Cold WAR

Even after 10 years the Kargil conflict is far from over for thousands of troops stationed
at the mountain posts in the area, writes Ajay Banerjee

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.

Scenes from the battle theatre

EVEN as the media is busy "labelling" one battle or the other as the most important or decisive one of the Kargil war in 1999, each of these was challenging and tough. No single one can be picked out as the "toughest" or the most crucial.

If Tiger Hill, Point 4875 and Tololing dominated the Srinagar-Leh National highway, battles in the Batalik region were fought in extremely harsh and hostile terrain with steep and rugged mountains making the task of the troops more arduous. One of the reasons for certain areas getting more media hype was the presence of mediapersons in certain pockets like the Drass area.

The Batalik area was, however, completely inaccessible, with no road to reach there, hence no media coverage. But this doesn’t mean that all the action was in the Drass area only.

KBK GraphicsIn the Batalik sector a large number of Pakistani intruders had taken control of a number of ridges. The recapture of these ridges was essential as their occupation threatened to realign the LoC and dominate the Batalik-Leh route.

Gen. V.P. Malik (retd) writes in his book Kargil from Surprise to Victory that Lieut-Col. Amul Asthana of the 1/11 Gorkhas sent a handwritten letter directly to him pointing out what was needed to fight and equip the men in the front to go on Khalubar ridge. The information was very useful. General Malik writes, "I ensured no one in the chain of command took action against Asthana for violating the laid down channel of correspondence."

It was essential to first contain the enemy ingress before attempting to evict them. In Batalik it took a month to just stop the ingress. By the first week of June the progress of the intruders was fully checkmated on all ridges. The recapture of Khalubar ridge and the battle of Chorbat La are seen as critical in making the enemy suffer a setback. At Khalubar the hero was Lieut Manoj Kumar Pandey of the Gorkhas, who was awarded the Param Vir Chakra posthumously. The 22 Grenadiers had found a foothold on the ridge and held on for three days despite being outnumbered by the enemy. This was important as Pakistanis had established a chopper–based supply line right behind the Khalubar ridge.

At Chorbat La Major Soman Wangchuk’s men from the Ladakh Scouts evicted the Pakistanis. Wangchuk was awarded the Mahavir Chakra, two peaks are named "Sonam top" as a mark of honour to this brave soldier. Chorbat La was important as the valley, on the Indian side, opens some 25 km south of Batalik on the road to Leh.

Another crucial battle was fought on Point 4875 (now re-named Batra top after Capt Vikram Batra, PVC). Point 4875 dominates the National Highway for about 30 km and without capturing this it was not possible to free the highway. Lt. Col. Y.K. Joshi led the charge for the 13 JAK RIF. Unprecedented two PVCs were awarded on one day to the heroes of this batlle. After the battle Joshi stood atop the ridge and addressed mediapersons who had been flown in on choppers.

The words Tiger Hill had become synonymous with the Kargil war in 1999. The operation to isolate this peak started on May 21 and ended only on July 10 when the 18 Grenadiers and the 8 Sikh captured it in toto. The Air Force was also pressed into service and it hit the bull’s eye. Tololing, is the base where a war memorial has now been set up. It was crucial to recapture Tiger Hill as its control was crucial for repulsing the intruders in the Drass sector. — AB

Light of goodwill

LIFE under the shadow of guns has become the order of the day for residents of the Kargil region for a number of years. Constant strife and insecurity have, no doubt, left a number of scars on the psyche of people, but the hope of a better and bright future has survived amid all this turmoil. In the Shia-Muslim dominated Kargil, the Army-run goodwill school under the Sadbhavana project is now seeing a change — a positive change — with more and more girls coming in each year to get educated.

Boards warn of observation by the “enemy” on the Leh-Kargil-Drass highway
BEING WATCHED: Boards warn of observation by the “enemy” on the Leh-Kargil-Drass highway

The number of girls joining Army-run schools in the Kargil region has increased over the past few years
The number of girls joining Army-run schools in the Kargil region has increased over the past few years
 Photos: Mukesh Aggarwal

The Kargil-Drass area has some 85 per cent Shia population. Most of them are followers of hardline Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini. His posters can be seen all over the place in this valley. The ulema control the social life but over the past few years they have made sure that girls get education.

The goodwill school, planned after the conflict in 1999, is located just a few miles outside Kargil on the highway to Drass, just a stone’s throw from the Line of Control.

The Tricolour flutters majestically outside the school building, while an auditorium named after Lieut. Saurabh Kalia forms the foreground.

Army buses pick up and drop children from their homes located within a radius of 20-25 km. Girls get a 50 per cent fee concession. At present there are 122 girls in the school that has a total of 330 students. The number of students has been rising each year, says Mansoor Hussain, Principal of the school. The Army has employed local civilian women teachers and computer instructors.

A visit to other parts of India that is organised for the students of the school is one of the key attractions for those studying in the school. Groups of students are taken on educational visits to Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. A senior Army officer revealed that elders in the area also want to be taken on such trips. "Something was being worked out to ensure this is done in the forthcoming winter". The Sadhbhavana project, however, does not end here. More schools are being run, and a total 965 children are enrolled in the Kargil area alone. Another major project is the Asha School for physically and mentally challenged children. For such children teachers and the school are the only life that they know. Here also the children are picked up from home in Army buses and dropped back.

Physiotherapy sessions are conducted regularly and basic education is imparted as per the capabilities of the children, explained Mohammad Hadi, in charge of one such school.

The project is also funding children for higher studies. A total of 26 students are studying in various institutes in Pune, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, said Major-Gen. Suresh Khajuria, who is GOC of the 8 Mountain Division based at Khumathang, 30 km on the Kargil-Zanskar road.

And there is much more, with hand pumps and bore wells also being installed under the project. Women empowerment centres, too, are being run, where women are being taught to be independent.

Since apricot is the major crop of the area, centres are being run to make apricot oil which is used in fashion industry and for apricot squashes. The women are also taught carpet weaving and knitting. The machinery and material is provided by the Indian Army. — AB