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A bloodbath foretold

Friday 30 July 2004, by SWAMI*Praveen

The battle for Tiger Hill was won with the lives of hundreds of soldiers and enormous resources. Was the entire exercise avoidable? A Frontline investigation answers in the affirmative.

in New Delhi

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Indian Army personnel in the Kargil sector in 1999.

FIVE years ago, at 8-00 a.m. on July 8, 1999, troops of the 18th Battalion of the Grenadiers Regiment signalled that Tiger Hill was secure. For most of India, this was perhaps the most powerful emotional moment of the Kargil war. It had been a bitter battle, one that called for troops to push their way across near-vertical rock faces under sustained enemy fire. The battle for Tiger Hill won the troops of the Grenadiers Regiment 10 awards for gallantry and distinguished service, including a Param Vir Chakra and two Maha Vir Chakras. Now, a Frontline investigation has found that the battle could have been avoided if top commanders had paid attention to what their soldiers were telling them - that the Pakistani occupation of Tiger Hill was predicted and avoidable.

A 1998 war-game carried out in Kargil, the Frontline investigation has found, had specifically warned of the possibility of Pakistani troops holding key heights in the Kargil sector. The warning led to demands for reinforcements. Frontline has obtained access to a January 30, 1999 letter, calling the attention of the then Commander of 3 Infantry Division, Major-General V.S. Budhwar, to major weaknesses in Indian defences identified in the course of the war-game, code-named `Exercise Jaanch’. Written by Colonel Pushpinder Oberoi, the commanding officer of 16 Grenadiers, the letter is marked 0072/AC OPS. Colonel Oberoi was cashiered after the war for the unauthorised vacation of Bajrang, a key forward post in the Kargil sector, during the winter of 1998-1999.

According to Colonel Oberoi’s classified letter, Exercise Jaanch suggested that "existing defs [defences] need a re-look in view of the en [enemy] capturing certain hts [heights] in the vicinity of own defs [defences], rendering some posts untenable". It proceeded to make the specific suggestion that section-strength or company-strength forces be permanently stationed on Point 5,165-metres, Pariyon ka Talab and Point 4,660-metres. Interestingly, the term Tiger Hill seems to have been used for Point 4660 for the first time during this exercise, perhaps because of the hump and tooth-shaped features that protect the approaches to its summit. General Budhwar, informed sources said, was dismissive of these warnings and told local commanders to make do with the forces they had.

Colonel Oberoi’s letter was written after General Budhwar failed to respond to verbal pleas for troops, made during his visit to the sector on November 25, 1998. It would, ironically, have reached 3 Division Headquarters - and possibly the offices of the then Commander of 15 Corps Lieutenant-General Kishan Pal - at about the same time as the first reconnaissance groups of Pakistani intruders occupied these features. General Pal was dismissive of the prospect of a Pakistani offensive, an attitude founded on the fact that Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif were shortly to meet in Lahore. He clung to the illusion well after the Kargil war began. At a meeting of the Unified Headquarters in Srinagar on May 24, 1999, called to prepare an assessment for the Cabinet Committee on Security which was to meet the next day, General Pal insisted that there "were no concentration of troops on the Pakistani side and no battle indicators of war or even limited skirmishes". Paragraph 4(v) of the minutes of the Unified Headquarters meeting record his claim that the "situation was local and would be defeated locally".

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The Indian Army moves towards Tiger Hill to clear infiltrators in the Dras sector.

General Budhwar, for his part, seemed to have men available for virtually every conceivable enterprise other than guarding India’s frontiers. On May 16, 1998, 3 Division sent out instructions to all its field units informing them of their commanding officer’s new pet project - building a zoo for Leh’s few thousand residents. Lt.-Col. U.K. Singh sent out a second missive, marked 6361/9/ZOO/Q1, on June 8, 1998. "Please ensure", the Colonel’s letter said, "that various types of wild animals/birds are procured and despatched to zoo at Leh at your earliest." "Cages required for transportation of animals/birds," it continued, "will be made under arrangements of respective b[riga]de[s]." "No representation," the Colonel concluded sternly, "will be entertained." The project had no legal sanction and was executed in express violation of a plethora of wildlife protection laws - a fascinating glimpse into the mindset prevailing in 3 Division.

