Indian forces are amongst the very few forces in the world that have the formidable experience of fighting battles in all types of terrains such as desert, riverines, high altitude battlefield such as Siachen, jungles and so on. Among these, high altitude of Kargil is a unique story due to the element of surprise and tactical odds stacked against the might of Indian forces.
India’s victory in such a gruelling scenario makes the Kargil War a point of study for other defence forces. Fighting at one of the highest altitudes from a position of disadvantage limits the chances for victory. At an altitude of 5,307m, soldiers fight against an enemy in uniform as well as against the terrain and climate. The terrain and climate are as harsh as enemy sitting on the top with automatic weapons that can shower bullets from their bunkers.
The enemy holds greater sway at a vantage situation. Pakistan Army sitting atop Tiger Hill, the highest peak in the Kargil sector, was able to monitor the movement of the military headquarters of the 56 Mountain Brigade stationed at Matayan between Ghumri and Drass. Tiger Hill also overlooks the National NH1D. NH1D, starting near Srinagar and traversing through Sonmarg, Zoji La, is a strategic route to Leh and Siachen. Occupation of Tiger Hill enabled Pakistan to monitor the movement of armed forces along this crucial Srinagar-Leh Highway. Control of Tiger Hill also brought a stretch of National Highway 1 (near Matayan – Drass) under the crosshair of Pakistani weapons.
Herculean efforts of 18 Grenadiers, 2 Naga, and 8 Sikh of the Indian Army supported by artillery units led to Indian flag fluttering high on the morning of 3rd July at the top of Tiger Hill. Use of laser-guided bombs and shelling from howitzers made a march of infantry on ground easier and saved the precious lives of our soldiers. On NH1D a War Memorial has been open to public since 2014 at the foothills of Tololing overlooking Tiger Hill, Batra Top has many such stories to tell.
The nation lost 524 soldiers while 1,363 soldiers got injured. Indian soldiers braved great odds at such high-altitude terrains which are ideal for defence while devastating for an offensive operation against well-supplied army.
Kargil tested the mettle of Indian Forces. Subedar Major Yogendra Singh Yadav, PVC (18 Grenadiers) survived 14 bullets. Such heroic is not a new phenomenon for Indian armed forces. Places like Saragarhi, Haifa, Rezang La have been witness to bravery of Indian soldiers. Kargil is another example of unparalleled endurance and courage shown by our soldiers.
Post-defeat, Kargil was termed as strategic blunder for Pakistan. However, military planners will suggest otherwise. Rather than strategic blunder, it was a tactical move with altitude in Pakistan’s favour in a larger strategic design in Siachen. Pakistan calculated India's hard power strength well but failed to fathom India’s capacity for sacrifice. And secondly, Indian soldiers can defy death and perform superhuman tasks to defend the nation.
Kargil taught many lessons to India. First and foremost, India never forgot the history of Mohammad Ghori, whose name adorn Pakistan's weapon system. The missile named after an invader is not a casual affair, but an honest admission of Pakistani army’s Mughal era mindset and ideological leaning. Pakistan is an antithesis to the idea of Bharat. As a result, Jihad against India suits its power centre, the Pakitan Army. Hence, it will not abandon its anti-India mission even after four defeats, internal strife and power struggle. It will create perception suitable to survive the day within Pakistan.
Secondly, India’s responsible stand ‘not to cross LoC’ was seen as a weakness. It gave Pakistan the perception that India will limit its action within boundaries and LoC. It gave impetus to Pakistan’s low intensity asymmetric warfare strategy via terrorism.
Rational player respond in a limited defensive manner due to unpredictability in opponent’s behaviour, escalation ladder and collateral cost. With Kargil termed as misadventure or a blunder, Pakistan presented itself as an irrational nuclear state ready for strategic escalation at a short instance. Though Military games proved that Pakistan will not escalate the situation beyond certain point and it will surely not go for Samson option.
Tag of an ‘irrational player’ suites Pakistan strategically against conventionally superior India. India will not act against terror attacks which can always be attributed to ‘non-state actors’. Post Kargil, Pakistan sponsored terrorism intensified in Kashmir and other parts of India. Terror attacks across India become primary means of offensive. For more than decade Pakistan’s doctrine of proxy war under nuclear umbrella worked well. The doctrine inflicted India with wounds of terrorism in J&K along with major Indian cities. Post Kargil defeat, suicide bombings were directed towards Indian armed forces. BSF Camp was attacked in Bandipore in July 1999. The proxy war continued with Badami Bag Cantonment attack, J&K Legislative Assembly car bombing and attack on Indian Parliament in 2001 which led to Operation Parakram. Possibility of full scale war did not deter Pakistan for long and terrorism continued with attacks in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, and most recently in Uri and Pulwama.
Jinx of perceived irrationality of Pakistan haunted India for almost 17 year. Two surgical strikes (land and air) set the records straight. Air strike deep into Pakistani territory proved that the threshold for nuclear escalation is much higher and there is a window for preemptive offensive. It also made India’s offensive response against proxy war is a turning point in the game. India will go offensive in its defence is a new reality.
Another lesson for India was in terms of technological capabilities. India, post Kargil, realised the need for Indian satellite navigation system and eyes in the sky for surveillance and intelligence. India was denied geo position data for Kargil in 1999. Navigation with Indian Constellations or NAVIC in short is a result of Kargil debacle.
Geospatial data could have helped the nation in saving precious lives of our soldiers. Indian Satellites hovering above Indian sky will not allow another Kargil like surprises in the future. The technological disadvantage in 1999 cost us dearly in terms of precious lives of our soldiers. With improved spatial and communication capabilities,
India will not loose soldiers, no matter what line they cross!
In 1999, Pakistan was exposed internationally and its cover up of irregular mujahideen did not find traction internationally. Pakistan’s dubious nature was exposed fully. While India maintained high ground in India’s first televised war. Post Kargil, Pakistan tried to ramp up its efforts to improve upon psychological propaganda and perception management through print, electronic and digital media with success. India needs to take on this perception battle to the next level.
India paid dearly for Kargil Vijay. The 82-day long battle tested India’s military, political and diplomatic endurance and its patience to the core. India won the war on all its fronts. When we celebrate Kargil Vijay Diwas, let us not forget Prithviraj Chauhan and the sacrifice of our soldiers. It is only sacrifice and sacrifice that made India’s survival possible for thousands of years!
(The writer is a research scholar at a Mumbai based think tank Forum for Integrated National Security)