The capture of Tiger Hill signaled India’s victory in the short but sharp war between India and Pakistan over the icy heights of Kargil. It came at the end of a three-month-long battle that was initially marred by utter confusion. Unit after army unit had been pushed up the rugged heights with no clear instructions of the task at hand. The division headquartered in Kargil didn’t know the extent of the intrusion. The corps headquartered in Srinagar was clueless and the then army chief, General VP Malik was in Poland.
“Some rats have come in. Throw them out,” is what commanding officers were being told by the Kargil Brigade. In Delhi, then defence minister George Fernandes announced grandly that the ‘infiltrators’ would be evicted in 48 hours. But the men on the ground knew there was something terribly wrong. Saurabh Kalia, a young army officer who went on a reconnaissance, never returned. His mutilated body was handed over by Pakistan. Other young men lay injured in the snow for over 48 hours because helicopters couldn’t fly in for casualty evacuation.
The ‘intruders’ had the advantage of height and fired artillery shells with precision. The men on the ground finally realised the ‘rats’ were not ordinary infiltrators but trained Pakistani army regulars who had set up bunkers and dug their heels in for a long haul.
I was one among many journalists in the war theatre but fortunate enough to be stationed with 18 Grenadiers and 8 Sikh, the two units that were involved in the final assault on Tiger Hill. Its capture was a psychological and strategic victory but the Indian flag that finally fluttered atop this barren height was a testimony to what only the young officers knew: it was one of the fiercest fights in the Kargil operation.
“The enemy fought like tigers to retain it, but even while our men were in the midst of this battle, defence minister George Fernandes, announced the capture of Tiger Hill,” an officer involved with the operations recalled, as he and the others pieced together the finite details of the battle.
When the announcement was made, the peak, Tiger Top, was still in the hands of the enemy. The peak had not been recaptured. The troops of 18 Grenadiers--tasked to capture the top--were still short of the pinnacle. Two young, courageous officers, Lt Balwan and Capt Sachin Nimbalkar were at the very time, making repeated attempts to dislodge the intruders from Tiger Top. They were still fifty metres short of the peak when the message was conveyed to Brigade Headquarters: they are short of the Top. The message went up the line: through Srinagar and Udhampur to Delhi. Somewhere along the way, it became, “They are on Tiger Top.” The defence minister was told of this ‘great victory’ while he was addressing a public meeting in Punjab.
But up on the treacherous slopes leading to the Top, the battle still raged. The troops had struggled all night to make their way up a slope, using ropes to haul themselves forward, their guns tied to their backs. The lead party comprising six soldiers was hanging precariously to one side of a cliff. Craning their necks, they saw six of the Pakistani intruders. They had spotted the Indian soldiers too and had immediately opened fire and a cloud of smoke cut them off from the Top. Of the six soldiers, only one, Yoginder Yadav survived with bullet injuries. He tied his broken arm to his belt – I was later told – and continued firing.
The fatalities meant, another assault had to be launched. Troops moved up the slope once again and 23-year-old Nimbalkar suddenly turning religious, muttering prayers for their success. Nimbalkar – codenamed Sholapur after the Maharashtra town he came from – led the assult. His men were able to reach the Top with minimum noise and the silence of their assault had taken the enemy by surprise. Within minutes, they captured the first of the seven to eight bunkers located on Tiger Hill.
The assault team stormed the bunkers and as one of them recalled later, “We were too close to the enemy for anything but a hand to hand combat.” The enemy no longer had the advantage of height and it was every man for himself. The jawans fought like men possessed. The sounds of close combat – of gunfire, of grenades exploding – gripped the heights. After what seemed like hours of fierce fighting, Tiger Top ‘’was ours.’’ Portions of Tiger Hill were still occupied by the enemy. The troops heard the echo of cheers from down below. The radio operator had conveyed the news of the victory. There would be no embarrassment for the defence minister now.
On Tiger Hill, 8 Sikh troops were meeting with stiff resistance and one of the heaviest firefights of Operation Vijay ensued. An officer radioed a message saying it was difficult for him and his men to survive. There was nowhere to hide; no boulders to crouch behind. They had to innovate and they did.
Read it in the words of the officer, “We picked up the bodies of ten Pakistani intruders we had just killed and used them as human shields. ‘Come shoot your own men,’ we screamed, and charged forward. We had to keep the momentum going. To stop now would have meant giving them a chance to regroup. They began retreating and finally as dusk started to fall in the mountains, the last intruder fled. Tiger Hill was ours. The tricolor was flapping in the icy wind.’’
As the ministers rejoiced, the troops came back, to mourn their dead colleagues and collapse in exhaustion.
(The author wrote a book on Kargil and tweets as @shammybaweja)