By Colonel Vinay B Dalvi (r)
The clash between Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry and the armed forces of India in the Kargil War of 1999 served as a reality check, shattering the country’s faith in the veneer of tranquility projected by the Lahore Peace Declaration signed by Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif.
The conflict, lasting 50 days, was not one sought by India, but was thrust upon it as a necessity to reclaim the Ladakh’s Kargil district’s mountaintop territories, well within the Line of Control (LC), which Pakistani forces had seized during the winter of 1998-1999. To regain control of these occupied highlands and to re-establish the sanctity of the LC, the Indian military had to swiftly mobilise. The repercussions of the Kargil War were considerable, with the Indian Army bearing a substantial number of casualties.
Over the course of over two decades, numerous accounts of the Kargil War have been composed in the form of articles, papers, reports, and books, penned by writers, journalists, researchers, and historians. These accounts feature insights from those who experienced the war first-hand. The objective of this article, drawing from some of these personal narratives, is to provide readers with an accurate and comprehensive understanding of the conflict.
Prior To Kargil
Reflecting on the adverse impact of the unexpected Kargil conflict on the spirit of India’s top military leaders (which subsequently trickled down to their troops), Lt Gen. Gautam Banerjee states, “This state of affairs led the army chief to confide in the Prime Minister that although the army’s ‘spirit was strong, the body was frail’, while the navy chief expressed regret that policy-makers seemed ‘unaware that constructing a navy takes decades, if not centuries.'”
In spite of displaying a veneer of concern, successive administrations throughout the 90s were implicit in this decline. Despite their vocal commitments, they failed to enact meaningful improvements. These governments deceived the populace by continually stating that the ‘armed forces are prepared for any obstacle’. While an in-depth discussion of the health of the organization and the neglect it suffered goes beyond the confines of this article, it is important to consider this decline in organizational morale while examining the conflict.
In his book ‘Kargil: From Surprise to Victory’, then Chief of Army Staff General V.P. Malik, portrayed the war as a ‘limited conflict—India and Pakistan’s first after the nations tested their nuclear arms.’ Even though both nations had signed the Lahore Declaration, a pact hailed as the dawn of a new era of peace between India and Pakistan, the aggression orchestrated by the Pakistani military shocked the civilian governments of both nations. The conflict set their relations back decades. It also set a precedent for future military engagements with limited wars emerging as a new operational reality in the strategic environment. As Gen. Malik noted, ‘The Pakistani leadership found themselves compelled to request a ceasefire and the withdrawal of its troops from the remaining areas… “Operation Vijay”—India’s name for the war, was a mix of robust and determined political, military and diplomatic responses, which allowed us to transform an adverse situation into a military and diplomatic triumph.’
Recollections From A Brigade Commander
Lt Gen. Amarnath Aul (retired), who commanded the 121 Independent Infantry Brigade, shares the conditions that sparked the war. He says, “Initially, the infiltrations were thought to be the work of terrorists, and we believed they would be removed promptly. Later, it became clear that we were dealing with a regular army that had infiltrated deeply across all our sectors. The threat to NH1A was apparent as it provides the sole link between the Valley and Ladakh region, serving as a lifeline to the latter. The enemy’s objective was to sever this lifeline, take control of Turtuk in the Nubra Valley which would isolate parts of Siachen from Ladakh. Faced with this predicament in mid-May 1999, we decided to evict the enemy from our side of the LC. Gathering our forces and firepower took time before we could initiate our offensive.’
“On June 1, we came under the command of the 8 Mountain Division. Recognizing the strength of the enemy positioned at various elevations, we started building our forces and firepower to approximately 20 firing units. It took us nearly 12 days to prepare. The initial assault was launched on Tololing on June 13 by 2 Raj Rif with 18 Grenadiers providing the firm base. The objective was captured by the dawn of June 14. The capture of Tololing marked our first victory and set the stage for our following successes.”
