Blood on hills: How Army, Air Force cleared Kargil of Pak intruders

This article appeared in the issue of THE WEEK dated July 26, 2009

Soldier Kargil Arvind Jain A soldier deployed in the Kargil war in 1999 | Arvind Jain

This article appeared in the issue of THE WEEK dated July 26, 2009

Tashi Namgyal and Tresing Morup went up the hill to look for a missing yak. Their search led to a two-month-long war between two nuclear powers. Cowherds and yak-herds are the eyes and ears of the Army near the Line of Control. They know the local terrain like the back of their palms, and can tell you, for a bottle of rum, where someone could be sneaking in with a Kalashnikov.

Tashi and Tresing of Garkon village in Batalik did exactly that on May 3, 1999. As they searched for their yak, they saw people atop a Batalik hill. They were a little perplexed. The snow had melted a fortnight early that year, and Indian troops were yet to come and occupy the heights. So who were these people, making sangars?

The yak-herds quietly came down and reported the matter to officers of 3 Punjab unit. The next day, Tashi guided a patrol party up the craggy hill and, from a distance, showed them what he had seen the previous day. The information was relayed up the brigade, division and corps headquarters. At XV Corps HQ, chief of staff Maj.-Gen. A.S. Sihota had a problem. The corps commander, Lt-Gen. Krishan Pal, was on leave in Delhi, looking after his wife who had undergone a surgery.

Finally, Sihota called Pal, who promised to take the fast plane to Srinagar, but in the meantime, Sihota could order patrols to be launched in the entire sector. For there was a mounting fear that what Tashi saw may not have been a special honour given to just one hill in Batalik.

The patrol launched from Kaksar, manned by 4 Jat, was led by a young lieutenant, Saurabh Kalia. But, unlike in Batalik, the snow was still thick in Kaksar, and Kalia had to return disappointed. He had 10 more days to live for India.

The Army still did not press the panic button. For no one knew whether the visitors near Garkon had merely come on a long-range patrol, and would return to their units across the Line of Control. Patrols straying across are common occurrences on the undemarcated Line of Control. At best of times, they had been sent back after warnings over tea.

But this was not a patrol for tea. For across the entire sector commanded by 3 division, patrols were reporting that they had sighted 'enemy' up the hills that Indian units had vacated for winter. On May 8, the commanding |officer of 3 Punjab reported to his brigadier that the enemy was not just sitting there, but also firing at Indian patrols.

The picture was still not clear. The snow was yet to melt in many sectors, but some minor eviction operation could be launched. Kargil needed reinforcements. Two battalions, which had just returned from Siachen duty (thus tired, but acclimatised) were waiting in Leh to fly to a peace location. Krishan Pal ordered them to the battlefield in Kargil.

On May 14, Kalia set out on a patrol with four Jat sepoys—Arjun Ram, Bhanwar Bagaria, Bhika Ram and Naresh Singh. As they neared the Bajrang post, they saw that the enemy had taken it. Hardly had they radioed the battalion HQ when they came under mortar fire. Kalia and his men fought back, but soon ran out of ammunition. Before reinforcements arrived, they were surrounded and captured.

Three weeks later, their tortured and mutilated bodies would be handed over to India, hours before the foreign ministers of the two countries were to meet and talk.

By the time Kalia and his Jats were captured, Army chief General V.P. Malik had returned from Poland and taken in the total picture. With his consent, and that of northern Army commander Lt-Gen. H.M. Khanna, Krishan Pal ordered 8 Mountain Division under Major Gen. Mohinder Puri to move to Kargil and divide the work with Major Gen. Badhwar's 3 Division.

On May 18, troops of Brigadier Amar Aul's 56 Mountain Brigade captured Points 4295 and 4460. The next day, the Army admitted the intrusion for the first time. "There has been some infiltration in Drass-Kargil sector in completely unheld area on the Line of Control by Pakistan Army," Krishan Pal told the media. "These unheld areas are quite extensive and total up to 200km in extent from Gurez sector in the valley to Turtok sector in Ladakh region... This is a local situation and would be defeated by us locally. There is no possibility of its escalation into war."

But war it was to be. On May 23, Malik flew to Kargil and laid down the priorities and the doctrine for conduct of operations. The assessment was that air support would be needed, but employing the Air Force carried the danger of the conflict escalating into full-fledged war. Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis wanted a political decision, and the cabinet concurred.

