Even after 10 years the Kargil conflict is far from over for
thousands of troops stationed
JUST a decade ago these hills were reverberating with gunfire and were in full media glare with real-life heroes showing exemplary bravery, grit and courage in the line of duty. While a whole nation waited with bated breath and heavy hearts for the Kargil conflict to get over, there was no denying the fact that peace would be won at a heavy price. Today, 10 years later, the 168-km-long Himalayan ridgeline that forms the Drass-Kargil-Batalik axis along the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan is the new Siachen-style battlefield for the Indian Armed forces — tough, rugged, undulating and punishing cold. Hundreds of jawans keep vigil in the inhospitable terrain.
The lack of a declared policy on part of India that it is willing to send forces across the LoC or international borders to tackle Kargil-style intrusions in the future has willy-nilly imposed this perpetual Army deployment all along this ridgeline. Not only is this punishing for the soldiers and officers, it is also costing the exchequer additional hundreds of crores each year.
Today the Indian Army is more focussed on securing the lofty peaks in the conflict zone of 1999 than Siachen, which is considered to be the world’s highest battleground.
After the 1999 war, the force strength was tripled. Now, an 18,000-strong force is based under three brigades at Drass, Kargil and Biamah in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir. The force is equipped with mechanised arms like towed artillery guns and choppers. A number of ammunition depots have also been established in the area to maintain a continuous supply of arsenal in case of any emergency.
The Army is backed by a supply-line maintained through hundreds of trucks, ponies and porters, who ferry the material that is either coming through the 1,000-km-long Chandigarh-Manali-Leh-Drass highway or is airlifted from Chandigarh by the IAF’s IL 76 aircraft. A large section of the Army is entrenched in bunker posts with communications and other logistics support. Specially equipped and trained troops hold these positions. Each year thousands of soldiers, led by their officers, spend their winters on these peaks and undertake patrolling despite the risk of frostbites and avalanche casualties. Choppers are the only mode of transportation during winters and are used to evacuate injured or sick soldiers.
Ten years after the Pakistan army intruded across the LoC and India took a stance that it will fight in its own territory instead of crossing over to cut off the intruders, exactly the opposite has happened. The peaks were re-captured after a tough fight by the forces and now thousands of men are posted on top of the peaks all through the year. Though India’s commitment to maintain the sanctity of the LoC during the 1999 conflict earned international acclaim, it came at a huge cost of its brave jawans and officers.
But defending the LoC is different from holding onto the Siachen glacier. A huge geo-political difference exists between the two. First, the mountains in the Kargil region are between 15,000 feet and 19,000 feet high, while the heights in Siachen are in excess of 20,000 feet. However , the area and the peaks to be manned are much more in the Kargil region.
The entire region is wind swept and remains cut-off from the rest of the country for six to eight months every year. During winters temperatures dip to minus 60 degrees Celsius in Drass, which is the second coldest inhabited place on the planet. Maintaining a constant vigil, thus, is not only stressful for the security personnel but is also very expensive.
Second, there is a dispute between India and Pakistan over what is the demarcation at Siachen. A difference of perception, as Siachen glacier was never officially demarcated on the ground. However, on the LoC no such confusion exists. The LoC was demarcated following the Simla Agreement. Even maps were exchanged in December, 1972. It is a well-defined area on the maps like any international border.`A0 Both India and Pakistan "know where the LoC is and that is where the forces of both countries stand separated today".
The Simla Agreement states clearly, "In order to initiate the process of establishment of durable peace, both the governments agree that: In Jammu and Kashmir, the Line of Control resulting from ceasefire on December 17, 1971 shall be respected by both sides without prejudice to the recognised position of either side".
The oft-quoted Kargil review committee, headed by K. Subrahmanyam, had warned against the "Siachenisation of Kargil heights and similar unheld unpopulated gaps in the high Himalayas" in very clear terms. Suggesting a way out to deal with the problem of securing the Himalayan peaks against future intrusions, the committee had said that an appropriate response would be a declared policy to swiftly punish any deliberate infringement of the sanctity of the LOC.
The retaliation should be in a manner, time and place of India’s choosing, the committee had suggested. Maintaining a constant vigil over so many peaks throughout the year should have been nothing more than a temporary or stopgap arrangement, opine some senior Army officers.
Lieut-Gen. Mohinder Puri (retd), who led the forces in Kargil in 1999 as Major -General of the 8 Mountain Division, says, "We should have crossed the LoC in 1999 and I still maintain that this should be a standard response to deal with any such intrusion". Crossing the LoC and cutting off supply lines will not only cut down the casualties, it will also ensure a quick end to any conflict. General Puri, however, firmly believes that Pakistan would not dare to venture in the same area again.
A senior serving officer pointed out: "China does not physically occupy any Himalayan peak in its territory along the Indian border. Its troops are stationed at the base of the mountains and air surveillance is maintained and no one dare enter its territory. India, too, should adopt such a policy and have rapid action teams at the base of the mountains complete with air support. Have the required manpower, but do not waste them away on icy peaks for months at end. The same work can be done by having fewer posts, and by increasing air surveillance".
Chandigarh-based Defence analyst Mandeep Singh Bajwa says, "We have to dominate some of the crucial peaks or else it will sap our energy in aborting similar intrusions in future. Modern technology has to be used, but there is no substitute for human observation".
Bajwa is of the opinion that Pakistan and the world must know India’s stance on the defence of its territory. With modern day sensors, thermal imagery, satellite pictures and advancement in abilities of the unarmed aerial vehicles (UAVs), it is possible to see any movement made by Pakistan troops.
For an information technology superpower like India, it actually is downgrading to equate itself with Pakistan when strategically the world sees India and China as the new clubbing. It is no more India-Pakistan. Things have changed in the past 10 years and India should behave like a power that can take decision to suit its safety requirements rather than be drawn into an eyeball-to-eyeball LoC-occupying effort with Pakistan. India should act like a big country and state its policy on intrusion and give a reply as and when needed rather than wasting its resources — this is the general opinion among the retired officers.
With the changing global scenario and Pakistan now being seen as a global fountainhead of terrorism there should be no two views about how to defend our borders in case of any intrusion.
With such facts in place, the need is to shift and have policies like a global power and not be Pakistan centric.