Follow us on

|

THE KARGIL STORY

Print edition : Oct 28, 2000 T+T-

Documents published for the first time confirm the story of how early field-level warnings about trouble brewing in Kargil were ignored by the Army's top brass.

A LITTLE like rain-soaked veneer, the layers of disinformation that have shut out the truth about the Kargil war are starting to peel off. The truth that is being exposed, however, is not pleasant to behold.

Establishment India and its non-official spokespersons insist, despite a string of media exposes, that there were no institutional military failures in the months before the war. Over the last 14 months, the most damning pieces of evidence of such failur es have been discredited and suppressed. Claims that Brigadier Surinder Singh, the then Commander of the 121 Brigade, warned of possible conflict have been flatly rejected by officials as untrue.

Frontline has now obtained critical intelligence documents and internal military communications which vindicate Surinder Singh's claims. The documents establish that the Brigadier did indeed warn of the possibility of escalated violence in Kargil and a push across the Line of Control (LoC). The documents also show that his superiors, including former Chief of the Army Staff V.P. Malik, refused to act on these warnings, and even blocked 121 Brigade initiatives to defend Kargil more intensively. Wh ile the broad contents of the 121 Brigade papers have figured in several publications, including Frontline, this is the first time the original documents have been acquired and made available to the public.

WHAT MALIK WAS TOLD

On August 25, 1998, Major R.K. Dwivedi, the Brigade-Major of the 121 Brigade, sent out a letter marked 124/GSD/Vis. To this letter were attached the contents of Surinder Singh's proposed briefing of Malik on the security situation in Kargil, scheduled to take place during the Chief of the Army Staff's visit to Kargil the following month. The 42-point document was, during the final presentation, backed by slides.

Right at the outset, the 121 Brigade briefing paper analysed, in terse military shorthand, the possible "En(emy) Pattern" for the coming months. Pakistan, paragraph 5(a) noted, would seek to keep conflict "alive after (the Pokhran-II) nuc(lear) blasts an d in view (of the) SAARC m(ee)t(in)g of 29 Jul(y) 98 and now for (the) NAM m(ee)t(in)g." This could come, paragraph 5(b) suggested, in the form of a "push (by) militants across the L(ine) (of) C(ontrol). Paragraph 6 noted that Pakistan troops would, amon g other thing, engage NH (National Highway) IA with AD (Air Defence) w(ea)p(o)ns", "t(ar)g(e)t selected f(or)w(ar)d posts", and "hit Kargil and out lying vill(age)s, if escalation takes place".

Paragraph 8, explicitly marked "Enhanced Threat Perception", laid out the reasons for the 121 Brigade's apprehensions. Sections (a) (i) to (iii) of this paragraph recorded fresh Pakistan troop movements, including the deployment of the 24 Sind Regiment, a reserve division from Gilgit, to forward positions at Olthingthang. Another battalion, the paragraph records, had moved "on priority" from Sialkot to Skardu. Heavy and medium guns had been inducted into the sector, paragraph 6 (b) noted, along with M-1 98 155 millimetre mortar, and light flashes, possibly laser designators for smart weapons or missiles, had been seen over Drass and Kargil.

From paragraph 13 onwards, the briefing notes detailed "Vulnerabilities (of the) 121 (I) Inf(antry) B(riga)de". This paragraph itself noted that National Highway 1A was vulnerable to fire from Pakistan positions on Twin Bumps, Bunker Ridge and Point 3249 , while the next paragraph pointed out that Kargil and its rear areas were open to shelling. Paragraph 15 laid out a whole new order of vulnerability. It pointed out that "infilt(ration) routes (were) available through Mashkoh Valley, from Doda side to P anikhar, Yaldor and through nalas (streams)". Small detachments could be targeted, paragraph 15(b) noted, while paragraph 17 noted the existence of posts vulnerable to "rogue action".

121 Brigade left little doubt that trouble had already begun. 45 Pakistan irregulars, paragraph 20 noted, had already moved across the LoC in the Kargil area. In order to address the emerging situation, the briefing note continued, a spectrum of new weap ons, mainly heavy artillery and missiles, was urgently needed. In addition, the briefing note called, for the use of "one air OP (observation) fl(igh)t for obs(ervatio)n and dir(ection) of fire/casevac (casualty evacuation) to be loc(ated) at Kargil". It also demanded the deployment of a remotely piloted vehicle, among other things, and a regular supply of aerial photos and satellite images. All these, it is worth noting, were indeed used once the 1999 war broke out.

