DRAS: Before the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan began, there was only one brigade of the Indian Army, comprising three units with about 2,500 soldiers, guarding 300 km of Indian territory, along the Line of Control (LoC) between Zojila and Leh. It meant that one unit was responsible for close to 100 km of territory, a task which was next to impossible. These sectors are the crucial backbone for the logistics requirements of the army from Zojila to the world’s highest army deployment, Siachen. More units were required, but the need was not felt then.
Indian posts along the LoC at the mountain peaks were vacated before winter. The Pakistanis did likewise on their side of the Line of Control (LoC). This was an understanding between the two sides due to the inhospitable living conditions at posts 14,000 to 18,000 feet high, with heavy winter snowfall cutting them off from the rest of the world.
Most of the roads to these posts were either not motorable or non-existent. Artillery guns – crucial for destroying enemy bunkers high up in the mountains or for accurately firing on enemy troops hiding behind boulders – were inadequate. Surveillance by high-technology equipment such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles were not there.
The Pakistan Army took advantage of these shortcomings, especially the lack of Indian troops during winters, and intruded into Mushkoh, Dras, Kargil, Batalik and Turtuk sub-sectors, between Zojila and Leh. They crossed the LoC and intruded 4-10 km into Indian territory and occupied 130 winter-vacated Indian posts. Pakistan wanted to cut off the highway connecting Srinagar with Leh, thereby cutting off Ladakh and Siachen –– a move India didn’t expect.
The first Pak action took place when Indian Army’s Captain Saurabh Kalia and five other soldiers were on patrol at Bajrang post near Dras. They got into a firefight, before falling out of ammunition. Kalia and the others were captured by Pakistani troops, tortured and killed.
Meanwhile, information started trickling in from locals about the Pakistani intrusion. Mohammed Yusuf, an ex serviceman who retired in 1991 after having served with the 9 Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry, said that in early May, his children spotted the Pak troops climbing up to Tololing while they were out grazing their cattle.
Initially Indian Army thought it was a bunch of militants who had intruded into Indian territory and occupied their posts.Yusuf recalls: “My children came across 10 Pakistani soldiers. These soldiers ordered them to leave their cattle and go away. But they ran down to our village. They told me about what happened. I told them that Indian soldiers don’t patrol that particular area,” he said. Yusuf went to the spot and saw a few Pakistani soldiers going to Bhimbat. He reported this to an army officer.
A few days later, Yusuf, went with another army officer to the site. While the two waited near a nallah, they spotted Pakistani soldiers walking towards Bhimbat from Tololing.
Other locals, including porters, also said they came across equipment left by the Pak soldiers. “I found their cigarette packets, which I then showed to the army,” said 47-year-old Ismail who worked as an army porter in Mushkoh during the war. “Some magazines were also found at some of the posts. Militants do not read magazines, only officers do,” said another local, who didn’t want to be identified.
THE INITIAL CHAOS
The army units sent to recapture the lost territory did not realise what they were up against. Initially they thought it was a bunch of militants who had intruded into Indian territory and occupied their posts.
Brigadier Kushal Thakur, who was commanding 18 Grenadiers as a colonel during the war, said his unit was tasked to move to Dras as part of ‘Operation Vijay’ which began in May 1999 to evict the intruders. The unit reached Dras on May 17.
“The local brigade held a conference on the intrusion. There was so much confusion and no one knew what had happened,” he said.
On May 20, 1999, his unit was tasked to recapture Tololing first, since it was close to the national highway. There was no information about the enemy and we were told that only four to five militants were on top of Tololing,” Thakur said..
A few days later, 18 Grenadiers carried out a reconnaissance of Tololing. They realised that the people on top were not loosely trained militants, but soldiers with adequate weaponry. “As we closed in on the enemy, we realised that they had mortars, medium machine guns and other automatic weapons, which led to high intensity firing on us,” he said.
On May 26, Thakur requested for Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter gunships to fire on the Pakistani bunkers atop Tololing. But a Pakistani stinger missile brought down a helicopter, leading to a temporary halt in the IAF’s ground attack. A few days later Thakur lost an officer, Major Rajesh Adhikari. Later, he lost his second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel R Vishwanathan. “It was dark and cold. We brought him (Vishwanathan) behind a boulder, but we could not get medical help as the enemy was close by. He breathed his last in my lap,” said Thakur.
