G R O U N D   Z E R O

ground zero
A war fought and won with an arm tied
When the war began, there was a shocking lack of extreme-weather gear and other supplies and weapons. Yet after the initial setbacks the Indian armed forces acquitted themselves well, even if at a high cost in life and blood.
Raj Chengappa

The war may have officially come to a close on July 26, 1999, but when I went a week later to Kargil the artillery guns were still booming on both sides. As I drove to nearby Dras, the Indian artillery let loose a fusillade of shells to a distant target on the other side of the Line of Control and the sound reverberated across the high mountains like the roll of thunder. The razor sharp and craggy peaks, many of them snow-tipped, provided a deceptively tranquil backdrop to the bloody battle that had been fought both on the heights and in the steep gorges and narrow valleys.

The Bofors guns were also used for sharp-shooting targets, an unconventional trick.
The Bofors guns were also used for sharp-shooting targets, an unconventional trick.

That night as I slept in the bunkers I heard the whistling of Pakistani shells landing not far from our shelters and I did feel fear. Colonel SVE David, Deputy Commander of 56 Brigade that was guarding the heights, though walked around the zone nonchalantly. He told me philosophically: “The splinter that is going to hit you has your name already engraved on it.” The war had already taken a heavy toll with over 500 Indian soldiers killed and another 1,300 wounded, some maimed for life. It was a hard fought victory and David knew that chance and luck also made the difference between the quick and the dead.

There were awe-inspiring tales of bravery as our soldiers repelled the Pakistani intruders on the heights. There were also plenty of clever and unconventional thinking, particularly while retaking Tiger Hill and Tololing, two of the many peaks that had become household names. The Bofors guns had been deployed in full in the valleys and despite the taint over their purchase had performed exceedingly well, providing India with an edge. Apart from lobbing shells to pulverise targets behind enemy lines, the guns were also used in the unusual role of sharp-shooting to dislodge Pakistani soldiers who had occupied the heights and were raining fire at the Indian infantry below.

Brigadier Lakhwinder ‘Lucky’ Singh, commanding the artillery brigade at Dras, showed me just how effective the Bofors guns could be. He asked me to choose any point on one of the surrounding hills that was being used for target practice. I chose a clump of bush through the binoculars. He then turned around to his gunner and told him to fix the coordinates and fire at it. The next thing I saw was the bush take a leap in the air – such was the deadly accuracy with which the guns were being fired with.

It was also a time for the Indian Army to take stock and equip our soldiers adequately to retain the heights. The war had exposed our vulnerability both in terms of intelligence as well as equipment to guard what is one of the world’s most inhospitable terrains with heights ranging from 12,000 feet to 20,000 feet and temperatures dropping to below -40 degrees centigrade. Dras is considered one of the world’s coldest places after Siberia.

When the war began, shockingly the troops didn’t have sufficient clothing and glacier gear for the extreme temperatures, and the boots supplied were of sub-standard quality. The number of night vision devices was inadequate, apart from a lack of battlefield radars and unmanned aerial vehicles to detect enemy movement. There was a dire need also for sophisticated signalling and communication devices. Yet after the initial setbacks the Indian armed forces acquitted themselves well and were able to push back the intrusions.

Midway through the Kargil War, when I met General VP Malik, the then Chief of Army Staff, he seemed confident of winning back the initiative. He quoted Carl von Clausewitz dictum, “War is fought with the will of the government, competence of the armed forces and support of the nation.” With the Kargil War turning out to be the first real televised war for India that brought the battlefield into our drawing rooms, there was a huge swell of patriotism and the support of the nation was on full display.

When it came to the will of the government, Atal Behari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister, had plenty. He had great clarity and I was on board his special flight on his trip to Puducherry, where he made the dramatic announcement that the Indian Air Force would start retaliatory strikes against the intruders, signalling the onset of the battle. Vajpayee then wisely ordered the Indian armed forces not to violate the LoC to avoid escalating the battle into a full-scale war that would have spread all across the Indo-Pak border and could have even turned nuclear. Though General Malik later told me that it was like fighting with one arm tied behind the back.

In the first week of July, I met Jaswant Singh, the then External Affairs Minister, to find out how long the war would last. Jaswant was at his cryptic best. He asked me whether I played chess and had heard of the move called zugzwang. I looked blank. Barely hiding his contempt, he explained that it was a manoeuvre in which you forced your opponent to make a move that would be to his severe disadvantage. He added, “We have Nawaz Sharif cornered.”

Jaswant’s assessment was bang on, for within a fortnight Sharif capitulated and ceasefire was declared with Pakistan withdrawing its troops from Kargil. Though Operation Vijay was a success, it came at a heavy price and unfortunately the lessons have not been fully learnt by us. 





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