THE ARMY BRASS' OSTRICH MANOEUVRE

In the summer of 1998, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government just did not want to hear about trouble on the LoC. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had legitimised the Pokhran-II tests by describing nuclear weapons as "weapons of peace". A str ing of the kinds of people who pass for intellectuals in the BJP had in turn insisted that Pokhran-II, and indeed Pakistan's retaliatory tests at Chagai, would usher in a new era of peace in South Asia.

Malik, perhaps the most politician-friendly Army chief India has ever seen, responded to Surinder Singh's warnings of intensified conflict by burying his head in the sand. Document 124/GSD/VIS, the briefing paper, provides evidence that he ordered the 12 1 Brigade not to use heavy weapons to retaliate against Pakistan fire directed at National Highway 1A. A deal restricting the use of heavy weapons by both India and Pakistan was put in place after firing started on Kargil early in the summer of 1998. Thi s, paragraph 33 of the briefing note pointed out, merely allowed Pakistan to rebuild its positions. More important, it was skewed to India's disadvantage. Malik, desperate for a deal, had allowed Pakistan to continue "interdicting NH 1A, as A(ir) D(efenc e) (was) not incl(uded) in (the) ban!"

Having put together some kind of peace in Kargil, even at the risk of advertising its post-Pokhran-II limitations, the top Army leadership was not about to listen to the alarms sounded by a mere Brigadier. Surinder Singh's requests for additional troops and air surveillance were variously ignored and shot down.

Frontline has had access to a series of communications between the 121 Brigade at Kargil, and the 3 Division Headquarters at Leh, on enhanced air surveillance, which form an illustrative case study of how the new threat perception was dealt with. After several telephone conversations and letters exchanged from July 1998, the 121 Brigade despatched a message on December 17, 1998 to 3 Division Headquarters, asking for heightened wide-area surveillance operations (WASO) over the entire Kargil sector . The letter, signed by Captain Vikas Vohra, officiating for the Brigade Major, and marked 102/GS(Ops)/Recce, asked for "one he(lico)pt(e)r fl(igh)t / single heptr to be positioned permanently at Kargil for WASO".

Vohra's letter made plain the need for heightened air surveillance. "Declaring Mashkoh nala as Priority IV," paragraph 4 noted, "needs to be reviewed in view of the flow of int(elligence) reports sent by your HQ, listing out militant activity opposite Ma shkoh valley. It therefore surely merits a higher priority. It is therefore requested that requisition of one WASO per week for vigil over Mashkoh nala, Mumar Shung and Tololing nalas is very essential." Paragraph 5, in turn, pointed to other intelligenc e reporting "indicating militants using routes in area east of Batalik, which led to (the) d(e)pl(o)y(ment) of a Co(mpan)y plus str(ength) in Yaldor A(rea) in anti-infilt(ration) role". With these troops scheduled for removal, Vohra's letter pointed out, weekly WASO flights were also needed in the Garkhun and Hanuthang nalas as well.

3 Division took the best part of a fortnight to get back to this letter. Major V.K. Chattre, General Staff Officer 2 to the officiating Colonel General Staff, wasted few words. "Your proposal is not approved," letter 1124/Trg flatly said. 15 Corps Headqu arters in Srinagar, at that time in charge of the 3 Infantry Division, did not see fit to intervene in the debate. Requests for additional troops were not even graced with a reply. One letter generated by the 121 Brigade's Major R.K. Dwivedi, on behalf o f Surinder Singh, marked 101/GS(Ops)/ANE, pointed to a recent mine explosion on the highway, and underlined the need for troops to protect the road and vulnerable villages. No troops were deployed. Indeed, despite the 121 Brigade's protests, the 9 Mahar Regiment was actually withdrawn, leaving the Yaldor area wide open.

FIVE HUNDRED IRREGULARS, AND A ZOO

Nothing better illustrates the space between the worlds of 3 Division Headquarters and the 121 Brigade than two letters that form part of the papers Frontline's investigation has unearthed.