Thakur lost 25 soldiers while trying to capture Tololing –– an operation which lasted for 25 days. “The enemy could count each one of us, even though we hid behind boulders. Local porters were not available, they had fled. Half my battalion was used to carry ammunition and food to those fighting above. Any movement had to be done only during the night,” he said, adding that this was a reason for the high casualties.
After the capture of Tololing, 13 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles (JAKRIF) was tasked to capture a nearby feature, Point 5140. “During the first night, we got lost. We didn’t know where the enemy bunkers were. We lost two men, including one to an enemy sniper fire,” said an officer, who served with the unit during the war.
The 18 Grenadiers was later instructed to capture Tiger Hill. “This time we were better prepared. About 120 artillery guns were lined up, facing the feature. We had more than adequate high-altitude clothing and shoes,” said Thakur. The Bofors guns had also arrived.
18 Grenadiers, with 8 Sikh providing support, launched the operation to capture Tiger Hill on July 3, 1999. The unit reached the top of Tiger Hill the next day. The Pakistanis never thought that Tiger Hill would fall so easily.
There were three fierce counter-attacks. At Thakur’s request, a company of 8 Sikh, about 50 soldiers, positioned themselves on the western ridge of Tiger Hill. Pakistan Army troops, including Special Service Group commandos, launched an attack here. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, but the Indian flag was finally planted atop Tiger Hill on July 8.
The army’s deployment strength in the area has more than tripled.This was when the Indian side felt the need for more weapons such as sniper rifles. “We suffered many casualties due to enemy snipers. The scale of rocket launcher rounds and high explosive grenades should have been more,” he said.
Initially there was inadequate information about the location of Pakistani positions. While moving for an attack logistics became an issue. During the assault on the ‘Ledge’ near Batra Top, they faced another major problem – lack of drinking water. The heavy artillery fire was contaminating the snow.
TWENTY YEARS LATER
A lot has changed since the war ended 20 years ago. The army says chances of another similar conflict is unlikely. Areas along the LoC were identified to be occupied during a war-like situation. “These areas will be behind the frontlines and will ensure a multi-tiered defensive layout,” an official said.
Infiltration routes used by Pakistani troops were identified and counter-infiltration grids made. These grids will cover the infiltration routes, including the passes.
The army’s deployment strength has more than tripled. “The gaps in deployments such as in passes and around valleys have been plugged. Even those areas from where the intruders had come in have been protected. Mines over possible enemy entry points through the LoC were laid,” said an official.
Posts are no longer vacated during winters. Several helipads have come up near the LoC to help the army with supply rounds and quick mobility of reserves. The army has also made new ammunition points and revised its ammunition reserves. The army has adequate artillery guns in the region, but there is no word on when the new US-procured M777 Ultra Light Howitzers would arrive.
“The Indian Army is fully prepared, equipped to take on any challenge in this area. After the Kargil War, there was a Kargil Review Committee formed, which identified the challenges and, over the years, we have taken action to ensure that there is improvement in infrastructure in terms of roads, habitat and surveillance architecture. All the gaps along the LoC have been plugged,” Northern Army Commander, Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh told ET.
Communication has improved with the laying of optical fibre cables and surveillance was heightened with more Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and satellite imagery. The local intelligence network has been tightened, with an improved public interface.
The weak infrastructure on Pakistan’s side can be seen by their ill-fortified bunkers, most of which are not cemented. “This indicates that they may be suffering from fund shortage,” explained an official.
Intelligence gathered on Pakistani positions near LoC points to inadequate ration. “We noticed that they mainly get items such as pulses and rice and not special ration needed for surviving at such high altitudes,” explained another official.
Pakistan army in these areas also don’t have proper vehicles, although their helicopter assets are good. Officials say Pakistan is not “really a threat” now. “It is not possible for them to do what they did in 1999. Even if they intrude, their strategic objectives cannot be achieved,” said an official.