Warnings in vain

Print edition : September 11, 1999

Revelations about warnings provided by Brigadier Surinder Singh on rising border tensions ahead of the Kargil intrusion raise new questions about the designs of a political and army establishment which was desperate first to conceal the scale of the intrusion and then to project rapid military gains.

The GOC directs that all Bdes (brigades) will capture / procure suitable animals / birds peculiar to their sect(or) and hand them over to 3 Inf(antry) Div(ision) Sig(nals) Regt (Regiment) by 31 Mar(ch) 1998. However in case of animals / birds under hi bernation, the sizes of cages which may be required should be intimated to 3 Inft Div Sig Regt for their fabrication action at the earliest... concerted efforts will be put by all concerned.

- from letter 6361/STN/21 dated March 2, 1998, signed by Colonel S.P. Tanwar for Lieutenant-General V.N. Budhwar, General Officer Commanding, 3 Infantry Division, Leh.

IN the spring of 1998, even as Pakistan was preparing the contours of its Kargil offensive, matters of war would seem to have receded from the consciousness of the Indian Army's 3 Infantry Division based at Leh. Lieutenant-General V.N. Budhwar, General O fficer Commanding, was busily engaged in a Frederick of Bavaria-style enterprise of setting up a zoo for the tiny town, a charming project albeit one of somewhat dubious legality. Even when massive artillery exchanges broke out around Kargil in the wake of the May 1998 nuclear tests at Pokhran, the zoo project remained central to the 3 Infantry Division's activities. Even as their Brigade Headquarters was under sustained fire, officers in Kargil received a second urgent order, marked 6361/9/ZOO/Q1, on J une 8 from Lieutenant-Colonel V.K. Singh with the instruction that the search for suitable wildlife specimens be speeded up.

By a curious coincidence, Brigadier Surinder Singh took command of the 121 Infantry Brigade at Kargil the same day this second zoo missive was issued. But the no-nonsense Brigadier, decorated for gallantry and valour as Captain, Major and Colonel and res ponsible for the capture of the key 5,108-metre mountain dominating the Kaksar area in 1980, realised that the Army ought to have things other than zoo-building on its mind. Frontline's continuing investigation into the failures that enabled Pakis tan's summer intrusion in the Kargil sector has thrown up new evidence that Brigadier Surinder Singh had repeatedly warned of rising tension on the border, but his warnings were ignored. Strangely, the Brigadier's reward has been a military inquiry that violates elementary principles of natural justice.

Chief of the Army Staff General V.P. Malik was, Frontline's investigation has found, among the first to be informed of Brigadier Surinder Singh's concerns. In August 1998, as General Malik prepared to visit Kargil, the 121 Brigade was asked to put up a note to 3 Division Headquarters stating just what they intended to tell the Chief of Staff. This procedure is meant to ensure that in this case Lieutenant-General Budhwar would be aware of the issues that Brigadier Surinder Singh intended to bring up with General Malik. The 121 Brigade's note, marked "BRIEF: COAS" and numbered 124/GSD/VIS, was sent out on August 21, 1998. A report in Outlook magazine wrongly called it a letter to the Chief of the Army Staff, and this led to official denials on Sep tember 2 that General Malik had ever received such a letter. The denial is in a narrow sense therefore correct, but since the Army admits that General Malik was indeed briefed in accordance with its contents on August 29, 1998, the fact remains that he w as aware of the Brigadier's note.

Paragraph 5(a) of the August 21 note made clear Brigadier Surinder Singh's perception that Pakistan would seek to escalate violence in Jammu and Kashmir after the Pokhran-II tests. It also pointed to the upcoming summits of the South Asian Association fo r Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Non-Aligned Movement. It proceeded to suggest that major efforts would be made to push insurgents across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kargil. The reasons for this belief were outlined in Paragraph 8, beginning with the heading 'Enhanced Threat Perceptions'. Paragraph 8(a) recorded that the 24 Sindh Regiment, a reserve unit at Gilgit, had been moved up to Pakistan's forward headquarters at Olthingthang. One battalion had also moved from Sialkot to Skardu, although i ts precise location was not known at that time. Twenty-five heavy and five medium guns had been sent to the sector, the note said, along with M-198 155-millimetre howitzers and M-11 missiles.

