Opinion| 20 years later, lessons for India from Kargil conflict
In the jagged heights of Kargil, the signs of battle have long been obliterated. It has been 20 long years since the mountains reverberated with the constant sound of artillery fire. India fought a sharp, though short, war in a rugged, remote and inhospitable corner that few had even heard of till then.
For my generation of journalists, Kargil was the first taste of war. We left Srinagar by road and snaked our way past several bends, crawled up the narrow Zoji La pass at 11,600 feet and gasped as we entered the war theatre to the sound of artillery shells whistling past us on the Srinagar-Kargil highway.
The driver of the car suddenly braked. An army convoy, ahead of us, had been waved down by a Colonel camped alongside the road. He shouted hysterically,
“Don’t go ahead, you will all be killed. They are dominating the road... you will all be butchered.”
The Colonel, an artillery officer, had already had a taste of the enemy firepower.
He had been under an incessant rain of shells fired from across the border and from the heights occupied by the ‘rats’.
That’s the precise word units being pushed into Kargil were hearing. “Some rats have come in. Throw them out and be quick,” was the brief being given to them by their seniors. The senior most army officer, commanding the Srinagar-based 15 Corps insisted that the skirmish was a localised affair and George Fernandes, the then defence minister had assured Parliament in the month of May that the heights would be cleared in 48 hours. The war that began in May was finally called off on July 26, 1999.
For 11 weeks, soldiers braved a tough terrain, inclement weather, a well-stocked enemy and demanding seniors pressing for quick results. The rats turned out to be well-trained Pakistani army regulars, who had made a deep ingress into Indian territory and set up bases with medium machine guns and heavy artillery.
India emerged victorious 20 years ago, mainly due to the grit and determination of young infantry officers but paid a heavy price. The Indian army and the air force lost 527 men and as many as 1,300 were wounded.
Within 72 hours of the army declaring victory on July 26, 1999, the government set up its first committee, under the chairmanship of strategic expert K Subrahmanyam, to “review the events leading up to the Pakistani aggression,” and recommend measures, “considered necessary to safeguard national security.”
The committee was scathing in its report. “The Review Committee had before it overwhelming evidence that the Pakistani armed intrusion in the Kargil sector came as a complete and total surprise to the Indian Government, Army and intelligence agencies,” it said at the outset.
Two sentences from the committee’s report stand out. “Pakistan’s action at Kargil was not rational. Its behaviour patterns require to be carefully studied in order to gain a better understanding of the psyche of its leadership,’’ the report observed.
Has India learnt its lessons from Kargil? The continuing assaults on India provide some answers.
India has been hit multiple times. In less than two years after the Kargil conflict, Pakistani-trained terrorists attacked Parliament in December 2001.
In 2008, despite a complete analysis of the need to shore up the country’s intelligence-gathering abilities, 10 armed terrorists sailed into Mumbai and held the country’s financial nerve-centre hostage for over 72 hours, killing 166 innocents. The gaps in India’s security establishment were prised open once again and several post-mortems done.
Pakistan continues to hit India through non-state actors, exposing the chinks in India’s armour. Fidayeen, determined to kill and die, have repeatedly managed to penetrate well-guarded installations. They did that in the air force base in Pathankot in January 2016, and a few months later when they managed to breach the poor defences of an army installation in Uri, where they killed 18 unsuspecting soldiers.
In January 2018, another squad entered an army camp in Jammu’s Sunjuwan, and in Pulwama, in February this year, a young Kashmiri drove an explosive-laden vehicle into a CRPF convoy, killing 40.
Several Prime Ministers have had to deal with Pakistan and its proxies. Narendra Modi has changed the way India responds to terror by twice conducting surgical strikes across the border with Pakistan. In September 2016, the army crossed the LoC to strike terror camps and after Pulwama, the government used its air force to strike a vital Jaish-e-Mohammad facility in Balakot.
Twenty years later, India can also draw some satisfaction from the fact that the international community is helping it mind Pakistan and force the latter to take steps against terror groups operating from its soil. In the end, as the Subrahmanyam committee aptly put it, Pakistan’s behaviour is not “rational” and India needs to constantly analyse its behaviour pattern. That continues to remain the key.