Narrative From A Young Officer
Recalling his experience leading the assault on Tololing, Capt. Akhilesh Saxena (retired), a forward observation officer back then, states, “We had penned our final letters to our families before we proceeded to attack the Tololing peak in what was essentially a suicidal charge. The enemy unleashed constant fire—artillery shelling and bombardment—on our advancing team. We suffered numerous casualties and many were gravely injured. Our supply lines were severed by the enemy. We took only some bullets, hand grenades, rifles, and rocket launchers to the assault. We had no provisions. We were devoid of food and water. We had to ration our supplies. The thought was, if we could carry an additional kilogram, why not carry a kilogram of ammunition?’
“Capt. Vijayant Thapar, who was posthumously awarded the Vir Chakra, and I were the only two officers leading this assault. We were with seven to eight jawans who were critically injured. As we sat there, we began to strategize. If the enemy had been well-established for three months, they must have food and supplies. We soon learned that they had a kitchen between two peaks. However, the risk was that if we started our descent towards the kitchen from our captured position, the enemy on the neighboring peak could spot our movements and wreak havoc on our position with well-aimed shots. So, we bided our time. Ultimately, we decided it was time for drastic measures. We risked everything in what could only be described as a frenzy. Our troops were wounded and famished. If one of us had to make the ultimate sacrifice for the survival of our men, then the price, though steep, was worth it!’
The Political Perspective
Taking a broader lens to the issue, former Indian Foreign Secretary, Lalit Mansingh (retd), who was also the ambassador to the United States at the time of the Kargil conflict, reveals the diplomatic challenges India faced during the war. He states, “The major diplomatic objective was to prevent an escalation of the conflict into a full-scale war. With this in mind, the Indian government made it a point to communicate to the international community, especially the US, that it would limit its military actions to the Indian side of the Line of Control. The fact that India had the restraint and discipline to keep its promise won it considerable international goodwill.”
He continues, “There was also a concerted effort to isolate Pakistan diplomatically and highlight its aggression. At the time, Pakistan was under international sanctions due to its nuclear tests, and its international image was poor. The fact that it had initiated the Kargil conflict further damaged its standing.”
Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle (retd), a strategic security analyst, brings to light the changes implemented in the Indian Armed Forces post-Kargil. “The Kargil war underscored the need for better coordination between the different arms of the military. As a result, there were a number of recommendations made for reforms in the defence forces. While the creation of the post of the Chief of Defence Staff was one such recommendation, it took two decades to be realized.”
He also noted, “On the technological front, the war highlighted the gaps in our surveillance capabilities, and since then there has been significant investment in improving this area. Similarly, there has been an increased focus on special forces and high-altitude warfare training. Lessons from Kargil have been incorporated into training and doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces.”
Over Two Decades Later
24 years since the conflict, Kargil remains a potent reminder of the challenges India faces in maintaining its territorial integrity. For the veterans, it is a poignant memory of bravery, sacrifice, and camaraderie. For the nation, it serves as a reminder of the necessity for constant vigilance, robust defence, and international diplomacy to protect our borders and people.
The sacrifices made during Kargil continue to inspire a new generation of soldiers. These stories of valor and resilience in the face of adversity serve as a constant reminder of the courage and determination of the Indian Armed Forces. Despite the hardship and loss, the spirit of Kargil lives on, echoing the timeless values of duty, honour, and the will to overcome any obstacle.
As we continue to navigate a complex and changing geopolitical landscape, the lessons from Kargil remain relevant – underscoring the importance of preparedness, effective intelligence, and the need for strong, well-equipped and trained armed forces. The war also served as a wake-up call to the importance of maintaining a balanced and effective diplomatic stance in dealing with international conflict.
The courage, bravery, and heroism displayed by the Indian Armed Forces during the Kargil War will forever be etched in the annals of our nation’s history.
Col. Vinay Dalvi is the author of the Victory India series of books and is the Founder of Mission Victory India, an online military reforms think-tank. He is an infantry veteran who served in the 1971 Indo-Pak war with Maratha LI