WITH hindsight, alarm bells ought to have been going off by this time. Paragraph 8 of an August 1998 briefing note prepared by Brigadier Surinder Singh, Commanding Officer of 121 Brigade, for General Budhwar ahead of former Chief of the Army Staff General V.P. Malik’s visit to Kargil, was explicitly marked "Enhanced Threat Perception" and laid out the reasons for 121 Brigade’s apprehensions. Sections (a) (i) to (iii) of the paragraph recorded fresh Pakistani troop movements, including the deployment of 24 Sind Regiment, a reserve division from Gilgit, to forward positions at Olthingthang. Another battalion, the paragraph records, had moved "on priority" from Sialkot to Skardu. Fresh heavy and medium guns had been inducted into the sector, paragraph 6 (b) noted, along with M-198 155 millimetre mortar, and light flashes, possibly laser designators for smart weapons or missiles, had been seen over Drass and Kargil.

From paragraph 13 onwards, the briefing note detailed "Vulnerabilities (of) 121 (I) Inf[antry] B[riga]de". It noted that National Highway IA was vulnerable to fire from Pakistan positions on Twin Bumps, Bunker Ridge and Point 3249, and the next paragraph pointed out that Kargil and its rear areas were open to shelling. Paragraph 15 laid out a whole new order of vulnerability, pointing out that "infilt[ration] routes [were] available through Mashkoh [Mushkoh] Valley, from Doda side to Panikhar, Yaldor and through nalas [streams]". Small detachments could be targeted, paragraph 15(b) noted, while paragraph 17 noted the existence of posts vulnerable to "rogue action". While General Pal could not, in fairness, have been expected to anticipate a Kargil-style offensive by Pakistan, the fact remains that no action was taken to protect the sector from these admitted vulnerabilities. Requests for air reconnaissance were denied and specific intelligence reports on the training of Pakistani irregulars across the Line of Control consigned to the dustbin.

IT is hard to estimate precisely the number of casualties caused by the negligence of General Pal and General Budhwar and, possibly, others higher up the chain who knew of the warnings generated by Exercise Jaanch. Since the final victory required the capture of a succession of secondary positions, for which disaggregated data is not available, only battle losses in the actual fight for Tiger Hill can be studied. These, in themselves, were enormous. The 18 Grenadiers Regiment had nine personnel dead and 37 injured while fighting to occupy Tiger Hill, while another 25 of its men were killed and 41 injured while taking a key adjoining feature, Tololing. The 8 Sikh Regiment lost 35 men and had 83 injured while struggling to set up a base from which the Tiger Hill assault could be launched. Together, the fatalities in these battles alone account for well over one in ten of the 499 fatalities suffered by India in the entire war.

Occupation of the area around Pariyon ka Talab, which translates as `the Lake of the Fairies’, could, in turn, have blocked the intrusion towards Tiger Hill. It was only on May 20, 1999, that Indian troops were moved to Pariyon ka Talab, in an effort to block the Pakistani supply route to Tiger Hill. General Pal, concerned with evolving events in the Kashmir Valley, had steadily bled the 121 Brigade sector of troops, thus widening the gaps available for infiltration through the Mushkoh Valley, the site of the lake. Between January 10, 1999 and March 30, 1999 the Army sent out no patrols into the Mushkoh sector, allowing Pakistan to take control of critical features dominating National Highway 1A from Mughalpura to Dras. Sixteen men of the 2 Naga Regiment were killed in fighting to recapture Point 4875, the most important feature in the Mushkoh Valley, while 24 were injured.

While the Army subsequently pinned responsibility on local commanders for the failure to patrol the area properly, no investigation was carried out on the systematic denuding of troops in the Kargil sector, and on whether 121 Brigade was in a position to carry out its task. Interestingly, the official Kargil Review Committee made no reference at all to Exercise Jaanch in its report on the 1999 war, one of a series of scandalous omissions by investigators who claimed to have access to all official documentation. Colonel Oberoi was removed from service for his negligence on the Bajrang Post issue. Brigadier Surinder Singh met a similar fate. His case, along with that of another sacked officer Major Manish Bhatnagar, is being heard in the Delhi High Court. The United Progressive Alliance government has a chance to set wrongs right, and help ensure Indian soldiers are not sent to their deaths again because of the failures of their commanders.

See online : Frontline

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