It used to be an eerie landmark; the tree I saw everyday in the summer of 1999, blackened and ripped by incessant bombing at the old brigade headquarters, is green again.
But much else has withered. The legacy of the Kargil war, one of the toughest wars of modern military history — far tougher than Iraq and Afghanistan — has been shortchanged by India’s politics.
|A soldier points to a post that Pakistani soldiers had occupied in Drass in 1999. Virendra Singh Gosain / HT Photos|
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government has mostly looked away since 2004 when it came to observing the anniversary of the BJP government-era war. President Pratibha Patil was requested to come to Drass, but declined, army sources said.
“I think it’s just disgraceful. They are trying to politicise the issue for no reason,” retired Colonel VN Thapar, father of the late Kargil war hero Capt. Vijayant Thapar, told the Hindustan Times as he prepared to head to Drass, the world’s second coldest inhabited place after Oymyakon in Russia.
That is the casualty in a country where a major section of its under-15 population of 350 million have no recollection of the war and no sense of what it meant for India.
“We used to think armymen live a cushy life and zoom around in cars and waste money — I had no empathy for the Army,” said Manraj Singh, 19, a physical education student from Punjab’s Abohar town, as he sat back after dinner at a restaurant in Drass, a town of 2,000 people. “After we came here and saw how and in what kind of place they fought and won the war for the nation I felt really proud of them.”
More than 520 soldiers died in the Kargil war.
In 1999, Indian soldiers had to clamber up impossible, vertical cliffs amid gunfire to retake strategic Ladakh mountains from hundred of Pakistani raiders, including army regulars who sat on the height and could easily bring down approaching soldiers.
On July 26, the day when victory was declared in 1999, Defence Minister A.K. Antony will only pay a wreath in New Delhi, staying away from the massive 10th anniversary celebration planned in the operational hub of Drass on the weekend when top generals from across India and the families of slain officers and soldiers are to arrive here.
Congress MP Rashid Ali called it “Bharatiya Janata Party’s war”. Coal Minister Sri Prakash Jaiswal said he did not know about the anniversary.
A top army officer shrugged it off. “We chose this life. We aren’t cribbing or hankering after praise. We shall honour our heroes ourselves,” said the officer, declining to be named as he is not authorised to talk to the media.
But Thapar, whose son Vijayant died fighting as he led an advance on a mountain feature called Knoll, said: “This is going a bit too far. I think we should not expect anything from the leaders and have the army and citizens celebrate.”
That is what is happening.
Unlike previous years when Drass hosted mostly western backpackers Indians dominate the tourists who have come here for the summer.
Yes, the former bombed-out dusty town is now a tourist hub.
The town where the ‘market’ was a row of crumbling wooden-shuttered shacks, and just a tea shop for some shelling-time reprieve, now has several small hotels “with complete sanitary fittings” — as one proudly advertised.
“It’s amazing so many Indian tourists are coming this year,” said Mohammed Saleem, 45, of the Afzal hotel. “They want to know what happened at Tiger Hill and Tololing peak and Drass.”
Businessman Saleem Iqbal, 25, sees a greater opportunity.
“If we get permission to take tourists to Tiger Hill on horseback, there will be a big boom,” he said.
Not like the ones he heard everyday in the summer of 1999 as he hunkered fearfully in his first floor marketside home.