On May 27, Squadron Leaders K. Nachiketa and Ajay Ahuja took off in two MiGs. Nachiketa had a technical snag and he ejected into enemy hands. Buddy Ahuja could have flown back, but he would not. As a flight commander of a specialist photo-recce squadron, he thought he should locate his buddy to enable his later rescue. He took a low loop over the area when a 5km-range missile ended his 14-year career in the IAF.

It was clear the enemy had come with Stingers, the most effective weapon against helicopters. Yet Flight Lieutenant S. Muhilan took an Mi-17 chopper on an attack mission the next day, and fired rockets against a heavily defended area. Another Stinger downed him.

It looked like a losing battle. Especially in Batalik where the Indian forces had advanced most. At three in the morning of May 29, Major M. Saravanan of 1 Bihar launched an attack with 15 men on Point 4268. The enemy spotted them in the dark, but Saravanan refused to retreat. He crawled all the way to the enemy bunker, neutralised it and fell for a posthumous Vir Chakra. Undaunted, a wounded Naik Ganesh Prasad engaged the enemy while allowing his buddies to withdraw. The naik followed his company commander to martyrdom and won a Vir Chakra.

Naik Shatrughan Singh went to recover their bodies, was hit by the enemy, but killed several of them. He then picked up the enemy's LMG and hobbled down on wounded legs for 11 days without food or water. Shatrughan Singh's real war trophy was not the LMG, but the papers he had picked up from the enemy's pockets. Pakistani generals had inducted troops from their Northern Light Infantry into Kargil, but had given instructions that no one was to carry any identity papers. They were to pose as mujahideen.

But soldiers, by habit, training and the Geneva Convention, are loath to conceal their identities. Many of them had secretly kept their identity cards or pay books in their pockets. Those would prove that the enemy was not mujahideen, but regular Pakistani soldiers. Singh, too, won a Vir Chakra. Following Singh's example, other troops would identify more than 60 Pakistani soldiers in Batalik alone.

Almost the same time as Saravanan was crawling up Point 4268, Lt-Gen. Mohammed Aziz, chief of general staff of Pakistan army, was dialling a Beijing number. His army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, visiting Beijing, picked up the phone. Little did Musharraf or Aziz know that the call was also being picked up by Indian intelligence. The taped conversation revealed one thing: that the Pakistan Army had not fully briefed the Pakistan political establishment. It also indicated how the military was dictating terms to the political leadership.

The tape was apparently played before prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, defence minister George Fernandes and the service chiefs. Later, Fernandes would start a minor controversy with a statement that Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was not much in the know. The statement was interpreted as one giving a clean chit to the Pak leadership. Only later, when the tape was made public as part of the diplomatic offensive, did it become clear that Fernandes was not talking through his hat.

Nearly eight years later, the tape would generate another controversy. A major-general attached to R&AW would claim that publicising the tape had compromised a rich source of intelligence. Pakistan had immediately spotted the source and shut it.

Aul, commanding 56 Mountain Brigade which was in charge of Dras sub-sector where the road almost kisses the Line of Control, gave two targets to his troops. He asked 18 Grenadiers to take Tololing and 1 Naga to take Point 5140.

The Grenadiers launched their assault early on May 23. They crawled their way up over seven days, braving artillery and mortar fire, and taking minor enemy sangars on the way.

By now, it was clear that it would need more than grit and bullets to evict the enemy. The Army asked for air support, and Indian Air Force jets pounded Tololing and Point 5140 from May 26 to May 28. In those 48 days, the IAF would fly 1,400 missions through more than a hundred SAM fires and innumerable rounds of anti-aircraft gunfire, and rarely ever crossing the LoC.

On May 29, the Indian Army had its first major victory. By now, artillery guns from 108 Medium Regiment opened up on Tololing Ridge, Point 5140, Tiger Hill and Point 4875 in Dras. Once the enemy positions were softened by air power and artillery, infantrymen captured the nearest point on Tololing, and began further advance. On May 30, just 30 metres from target, the assaulting Grenadiers were stalled as enemy bullets felled one of the brave company commanders Major Rajesh Adhikari.

Down in the valley, the Grenadier battalion's second-in-command Lt-Col. R. Vishwanathan could not bear the stillness. At midnight June 2, he led 40 men towards Tololing, to reinforce his stalled men, and also to recover the bodies. They crawled up Tololing, silencing three enemy bunkers on the way. As they were assaulting the last bunker on top of the Tololing feature, Vishwanathan and his buddy fell to the heavy volume of fire. A very steep gradient near the top of the feature made the going impossible, and the attack was called off.