Brigadier Surinder Singh.-PANKAJ RISHI KUMAR

Pointing in paragraph 15 to "infilt(ration) routes available through (the) Mushkoh Valley from Doda side to Panikhar, Yaldor and through nullahs", the briefing note proceeded to demand new equipment. Brigadier Surinder Singh asked for "one air OP (observ ation) fl(igh)t for observation, control of artillery fire and evacuating casualties to be at Kargil" on a full-time basis. One Remote Pilotless Vehicle (RPV), part of India's fleet of four such Israeli-manufactured aircraft, along with seven gun and mor tar locating radar, air photographs and satellite images, and an electronic warfare detachment were also requested. For reasons it best understands, the Army, in defiance of independent defence experts' evaluations, insists in its denial that RPVs and we apon locating radars "do not form part of the Army's inventory". "If Brigadier Surinder Singh had asked for equipment the Army did not have," one official pointed out, "he would have faced charges of insanity, not incompetence. It is extremely unlikely t hat a senior officer with decades of experience would have asked for things we don't have."

No action was taken on this request, and lack of sustained air surveillance was subsequently cited as a major reason for Pakistan's intrusion having passed undetected.

By September 1998, Brigadier Surinder Singh's apprehensions had sharpened. Letter 132/GSI/Pak/China, sent to 3 Infantry Division's headquarters on September 1 by Major H.C. Dwivedi, outlined insurgent movements on the Pakistan side of the LoC. "Int(ellig ence) sources have revealed that 500 Afghani militants have been conc(entrating) at Gurikot (map reference) NG 7959 for induction to (our) own side," it read. The likely routes of infiltration, the letter continued with a precision that is in retrospect chilling, were the Kil nullah, Safaid nullah and Kaobal Gali into the Mushkoh Valley and on to Pindras and Drass. A copy of an Intelligence and Field Security Unit letter, number 1/1 016 dated August 30, 1998, was attached to Major Dwivedi's letter (bear ing out earlier reports in Frontline on the availability of such information with Military Intelligence). "Pakistan," the letter concluded, "is likely to intensify art(iller)y duels and train L(o)C firing to ensure (their) induction."

COULD Brigadier Surinder Singh's warnings have prevented the Pakistani incursion? Several senior officials have sought to underplay the significance of the Brigadier's letters, arguing that his reports pointed only to infiltration, not a full-scale attac k. This position is, however, frivolous. As Brigadier Surinder Singh pointed out in a writ petition filed in August 1999 before the Punjab and Haryana High Court, "the conceptual thrust in regard to the enemy tilted towards selective infiltration, not an invasion". Nonetheless, had his warnings been heeded, Pakistan's aggression would most probably have been detected early, and Indian soldiers would have been better prepared to deal with the early incursions. However, Brigadier Surinder Singh was widely termed alarmist by his seniors, and his warnings became a recurring topic of cocktail party humour.

Air surveillance was clearly one key element needed to engage with the emerging threat perception. In January 1999, reliable sources told Frontline, the 121 Brigade desperately asked for an escalation of winter air surveillance, requesting that at least one helicopter be stationed in Kargil on a full-time basis. Intelligence reports were cited in support of a request to upgrade the Mushkoh Valley's priority for surveillance. It was also suggested that at least one surveillance sortie be carried o ut each week over Mushkoh Valley, the Mumar Shung and the Tololing nullah.

But these requests were turned down, and knowledgeable sources say that in the end barely four flights were carried out through the winter over the entire Kargil sector. Requests for additional troops, including a company to play a specialised anti-infil tration role east of Batalik, particularly Yaldor, were also rejected. Troops from the 9 Mahar Regiment were pulled out, leaving the Batalik area open to any enemy offensive.

General V.P. Malik, Chief of the Army Staff, addressing troops at Batalik during a visit to the Kargil sector in July.-PRESS INFORMATION BUREAU

THE stage was now set for war. After the first fire contact with Pakistan irregulars and troops on May 6 in the Batalik area, Brigadier Surinder Singh's first instinct was to launch a cautious response, focussing on cutting the infiltrators' supply lines rather than launching full-scale, near-suicidal assaults up the mountains. The military strategy was sound, but it was evidently irreconcilable with the designs of a political and army establishment desperate first to conceal the scale of the intrusion and then to project rapid military gains. Friction grew between Brigadier Surinder Singh and Lieutenant-General Budhwar, who chose to attend a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-sponsored Sindhu Darshan festival in Leh this summer as he had done last summer. Br igadier Surinder Singh's removal from office was now becoming imminent, with senior officers charging that his conduct of the campaign was incompetent.

