Kargil established India’s image as a responsible power
PM Vajpayee’s mature handling of the crisis was contrasted with Pakistan’s adventurism. It helped shorten the warUpdated: Jul 21, 2019 19:49 IST
If there is one moment in history that signalled India’s acceptance as a responsible and weighty power, it was the Kargil war.
This moment could have the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, but the Cold War meant that India was the “villain” that broke Pakistan up, and not a country whose military intervention stopped the genocidal atrocities of the Pakistani army. It could well have been the first nuclear tests of 1974, but we ourselves were embarrassed enough to call it “peaceful”. The world saw though our game, and froze us out of the access to even non-military nuclear technology. That India was a poor country dependent on foreign aid to meet its development needs weakened our claims further in 1971 and 1974.
The Kargil war was exceptional in many ways. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had led the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and its allies to power in early 1998. He soon took two extremely controversial steps that had a direct bearing on the Kargil war.
The first was the series of nuclear tests conducted in May 1998, making India formally a nuclear weapons power. While the country welcomed the tests, the world was stunned. The subsequent Pakistani tests confirmed the worst suspicions of the West that South Asia was now dangerously sliding into a worst-case scenario of nuclear Armageddon. Both the countries were hit with harsh sanctions, and a veritable war of words broke out, primarily directed at India as the supposed initiator of an arms race. India’s stand — that it was forced to test because the Sino-Pak nuclear and missile cooperation seriously threatened our security — had few takers.
The other step that Vajpayee took was even more surprising — he reached out to Pakistan. Analysts cite the historic Lahore visit in this context. Very few people remember that Vajpayee’s only public function on the day he took oath as the prime minister was as the chief guest of an India-Pakistan hockey test at the National Stadium in New Delhi. Despite the downturn that bilateral ties took after the tests, efforts at improving relations were pursued at Colombo, New York, through back channels, and onto the unprecedented Lahore visit in February 1999. Vajpayee’s message was clear: India does not see Pakistan as a rival; rather it wants the neighbour to prosper. In turn, Pakistan should not feel threatened by India, which does not want to change the status quo.
This was a message that Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistani political establishment understood, but one, which if gone through, would change the power structure in Pakistan very substantially. The Pakistani army is not just the most important institution in that country. It had, and continues to have, a veto over relations with India, Afghanistan and the United States. It also controls the nuclear programme. The bogey of the Indian threat has also allowed the Pakistan army to grab a disproportionate share of the national pie.
At first sight, what appeared as a brilliant tactical move by the Pakistani army to occupy the Kargil heights during winters, when the Indian Army vacated it, turned out to be a diplomatic and military victory for India, thanks to Vajpayee’s keen sense of strategy and a resolute determination to defend the country. The initial reaction was a sense of shock, even betrayal. It came very soon after Lahore, and it came when the Vajpayee government had collapsed and was continued in a caretaker capacity.
The initial assessment was that it was the mujahideen, and possibly a few irregulars, who had intruded. The Army swung into action, but the fierce firepower from the other side bared the mujahideen story. The positions occupied were well-entrenched with heavy guns, and the battle to climb uphill and dislodge the invaders was going to be a long-drawn one. The Cabinet Committee on Security met formally every day with the three chiefs actively participating in them. The war had to be taken on to a higher plane.
The induction of air force was accompanied by the caveat that the Line of Control (LoC) would not be crossed. Pakistan brought down two air force planes and an army helicopter, which led to the loss of lives and capture of a pilot as a prisoner-of-war. But the Indian military adapted soon and the tide began to turn. The release by the Indian government of the taped conversation between General Pervez Musharraf and his chief of staff, General Mohammad Aziz, exposed the Pakistani army’s claim of the invaders being mujahideen. This did help convince the international community that Pakistan was playing a dangerous game, which needs to be stopped.
The other factor that went decisively in India’s favour was the decision not to cross the LoC, though it apparently made the recovery of territory difficult. The sanctity of the LoC was seen globally as a stabilising factor in maintaining peace between India and Pakistan. India’s sense of responsibility was contrasted with Pakistan’s adventurism. I believe that this decision of Vajpayee helped shorten the war since it led to Americans intervening and forcing Pakistan to withdraw. The war would have been far bloodier otherwise. Kargil marked Vajpayee’s statesmanship.
Shakti Sinha is director, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. He has served as private secretary to PM Vajpayee and was a joint secretary in the PMO
The views expressed are personal
This is the first of a six-part series to mark 20 years of the Kargil war