On June 3, the IAF resumed its pounding of Point S140 till June 12. It took nearly another fortnight, and supreme sacrifice by Major Vivek Gupta and 16 others from Rajputana Rifles and Grenadiers before Adhikari's body could be brought down.

On June 5, it looked as if Pakistan was willing to own up the intrusion as one by its army. After a flag meeting, the Pakistani Army took away the bodies of three of its fallen soldiers handed over by the Indian Army. But that, as it later proved, was an aberration. Throughout the rest of the war, Pakistan would disown their dead.

On June 8, Vajpayee, heading a caretaker government after he had lost trust vote by one, convened a joint meeting of the National Security Council, the strategic policy group and the national security advisory board. "A clear understanding of Pakistan's aims emerged from the discussions," the government claimed.

The game plan was clear. They were doing a Siachen to India. They had occupied the heights vacated by Indian troops during winter. From the heights, they could direct their artillery to fire directly on NH1, the Srinagar-Leh road. In other words, the troops and insurgents on the hilltops acted as forward observation posts for the Pakistani gunners.

But why hit the road? The road was the lifeline to Ladakh. Once the snow melts, hundreds of trucks carry food, clothing, fuel and ammunition to the snow-desert of Ladakh. If the highway gets blocked, Ladakh gets cut off, save for air supplies sent from Chandigarh. A starving Ladakh would be easy pluck for the Pakistan Army.

A few hours before the meeting of the National Security Council, young Lt Hanifuddin was leading gallant action to defend Turtok where insurgency was detected for the first time the previous day. He executed a brilliant encircling move against an enemy position, and as he advanced on them was felled. The sub-sector, later saved, would be christened Hanif sector.

It was in this sector that Pakistan had planned the boldest insurgency. It had plans to heli-lift troops from seven helipads and capture the entire Turtok in a pincer movement. It was this audacious plan, which could have led to the enemy capturing Ladakh, that Hanif had scuttled.

Talks with Pakistan were getting deadlocked. Pakistan foreign minister Sartaj Aziz wanted India to call off air operations. India refused.

By mid-June, the Indian offensive had stabilised. Bofors howitzer guns had been requisitioned from elsewhere. Without fire-finding radars, Indian gunners could not locate Pakistani guns on the other side of the hills, but they did the next best. They fired volleys at the mountaintops pulverising the insurgents who were directing the Pak gunners. For the first time since the invention of the howitzer, it became a direct-firing weapon.

One cannot be sure, but perhaps the idea had come from ingenious action of young Capt. P.V. Vikram of 141 Field Regiment in Kaksar. Gun batteries, like his own, had always been trained on targets across the LoC, but on June 2, Vikram spotted some intruders from his observation post at 16,200 feet.

Counter-insurgency was the job of the infantry, but Vikram thought he could bear some heavy gunnery on them. For that he had to move his gun position, which he knew would attract the enemy's attention. It did. Braving heavy artillery fire from the enemy, he moved his gun some 500 metres, to a location where there was no bunker. As his guns opened up on the infiltrators, Pakistani guns, giving cover fire to them, targeted him. The infiltrators fled, but Vikram breathed his last there.

By now Indian diplomats were telling the world and Washington that the insurgents were not mujahideen but regular Pakistani soldiers. But the west, still viewing India as a nuclear villain (only a year ago had India cocked a nuke at the NPT-swearing world), did not want to be convinced.

It was here that the bravery of Shatrughan Singh mattered. Troops were instructed to recover identity papers and diaries from the pockets of enemy soldiers. Thus on June 15, the Army could officially claim: "In addition to the armament and equipment...., an identity card belonging to Number 2847955 Havildar Afroz Gul of A Company, 6 Northern Light Infantry Battalion of Pakistan Army, resident of Juglot, Tehsil Gilgit, [has] also been recovered."

That was just one of the many such media releases. On June 13, India had the first major victory. Aul's 56 Brigade recaptured Tololing and Point 4590, and the next day they took 'Hump'.

The twin victories turned out to be the turning point in the war. There had been minor successes earlier, but as former Punjab chief minister Capt. Amarinder Singh recorded in A Ridge Too Far, "The capture of Tololing Top by 2 Raj Rif was the first major success of the war. The courage and tenacity displayed by the battalion was in the highest traditions of their regiment and became a source of inspiration to the entire sector during those fateful days."

