Kargil revisited

This memoir about the Kargil war is a key addition to military writing in India, says Manoj K. Joshi.

india Updated: May 08, 2006 18:25 IST

By Manoj K. Joshi

Kargil: From Surprise to Victory
Author: General V. P. Malik
Publisher: HarperCollins
Format: Hardcover
Price: Rs 595
Pages: 436

There are actually two books contained in this one volume and the editors would have been better advised to focus more sharply on the Kargil war. General Malik’s broad views on the nuclear issue, China, information warfare, Indo-Pak relations and so on could have formed a separate volume. More space could have been devoted to what was happening in the Army headquarters or the Northern Command and 15 Corps headquarters. Since he was the chief of the army at the time, his memoir of that event is an important contribution to military writing in India, a subject that has been poorly served by the armed forces leadership. Field Marshal Cariappa left no personal account of the 1947 Kashmir war, neither did General Chaudhury of the 1965 campaign, Sam Manekshaw’s version of the 1971 war is still awaited, presuming the Field Marshal has penned it.

There are two ways at looking at the Kargil war— one as a pinprick, a set of shallow incursions on a 160 km frontage of a country that has land borders of 8,000 km; or as a strategic dagger aimed at inflicting greater harm. Given that both states possessed nuclear weapons, a wound, whether inflicted by a pin or a dagger was bound to have serious consequences, and it was therefore fought in a politico-military framework. Malik’s account reveals how the Union Cabinet Committee on Security, the armed forces headquarters and the local formations fought an inter-locked campaign from Washington to Beijing.

General V. P. Malik

Was there an intelligence failure that led to the Kargil war in 1999? Of course, there was a failure, but that is old hat since the Kargil Review Committee that had access to all the intelligence data has confirmed that. There are two kinds of failures in intelligence — that of not getting the required data or that of improperly assessing the data on hand. In the case of Kargil, there were failures on both these counts, and all the organisations — R&AW, IB, Military Intelligence, and the Joint Intelligence Committee/National Security Council Secretariat must share the blame, though perhaps, as Malik’s essentially sound assessment reveals, not equally.

Did the media (including this writer) handle the issue fairly ? Regrettably, we did not. Criticism of the government and armies during war has an old history in democracies but uninformed criticism and wild allegations detract from the war effort as they did in the case of Kargil and Malik himself bore the brunt of several unfair attacks.

But hindsight would suggest that the government and the armed forces, too, could have handled the situation better. The Kargil Review Committee expressly avoided assigning blame and looked at “systemic” issues. Its recommendations have led to far-reaching reforms in the armed forces and intelligence services. But it did some disservice in not assigning blame: to leave unpunished a failure that needed the lives of some 500 young men to rectify is to encourage its repetition. If we accept the pinprick theory, the top brass were not to blame, but if we go with the dagger, we cannot absolve them. The military is not supposed to be squeamish in these matters, as a glance into General Harbakhsh Singh’s handling of his army in the 1965 war will reveal. The media must accept some blame for this because in retailing, even as the war was on, the allegations of the Kargil brigade commander who had been removed it did great disservice to the army’s effort.


Memoirs are, of course, a shade selfserving. That goes with the genre. But Malik’s account is praiseworthy for his sobriety and objectivity, as well as generosity to comrades and colleagues. But his kindness does not bind the reviewer in asking the hard question as to whether the political choice not to cross the LoC in other areas was a correct one. Soldiers were ordered to mount virtually frontal attacks — not just uphill, but even up vertical rockfaces against an entrenched enemy. This was akin to frontal charges against entrenched soldiers and machine guns in World War I. Just because the army has an unquestioning tradition and a reservoir of brave young men, doesn’t mean that such tactics should have been repeated at the end of the 20th century.

Surprisingly, Malik has not dealt with his views on the post-war thinking in the armed forces. He was the person who pushed the army to begin planning for “limited wars”, arguing that Pakistan was getting a free rise by exploiting the strategic space between full-scale nuclear and conventional war by its proxy war in the Valley and Kargil typeoperations. But perhaps that’s material for his next book.

First Published: May 08, 2006 18:11 IST