On May 16, 1998, 3 Division sent out instructions to all its field units informing them of their commanding officer, Major-General V.S. Budhwar's new pet project: building a zoo for the sake of Leh's few thousand residents. Lieutenant-Colonel U.K. Singh sent out a second missive, marked 6361/9/ZOO/Q1 on June 8, 1998. "Please ensure," the Colonel's letter read, "that various types of wild animals/birds are procured and despatched to zoo at Leh at your earliest." "Cages required for transportation of anim als/birds," it continued, "will be made under arrangements of respective b(riga)de(s)." "No representation," the Colonel concluded sternly, "will be entertained."

Major K.B.S. Khurana, the officer commanding the 1/S23 Intelligence and Field Security Unit at Kargil, had altogether other kinds of wildlife on his mind. Frontline has obtained a hand-written note Khurana sent to his superiors on August 30, 1998, marked 1/10/6, referring to disturbing information brought to his attention by a source referred to only as 3820 SC. "It has been revealed," Khurana wrote, "that 500 Afghan militants have been brought to Gurikot, NJ 7959, to be further inducted into Ind ia in the near future." The "most likely route of infilt(ration)" was through the Kel nala, on through the Safaid nala, into the Kaobal gali, and through to Pindras, Drass and Muskhoh. The information was graded B-2, or fairly reliable.

Although it is impossible to say for certain, reports like these must have fed Surinder Singh's briefing of Army chief Malik. At the local level, intelligence inputs appear to have provoked more than a little serious introspection. In response to a lette r from the 3 Infantry Division, marked 1906 and dated July 31, 1998, the 121 Brigade had drawn up a detailed projections of a possible insurgency in the Kargil area. Dwivedi forwarded the paper, with a letter marked 101/GS (Ops)/ANE/R, on August 12, 1998 .

Signed by Surinder Singh, the paper was by its nature speculative. Nonetheless, it pointed out that "the enhanced threat perception calls for a greater density of troops in certain sensitive places, and add(itiona)l d(e)pl(o)yment where presently none ex ists." In its concluding section, paragraph 22, the paper pointed to the paucity of troops available. "While the combating of an insurgency is an important role for the B(riga)de," Surinder Singh noted, "we must not lose sight of our primary role, that o f ensuring the sanctity of the LoC and integrity of own territory. All the forces which can be spared for the anti-infilt(ration) role from integral t(roo)ps are already deployed."

It is clear that the build-up of irregulars detected by the Intelligence and Field Security Unit, as well as the movement of additional Pakistan troops into the Kargil sector, in fact constituted preparations for the war of 1999. It is also clear, with t he wisdom of hindsight, that the 121 Brigade misinterpreted what it saw as preparations for infiltrating terrorists, rather than groundwork for a full-blown conventional engagement. But it is also worth noting that the Pakistan Army made elaborate arrang ements to ensure that the first groups of its personnel who crossed the LoC were able to pretend to be irregulars. Had the warnings been taken seriously and requests for heightened surveillance and personnel been acceded to, it is at the very least possi ble that Pakistan's early offensive would have been detected and engaged, saving hundreds of Indian soldiers' lives.

Instead, the politically driven ostrich posture adopted at the highest levels of the Army command eventually shaped the institutional functioning of the 121 Brigade itself. After the loss of the battle over additional troops, weapons and air surveillance , drift appears to have set in. Winter patrols were set out largely on paper, and posts were often vacated when there was no real reason to do so. Sources say Budhwar's obsessive determination to avoid winter casualties in aggressive patrolling led Surin der Singh, in turn, to take a laid-back attitude after December. Budhwar's actions, for their part, appear to have been motivated by the conviction that the warnings generated on Kargil were frivolous, an attitude his superiors were only too happy to enc ourage. The consequences of this apathy became evident when soldiers were brought back dead the next summer.

BLAMING THE VICTIM: THE TRIAL OF SURINDER SINGH

Someone had to be held responsible for the mistakes made through 1998. The people who had to apportion blame were the same individuals who were responsible for the disaster on the Kargil heights the next year. Over a dozen junior officials are facing cou rt-martial proceedings for their supposed crimes. Surinder Singh, for his part, has been subject to one of the most extraordinary persecutions in the annals of Indian military law.