The triumphal trumpet was echoed from as far as Washington. The next day, US President Bill Clinton asked Nawaz Sharif to pull out. Sharif was non-committal.

In less than a fortnight, 56 Brigade virtually cleared its area of enemy. Meanwhile, away from media glare, troops in Batalik were inching up. On the night of June 14-15, they captured Point 5203 and encircled enemy positions further north, cutting their supply lines from Pakistan Army bases.

By early July, the enemy was on the run or would soon run. On July 2, the Indian Army had two prize catches— Naik Inayat Ali and Sepoy Humar Shah of 5th battalion of Northern Light Infantry. Their interrogation gave out some of the tactical positions adopted by the enemy.

On July 3, the Sikhs captured the prized Tiger Hill, already softened by Mirages and Bofors. Again Clinton asked Sharif, now in Washington, to withdraw. He was now willing.

Across the Line of Control, Musharraf's gunners seemed to be anxious to use up their shells. Artillery fire killed six Indian soldiers on July 8 and 9.

Indians, too, seemed to be in a hurry. By July 9, the Biharis had captured Point 4927 and Tharu, the Gorkhas had Point 4821 and Kukarthan, the Paras were sitting on Point 4100 and Muntho Dalo, and the Garhwalis on Bumps I, II and III north of Point 4927.

On July 7, the enemy counter-attacked a Spur emanating from Tiger Hill, killing 14 Indian soldiers. An IAF recce revealed that a supply line to the area from Gulteri in PoK, with a camp 2.5km west of Tiger Hill, was still active. At first light on July 9, IAF Mirages struck the camp, destroying two truckful of supplies, and at Point 4388. Follow-up strikes were made the next morning with 24 of 1,000-pounder bombs.

The enemy counterattacked Point 4875 and Twin Bump on the night of July 7-8, The Jats and J&K Light men put up stiff resistance, but lost 13 gallant men including Capt. Vikram Batra (J&K Light) and Capt. Anuj Nayyar (Jats).

On Friday, July 9 at 2130 hours, Lt-Gen. Tauqir Zia, Pakistan's director-general of military operations (DGMO), rang up his counterpart Lt-Gen. N.C. Vij on the hotline. Pull out from Kaksar before first light tomorrow, Vij told him. In turn, he would ask the Air Force to hold fire. Zia agreed and requested a meeting at Wagah border. Vij agreed to meet him at 11:30 hours on July 11.

On July 10, Vajpayee addressed the three service chiefs and the Army commanders: "The enemy's intrusion and aggression in Kargil has now been decisively turned back. Our military has achieved this. Most pockets have already been cleared. There, our troops are back on the LoC. The remaining pockets will be cleared."

At the BSF checkpost at Attari, Wagah, Vij and Zia discussed further modalities of withdrawal. Vij gave a fresh deadline for complete withdrawal—first light, July 16. "Any intruder thereafter found within our side of the LoC would be treated as hostile and would be dealt with accordingly."

On July 12 Pakistani guns overlooking Mushkoh valley and Kasar fell silent. The silence soon enveloped other sectors. On July 15, Zia used the hotline to ask for one more day. Vij agreed.

As Indian troops moved up to occupy Tiger Hill, they spotted the bodies of Lt K. Bhattacharya and Sepoy Major Singh of 8 Sikhs. They had been lying there since May 21.

The deadline expired on July 17 morning. Apparently, there was no enemy, but only snow and rough weather. As India liked it.

The official announcement was delayed to check and verify. On July 20, the Army claimed: "The eviction of Pakistani troops has been completed in all sectors except three places where some Pak troops are still inside our territory, at distances varying from 500 [to] 800m from the LoC. These are one each in Mushkoh, Dras and Batalik... Directors-general of military operations are in touch with each other. Efforts are afoot to ensure that Pak clears their intrusions in accordance with the assurances given by the Pak DGMO..."

As if to help those reluctant to decide, Bofors guns opened up on July 22. The intruders stayed put, but guns from across the LoC retaliated in Dras and Batalik.

On July 26, the Army finally claimed: "After Pak had completed its withdrawal... on 17 July 99,... small pockets of intrusions had still been left, one each in areas of Mushkoh, Dras and Batalik. These intrusions have now been evicted and... Indian territory is free of... Pak presence."

On the whole, 249 Pakistani bodies were counted. Three were handed over to the other side. Pakistan disowned the rest. The Indian Army buried them as per military and Islamic custom.