Facts suggest that competence was not in fact the issue at stake. Indeed, early on in the campaign, Brigadier Surinder Singh was assigned charge of operations in Drass although that area had been placed under the command of 70 Infantry Brigade on April 2 4, 1999. After combat broke out in Drass, Brigadier Surinder Singh was ordered to take charge of the operations conducted by the Deputy Commander of 70 Brigade. His strategy to contain Pakistan positions at points 4,080 m and 4,590 m and the highest 5,14 0-m summit on the Tololing ridge was to push troops around them and consolidate to their north. Similar manoeuvres were used to effect containment around Tiger Hill, and points 4,195 m and 4,410 m. Such containment enabled troops to choke Pakistani posit ions, and it was recognised that the rapid physical eviction demanded by New Delhi would cause an unacceptable level of casualties.

But a desperate Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in New Delhi was simply unable to wait for a sound operational strategy to play itself out. On June 6, Brigadier Surinder Singh was abruptly told to report in Srinagar, where he was to be attached to 15 Corps Headquarters. Four days later the order was cancelled in the face of the Brigadier's protests, but it was revived on June 21. He was informed that his transfer was prompted by concern for an injury he had sustained in his left ear, an injury tha t the officer himself had not complained about. Brigadier Surinder Singh made repeated attempts to contact General Malik at this stage, and was finally informed that he would be granted an interview on June 28. In the event, the Chief of the Army Staff f ailed to keep the appointment. After waiting for six days in Delhi, on June 28 Brigadier Surinder Singh submitted a letter, marked 29734/SS/CONFD listing his grievances, along with a file containing documents. A receipt for these documents was issued by General Malik's staff upon the Brigadier insisting on it.

Back in Srinagar, the Brigadier learned on July 2 that he was to be posted as the Andhra Sub-Area Commander based in Secunderabad. Before his luggage had arrived in Secunderabad, fresh orders came on July 17 shifting him to Ranchi. This transfer is alleg ed to have been prompted by fears that the Brigadier planned to open an investigation into the denotification of a large tract of Army land in Secunderabad, parts of which several senior officers subsequently purchased. Whatever the truth, a frustrated B rigadier Surinder Singh now applied for a month's leave, which was granted on July 21. Part of the leave period was later terminated, and he was told to proceed to Ranchi by August 22. This posting too was withdrawn. Now the Brigadier was ordered to repo rt back to the 3 Infantry Division in Leh. When he asked why this was being done, he was reported to have received only vague verbal assurances that he was required to assist in an enquiry.

Pushed to the wall by these quick-fire transfers, Brigadier Surinder Singh moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court. The petition makes clear his belief that he was being punished for doing his job well, but none of the confidential correspondence on secu rity issues is appended to the legal document. "On account of the truthful stand taken by him in various communications addressed to Chief of Army Staff," the petition stated, "the authorities are feeling scared and are wanting to somehow deal with the p etitioner in an unfair, inequitable and unjust manner." The petition also stated: "The petitioner also perceives serious threat to his life, and his life is in danger." Brigadier Surinder Singh's counsel, military law expert R.S. Randhawa, later withdrew the petition, but has been granted liberty to approach the High Court in the event of the Brigadier facing any persecution in Leh.

That is more than a little likely. The Leh inquiry into the leakage of official documents to the media has been constituted by the 3 Infantry Division's Budhwar, an officer about whom Brigadier Surinder Singh has complained in writing and who is at the c entre of the Kargil controversy. Led by Deputy General Officer Commanding Ashok Duggal, Budhwar's immediate subordinate, and made up of Brigadiers C.M. Nayar and Devinder Singh, the inquiry will have little credibility since its members will in effect be judging their own cause. Indeed, Brigadier Surinder Singh's logical demand that others with access to the documents the Army claims he has leaked also be examined - individuals including the Army chief and his staff - has so far met with no response. "T he whole inquiry is a travesty of every principle of the law and the basic principles of natural justice," says Randhawa. "It is a vindictive attempt to persecute Brigadier Singh, and it has no legal legitimacy."

The witch-hunt launched against Brigadier Surinder Singh illustrates official responses to investigative disclosures on the political and defence establishment's handling of the Kargil war. Instead of welcoming scrutiny which would lead to a meaningful e xamination of just what went wrong and why, there has been a flat denial of the truth. The objective of inquiry ought to be to ensure that Kargil-type debacles do not recur. Instead, protecting top officers and their political patrons has, it would seem, become the defence establishment's principal concern.

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