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Kargil: Lessons to be learnt

By Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: July 07, 2004 17:49 IST
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It is five years since India fought, and won, a treacherous war to regain territory in the Kargil sector of Jammu and Kashmir, which had been seized surreptitiously by Pakistani intruders. But why was India taken by surprise? The question still begs an answer. Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt reviews the conflict on the eve of the fifth anniversary of a creditable victory.

How should a concerned Indian look back on the Kargil conflict?

Undoubtedly, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government's two major successes were the nuclear tests and the victory in Kargil.

After the nuclear tests in May 1998, when the United States and some of its allies imposed economic sanctions on India, there were fears that the economy would crash. But India withstood the fallout.

Likewise, during the Kargil war, the government showed tremendous patience and did not cross the Line of Control, which separates India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir. For the first time in history, the US and China both supported India vis-à-vis Pakistan, subtly acknowledging the LoC as the de facto border between India and Pakistan. They supported India only because India did not violate the 'sanctity' of the LoC. Credit is certainly due to the Vajpayee government for its strategic and diplomatic acumen during and after the war.

The war also saw an outpouring of patriotic fervour by Indians after a long time.

What was the flip side?

After five years and many inquiries, no one knows what exactly happened before the conflict broke out and why everyone was taken by surprise.

Why did Kargil happen?

No soul in government can give you a credible answer. Whatever be the government's own claim, Kargil was a surprise. The government bungled before the war broke out. India's military and intelligence establishments erred in assessing the indicators.

It came as a shock for the Kargil Review Committee (headed by defence analyst K Subrahmanyam) when a lady officer at  Army Headquarters told it that General Ved Prakash Malik, then chief of army staff, got a report of intrusions by Pakistanis a day before he was to leave for Poland on an official visit. General Malik instructed his office not to forward the report until his return. The Kargil Review Committee did not, however, pursue this matter.

It must be acknowledged, however, that when war actually broke out General Malik and the government acted well.

Did the euphoria caused by then prime minister Vajpayee's bus ride to Lahore cause the government to take its eye off the ball? Is that why Kargil happened?

Looking at the published facts one can only say that the government was naïve to trust the Pakistani establishment. It was swayed by a 'peace fever.' Across the board there was a craving for friendship with Pakistan. Military and intelligence personnel neglected all indicators about General Pervez Musharraf's duplicity.

So the Kargil war was an intelligence failure.

Yes and no. Our intelligence set-up got the inputs, but failed in the assessment of these inputs.

Kargil also showed our military leaders in poor light. Even when they started getting reports of the intrusion, they underplayed it, at high cost. Defence Minister George Fernandes termed it, initially, a 'small intrusion.' Even a cursory look at the newspapers of April-May 1999 make the government's attempt to underplay the event evident.

There is an interesting anecdote in this connection. When the Kargil report came out, a senior and highly respected retired intelligence officer sought an appointment with Vajpayee. He was unhappy with the report. Vajpayee heard him out patiently. When the meeting was about to get over, he said: 'Bataiye Kargil kyon hua?'

The ageing sleuth said in anguish, 'Chowkidar sow gaya tha, ab shikayat kar raha hai humko sone kyon diya!" (The army was asleep on the borders and now it is asking why was it allowed to sleep by intelligence!)

How important is the recent debate on the delay in the decision to use the Indian Air Force during the war?

It is just one of the many issues relating to the war. Any government would think twice before bombing its own territory.

Has anyone been held responsible for the lapses in Kargil?

A few heads rolled, but the Kargil Review Committee did not go too seriously into individual lapses. No authority in the establishment discussed threadbare the role of General Malik and officers at his level. Surinder Singh, a brigadier who was the commanding officer in the Kargil sector when the infiltration took place, has gone on record with many vital facts. The government should not have dismissed him as 'merely an alarmist.'

Also, till today no healthy debate has taken place on why the government was taken by surprise. The real cover-up of the Kargil conflict is this. The government handled the situation well once war broke out. But it was before the war broke out that it bungled. That, however, got buried in the overwhelming emotions stirred up by the conflict.

Why was the death rate so high?

Because of the terrain. The Indian soldiers had an uphill task, literally.

On the fifth anniversary of the conflict, what can we expect from the new government?

A debate on the Kargil Review Committee's report in Parliament. The report has not been debated so far. The previous government's attempt to cover up what happened before the conflict should not be allowed to succeed.

What are the lessons for India from the Kargil war?

The conflict has to be viewed through the prism of the nuclear tests conducted by India and, soon after, Pakistan in May 1998, simply because it was the first military conflict after both nations went nuclear. Kargil proved that nuclear weapons offer only an illusion of national security and are useless in dealing with limited conflicts of this nature. On the contrary, they proved a hindrance for India, which could not retaliate as freely as it would have liked.

Nuclear weapons have given Pakistan a psychological sense of parity with India.


Pakistan's nuclear capacity and, in turn, its military self-confidence were underestimated by India (external reference: Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons Program). After India's nuclear tests, then home minister L K Advani declared, 'The strategic equation has changed in India's favour.' How wrong he was!

In New Delhi, there was utter confusion about Pakistan's tests. Indian experts had dismissed Pakistan's nuclear programme as China's baby. But since 1998, not one Pakistani nuclear-capable missile has failed. On the other hand, India has seen several failures.

Islamabad's programmes can no longer simply be dismissed as stolen or bought. Their successful tests show that Pakistani scientists are a confident lot and the country has the capacity to enhance its nuclear and delivery capability. Kargil must be examined in this light.

What should be done now?

As mentioned earlier, the whole episode starting from Prime Minister Vajpayee's visit to Lahore should be debated threadbare. The reports of the Kargil Review Committee and the Task Force must be discussed.

The BJP has tried its best to prove that Vajpayee was not taken for a ride by his opposite number Nawaz Sharif. To prove this, a top-secret tape was released during the war. It had a telephonic conversation between General Musharraf, on a visit to China, and his deputy, Lieutenant General Mohammad Aziz, in Islamabad. The BJP claimed that the conversation proved that even Sharif was taken for a ride by his army chief. The BJP government actually acted as Sharif's defence.

Image: Uday Kuckian

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Sheela Bhatt