February 22, 2024

Remembering the Kargil War

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Kargil Vijay Diwas is a day of national pride as well as a date to remember the bitter lessons learnt in that war.

Keywords: Indian Army | Lahore Declaration | Mountain heights | Operation Koh Paima | General Pervez Musharraf | Infantry | Artillery | National Heroes |

Today is the 21st Anniversary of Kargil Vijay Diwas. It is a day to remember the grit and valour of the Armed Forces who in 1999, against impossible odds, evicted the enemy from the high mountains to which they had infiltrated—a feat which many thought was impossible to achieve. 527 brave soldiers of the Indian Armed Forces made the supreme sacrifice while defending their motherland. Many more were wounded. We pay homage to our 527 brave hearts Killed in Action (KIA) while defending the motherland and SALUTE the courage and valour of all those who fought in those icy heights in an extremely difficult high altitude terrain.

On 3 May 1999, a 36-year-old shepherd, Tashi Namgyal, was the first to provide information to the Indian Army of the presence of armed personnel in the Batalik heights. Army patrols thereafter confirmed this information and while initially it was thought that these were infiltrators sent from across the LoC, subsequent events were to prove that they were regular soldiers of Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry and personnel of Pakistan’s Special Operations Group. The Indian Army operation to evict the invaders was code-named Operation Vijay. The operation ended about three months later, on 26 July 1999, with a final Indian Victory.

The Pakistani operation to capture the heights astride Kargil had started soon after General Pervez Musharraf had taken over as Pakistan’s army chief. The Operation, code-named Operation Koh Paima (Op KP—the one who climbs mountains) was formulated in complete secrecy, with only four people being involved in the planning process—General Musharraf, his Chief of General Staff, Lt Gen Aziz Khan,  GOC 10 Corps Lt Gen Mahmud Ahmed and Maj Gen Javed Hassan, who was nominated as the force commander for Op KP. The plan involved occupying the heights around Kargil to cut off National Highway 1 (NH1) to Leh. It was assumed by the Pakistani planners that Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent and world opinion would keep India from enlarging the scale of the conflict and that once the Pakistani military was in control of the heights, Indian forces would be unable to recapture them, thus altering the status quo in Pakistan’s favour. The plan, while it was tactically brilliant, was based on misassumptions and was strategically flawed. This led to Pakistani capitulation towards the end of July 1999.

At Lahore, Mr Vajpayee made his historic speech where he had said… “Hum jung na hone denge … Teen bar lad chuke ladayi, kitna mehnga sauda… Hum jung na hone denge…”

India was perhaps lulled into complacency by the peace mission of the Indian Prime Minister when he journeyed to Lahore by bus on 19 February 1999 and where the Lahore Declaration was signed by the two countries. At Lahore, Mr Vajpayee made his historic speech where he had said… “Hum jung na hone denge … Teen bar lad chuke ladayi, kitna mehnga sauda… Hum jung na hone denge…”

But even as these famous words for peace were reverberating across the power corridors of the world, Pakistani troops of its Northern Light Infantry, in the guise of infiltrators, were already across the Line of Control and had occupied some of the heights. They would continue their build-up in the next two months in the mountain ranges overlooking the Dras Valley, Kargil and Batalik townships and the village of Turtuk, one of the northernmost villages of Ladakh — a stretch in excess of 100 km as measured from point to point. India had once again been betrayed.

The mountain heights here ranged between 14000 ft and 18000 ft and the winter heavy snowfall cut them off from the rest of the world. The Pakistan Army took advantage of these shortcomings, especially the lack of Indian troops during winters

It must be remembered that before the war started, there was only one brigade comprising of three infantry battalions which was responsible to guard the sector between the Zojila Pass and Leh along the LoC – a stretch of about 300 km. The deployment hence was thin as the terrain was very difficult. The Indian posts along the LoC were evacuated before winter set in and the Pakistanis did likewise on their side of the LoC. The mountain heights here ranged between 14000 ft and 18000 ft and the winter heavy snowfall cut them off from the rest of the world. The Pakistan Army took advantage of these shortcomings, especially the lack of Indian troops during winters, and intruded 4-10 km into Indian territory in Mushkoh, Dras, Kargil, Batalik and Turtuk sub-sectors, between Zojila and Leh. They occupied some of the winter vacated posts as well as some unheld peaks, in their bid to sever Leh by cutting off the National Highway.

