Call Of Duty: Kargil War — Indian Army’s Saga of Unparalleled Bravery

On the 24th Vijay Diwas, let us think about the proud success of the Indian Armed Forces at Kargil & the gallant actions of our soldiers, many of whom did not return alive to their units and families. Lt Gen (Retd) Philip Campose takes us through the Indian Army’s saga of unparalleled bravery.

23 years ago on this day, the Indian Army won ‘Operation Vijay’, a hard-fought war with Pakistan on the treacherous high-altitude terrain along the line of control (LOC) in the Kargil district of the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir. The glorious victory of July 26, 1999, epitomised by the blood and guts of the Indian soldier, brought to a close yet another India-Pakistan war, the fourth in just half a century of independence from British colonial rule.

The Kargil War, as it is known, started in May 1999, with the discovery by the Indian Army of Pakistani intruders, both regulars and irregulars, who had occupied tactically important heights in the Kargil area, dominating the highway between Srinagar and Leh. This was yet another diabolical attempt by the Pakistani Army to grab parts of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. These intrusions triggered a series of events, both at the national and global level, with Pakistan’s efforts failing miserably, as in the past.

The Kargil intrusion was planned by the duplicitous Gen Pervez Musharraf after he took over as Pakistani Army Chief in October 1998. He did this in connivance with some cohorts like Gen Aziz Khan, Chief of General Staff, and General Ashraf Rashid, head of Pakistan’s paramilitary forces, and put it into action just after the Lahore Declaration seeking peace between the two countries was signed in February 1999 between the Prime Ministers on both sides, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif.

The devious plan envisaged infiltration of the Pakistani military and paramilitary troops, disguised as militants, across the LOC to surreptitiously occupy the Indian Army’s winter vacated posts along the 160-kilometre stretch of ridges and tactical heights overlooking the National Highway 1D between Srinagar and Leh, in the mountainous Kargil Area, between Drass and Batalik. Accordingly, Pakistan’s Operation Badr was launched in April 1999, when the winter snows had started melting and was aimed to block the critical road link between Kashmir and Ladakh in an effort to force the Indian Army to vacate the Siachen Glacier, which lies further to the east. It was also yet another attempt to draw attention to, and internationalise the J&K issue, which Pakistan continued to consider as unresolved.

In the event, Pakistan’s efforts failed miserably on all fronts, politically, militarily, diplomatically and informationally, and finally, after a series of tactical defeats, combined with intense international pressure, especially by the United States, had to accept defeat and undertake an ignominious withdrawal. In its aftermath, three months later, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was deposed and replaced by General Musharraf in yet another military coup.

On the Indian side, in the beginning, higher-level intelligence was totally lacking. Thus, in February 1999, troops meant for operations in the Batalik Sector of Ladakh were sent to the Kashmir Valley to support the counter-militancy operations there. Assessments by military commanders in the chain about the possibility of Pakistani mischief were ignored or downplayed. Thus, the initial Indian response to the Pakistani intrusions was tardy.

The first ground information about the intrusions was received from some local shepherds at the beginning of May 1999. Five members of the reconnaissance patrol sent to verify this information were captured, tortured and killed on 5th May 1999, including young Capt. Saurabh Kalia, its leader, had been commissioned just five months back. Within a few days, Pakistani artillery shelling resulted in damage to the Indian Army’s ammunition dumps in Kargil. By this time, it was confirmed that Pakistani intruders were in occupation of the ridgeline at Drass, Kaksar and Mushkoh.

Accordingly, the Indian Army decided to send reinforcements to the area by switching a Division from counter-militancy operations in the Kashmir Valley to support the eviction operations by the Indian Army in the Ladakh Sector. In the meanwhile, the Batalik brigade was reverted from its counter-militancy tasks in the Valley.

The first infantry attacks to evict the intruders were launched by Indian Army units in the middle of May 1999. Some of these suffered reverses on account of the tough terrain, bad weather, inadequate artillery support and the heavy firing by the Pakistani intruders from their dominating higher positions. Air support was also lacking. On the other hand, the Pakistani intruders were heavily armed with automatic weapons and rocket launchers, and even anti-aircraft guns, which could bring down a heavy volume of fire on the attacking troops. They were supported by artillery and air defence weapons, including missiles. Nonetheless, Point 4295 and Point 4460 were captured by the Drass Brigade, thereafter, the Sikh Battalion laid siege to Tiger Hill, the most dominant of these features.

Operation Vijay to evict the intruders was announced by the Indian Army in mid-May 1999. Simultaneously, the Indian Airforce announced Operation Safed Sagar to support the Army plan. As part of Operation Vijay, further, building up its military forces in the Ladakh Sector was undertaken, while concurrently mobilising its formations and units facing the Western borders opposite J&K, Punjab and Rajasthan in a deterrent posture. Powerful 155 mm Bofors guns were brought into the Kargil Sector to provide artillery support.

