, although no snow had fallen at that time. Mishkin, the numberdar of Garkhun village said that the Army had been made aware of intrusive reconnaissance by Pak istan personnel as early as 1997, but it seemed to have chosen not to act on these indicators. Villagers in the Kaksar area, for their part, reported a Pakistan helicopter intrusion that lasted over 45 minutes in January 1999, but the Army saw nothing.

With this kind of documentation, some punishment for dereliction of duty was obviously called for. But nothing happened. While in the case of Colonel Pushpinder Oberoi, who was in charge of the Drass area, an adverse confidential report on his management of the region was filed, his complaints that Budhwar had left him with less than 150 personnel to guard the entire area were not investigated. Oberoi's counterpart in Batalik, Colonel V.K. Bakshi, also emerged unscathed. Major-General Mohinder Puri, res ponsible for Aul's conduct of the 5353 operations, received a gallantry award. As for Budhwar, his prospects of further promotions are perceived as being minimal. Kishan Pal, despite his well documented inability to comprehend the scale of the Pakistan i ntrusion, has been promoted to the post of Quarter Master General. Northern Army Commander H.M. Khanna, remains at his post.

Observers have pointed to violent ultra-nationalism as one of the major outcomes of the Kargil war, and a culture of official impunity is its other face. At the end of September, when, Southern Army Commander Lieutenant-General S. Padmanabhan becomes the Chief of the Army Staff, the situation in Kargil will be amongst the most important issues to engage his mind. Lieutenant-General Arjun Ray, who recently took over 14 Corps at Leh, has already expressed dissatisfaction over the structure of LoC deployme nts, which have essentially consisted of seeking to plug all possible infiltration routes year-round.

More creative solutions will have to be found. As important, answers to the problem of Point 5353 will have to be discovered if the stretch of highway around Drass is not to be perpetually vulnerable to enemy fire, as it is in the Kaksar area.

"For the last two years," says one senior Army officer, "we've dealt with problems by pretending that they don't exist, and lying to the media." General Padmanabhan could well discover that nothing short of surgery will help the patient he has been appoi nted to treat.

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