On August 22, just a few weeks before Malik's retirement, the Additional Directorate General of Discipline and Vigilance at Army Headquarters served notice on the Brigadier, demanding that he show cause why his "services should not be terminated". The no tice was sent under the provisions of Section 19 of the Army Act, and Army Rule 14, which enable near-summary dismissal from service. This action followed investigations by two Courts of Inquiry, the first for leaking classified documents, and the second for allowing the 4 Jat Regiment to vacate Bajrang Post, in the area of Point 5299 metres early in 1999. Should Malik's pre-retirement salvo be pursued, it seems probable that an ugly battle will follow in civilian courts.

At least two issues are problematic in the notice served on the former 121 Brigade Commander. For one, there has been no explanation of why the Army has chosen this course of action, rather than to proceed with court-martial proceedings, the normal proce ss which follows a Court of Inquiry should a prima facie offence be made out. All that the show-cause notes cites by way of reason is that that Malik, after "careful consideration of the facts and circumstances of the case, including the national securit y and the sensitivity of the operation matters", came to the conclusion that a "trial by court martial is inexpedient and / or impractical". Why Malik took two years to arrive at this determination is not stated.

The real reasons for the extraordinary decision lie in the fact that neither Court of Inquiry discovered any real evidence. The leakage-of-documents inquiry could conclude only that Surinder Singh had documents transferred to his residence, in fact a bun ker, without authorisation - and that because his offices were under enemy fire. Nor was there evidence that some photocopies that Surinder Singh made, as supporting documents in an appeal sent to Malik, made their way to the media through him.

Facts that emerged in the second Court of Inquiry were no less equivocal. Sources at 16 Corps Headquarters in Leh told Frontline that while Surinder Singh was held responsible for the vacation of Bajrang Post, evidence also emerged to show that hi s superiors were no less complicit. It also appears that the Court of Inquiry, which charged Singh with having failed "to take effective steps to keep the 'line of control under secure surveillance'" ignored the fact that he had written to his superiors asking for the infrastructure to do exactly that.

More serious, the show-cause notice, authored by Major-General K.P. Pandya on behalf of Malik, is littered with absurdities. It cites, for example, observations against Surinder Singh by the Kargil Committee Report of K. Subrahmanyam, B.G. Verghese and K .K. Hazari in defence of the termination proceedings. That Report, however, has no greater legal status than media attacks on Malik and other top officials. An internal investigation by General A.R.K. Reddy, which Army officials have repeatedly asserted was an in-house review of events not intended to ascertain responsibility, is also referred to. Incredibly, the show-cause notice refuses to make over a copy of these reports, on the ground that "disclosure of the report of Shri Subrahmanyam Committee an d the one submitted by Lt. Gen. ARK Reddy, PVSM, AVSM, is not in the interest of the security of state". Apparently, the Army Headquarters is unaware that the Kargil Committee Report was tabled in Parliament, and that its contents have been widely publis hed!

In effect, Surinder Singh has been denied the opportunity even to study the evidence against him, a basic requisite of legal fairness. He is, Frontline has discovered, not the only victim of the top brass-led war against the truth. Although the Co urt of Inquiry into leakage of documents could not establish that any such event had in fact taken place, it has recommended the prosecution of Surinder Singh's legal counsel, R.S. Randhawa, top lawyer and MP Kapil Sibal, Outlook magazine's Vinod Mehta, Nitin Gokhale and Ajith Pillai, The Hindustan Times' former Editor V.N. Narayanan and current Executive Editor Bharat Bhushan, along with this correspondent, for violating the Official Secrets Act. The recommendation follows the failure of the Cou rt to secure the appearance before it in Leh of this group of people. The recommendation not only reflects an alarming disregard for counsel-client confidentiality, a key component of the democratic system, but also the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech.

Sadly, these coercive tactics, rather than genuine introspection, have constituted the official response to the serious questions raised about the conduct of the Kargil war. In October, the Group of Ministers set up to act on the Kargil Committee Report' s findings announced its backing for a new Defence Intelligence Agency, made up of the separate intelligence organisations of the three armed services. Since its clear lack of information was not the real problem at Kargil, it is hard to see what meaning ful contribution the creation of another layer of expensive bureaucracy will make to securing India's borders. The real problem illustrated by the 121 Brigade papers is a culture of sycophancy, which led to significant field intelligence and assessments being brushed aside. But solving that problem required real political will. Blaming lower-level officers and the press, is a whole lot easier.