In the very early stages of the war, a six-man patrol led by Capt Saurabh Kalia in the Kaksar sector to determine the whereabouts of the enemy was ambushed and the officer was brutally tortured and killed. The officer, with his handful of men, fought bravely till their ammunition ran out. Over a period of time, from the middle of May onwards, additional troops were inducted into the area to evict the Pakistanis from the positions they had occupied.

The battles fought in these high mountain ranges tested the mettle of the Indian soldier to the extreme. Every hill was fought for foot by bloody foot and victory was paid for in blood. This was a war which was beamed into the drawing-room of nearly every home, uniting the whole nation with its Armed Forces in their fight against a vicious enemy. Every battle became etched in memory, and the battle for Tiger Hill, Batra Top, Tololing, Khalubar, Jubar, Kukarthang and many others became household names. The nation had new heroes—Capt Vikram Batra and Lt Manoj Pandey were awarded the Param Vir Chakra posthumously for their courage beyond compare in the battlefield. Rifleman Sanjay Kumar and Grenadier Yogender Singh Yadav became living legends by their exploits in battle and were also awarded the Param Vir Chakra. Many names became an inspiration for the whole country such as Capt Vijyant Thapa, Capt Haneef Uddin, Capt Neikezhakuo Kengurüse whose exploits did the country proud. They all sacrificed their lives fighting to defend the country. These young men were brave beyond compare and steadfast beyond the call of Duty. What more can a nation ask from its youth?

Never before in military history had an air force engaged ground targets at such altitudes as the mountain peaks of Kargil

While the Infantry moved step by agonising step to capture the heights, they were helped in no small measure by the Artillery. The Bofors gun proved its worth in gold and enabled the infantry to capture their objectives by raining down hundreds of thousands of rounds on to the enemy positions. The gunners indeed displayed remarkable grit and courage, especially all the forward Observation officers, who were at all times with the leading assault elements of the Infantry. The Air Warriors too played a magnificent role. Never before in military history had an air force engaged ground targets at such altitudes as the mountain peaks of Kargil. The feats of endurance by the IAF were legendary and played a major role in bringing the war to a swift close. Ultimately, every single soldier and airman contributed to this great victory, which initially looked as being impossible to achieve. It was the courage and grit of the Indian soldier which made the impossible possible.

The lessons learnt were many and were encapsulated in the Kargil Review Committee Report, which was also put out in the public domain. Many of the shortcomings of the war have since been addressed, the most recent being the establishment of the post of Chief of Defence Staff. But the most important lesson that emerges is that eternal vigilance is the price we have to pay for our freedom. We must never be caught off guard again.

7 comments

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  • Dear Dhruv
    Very well described events that took place 21 years back. The way you unfolded the war scenes appears to me as if watching it live. Entire war was as usual story of deceit and treachery by Pakistan and saga of bravery and valour by the Indian Armed Forces.
    Congratulations to you Dhruv.

  • Very well written article in brief which broadly covers the entire sequence of events.
    I was commanding an infantry bn tasked to capture Jubar, Tharu and Kukarthang. We took 45 days to throw the Pakistanis beyond the LC. The Indian army did the impossible and created history. Memorable days.

  • Thanks Dhruv , For highlighting the crux inch by inch of the OP Vijay. Armed Forces are praise worthy for fighting for every inch , & successfully liberated India from the dirty plans of Pakistan . Timely action prevented loss of Ladhak . This was probably The evil design of China which Pakistan wanted to fulfil for mega business corridor. From China( Tibet) to Ladhak-Pakistan- Arab Sagar. I salute all able bodied Armed Forces Personal who sacrificed their life for the safety honour dignity of Mother India .Government of India also took proactive decision .

Maj Gen Dhruv C Katoch

Major General Dhruv C Katoch is Director, India Foundation and Editor, India Foundation Journal.

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