The newly inducted Division, on arrival in the Kargil Theatre, took over operations west of Thasgam. The Parachute Brigade arrived in the theatre and was placed under its command. Combat air support by the Indian Airforce was also brought into the fray. Meanwhile, the Indian Navy deployed pro-actively in full strength.

The aim of Operation Vijay was to limit the Pakistani intrusions in the identified areas and thereafter, evict the intruders by launching infantry attacks, supported by artillery and air power. The volume of fire support was increased to the highest levels possible, keeping in view the tough terrain conditions where the attacking troops had to make their way uphill against a barrage of artillery and mortar fire as well as a heavy volume of machine-gun fire by the well-entrenched intruders. The Indian Airforce lost a combat aircraft and a helicopter to Pakistani surface-to-air missile fire on the second day of its operations, on 27th May 1999.

In the meanwhile, to avoid escalation of conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, India decided that the LOC should not be crossed by the Indian Armed Forces.

Once Operation Vijay gathered momentum in the Kargil theatre, the units and brigades started notching up regular victories, though at the cost of large numbers of dead and wounded. The Grenadier Battalion of the Drass Brigade captured Tololing Hill on 13 June 1999, followed by Tololing Top, also known as Point 4590, by a Raj Rif battalion which lost four officers in this action, along with 19 JCOs and men.

By 20th June, after a bitter battle, Point 5140, the next high feature, was captured by the Jak Rif unit. Capt Vikram Batra, the braveheart from the JAKRIF who radioed, ‘Yeh Dil Maange More’ from a popular TV commercial, meaning ‘This heart wants more’ gained popular fame but could not survive the subsequent battle for Point 4875, where he sustained serious injuries during his gallant actions. He was awarded the nation’s highest award, the Param Vir Chakra’. So also was Rifleman Sanjay Kumar of the same battalion, who sustained multiple bullet wounds while clearing one of the last bunkers at Point 4875.

Units of the brigade had also captured Point 4700, Black Rock, Three Pimple and Knoll, west of Tololing. By late June 1999, the Mushkoh brigade had captured Point 5000 and Point 5287. And significantly, the Drass Brigade, with its units from the Sikh, Grenadiers and Naga Regiments, lifted the month-long siege of Tiger Hill after completing its capture by 8th July 1999.

Tiger Hill, at 16,500 ft, the highest peak in the Drass Sector, with sheer, precipitous sides of the ice, held by troops Pakistan’s the Northern Light Infantry, was the toughest nut to crack. The attack was launched by troops who had to make the arduous climb to the top from multiple directions over two days. The Sikhs climbed up the left flank of the mountain, the Nagas along the right flank and the Grenadiers scaled a 1000-foot vertical cliff on the rear side. Well-motivated troops kept attacking against heavy machine gun fire. In an act of exemplary gallantry on the top, Grenadier Yogendra Singh Yadav sustained multiple bullet injuries while assaulting an MMG post but succeeded in his task and survived to tell the tale. He too was awarded the Param Vir Chakra.

On the Eastern side, in the Batalik and Turtuk sectors, the troops faced even tougher terrain and weather conditions. Not much had come into the public eye as the area was difficult to access for the TV crews. Here too the initial attacks could not succeed. A Gorkha unit was at the forefront of actions in this sector, especially after a gutsy Officiating CO wrote directly to the Chief of Army informing him about the deficiency of resources to take on the well-entrenched and armed enemy. Fortunately, the Chief intervened positively and visited the Corps HQ. Resources were provided, and even a CO got posted after pulling him out from command of an RR unit in the Kashmir Valley. The battalion has reassigned the task of capturing Khalubar Top and they performed marvellously against perilous odds. Captain Manoj Pandey, who cleared a number of crucial bunkers at the top and succumbed to multiple bullet injuries in the process was awarded the Param Vir Chakra. Even the CO got wounded, but he returned after a few days to resume the battle.

Along the Chorbatla Axis in the Batalik Sector, it was once again the fortitude and bravery of the Ladakh Scouts which came to the fore, when Major Sonam Wangchuk, MVC, along with his men launched multiple raids on the enemy positions, killing many enemy soldiers.
There are hundreds of such tales of acts of rare motivation and extreme gallantry in the Kargil War. All these finally resulted in the Pakistani intruders being evicted and the Pakistan Army yet again having to admit defeat. Troops of various units of the Indian Army and their valiant commanders fought bravely in highly adverse conditions. Over 500 of them made the supreme sacrifice while more than 1300 were wounded. On the other hand, over 700 Pakistanis were killed and over a thousand wounded. Strangely, in trying to stick to their false narrative of this being an intrusion by “Kashmiri fighters”, the Pakistani army did not accept most of their 249 dead bodies, which had consequently to be buried by the Indian side, with military honours.

The list of gallantry awards of the Kargil War – 4 Param Vir Chakras, 9 MVCs, 55 VrCs, many of them posthumous, – tells its own story of bravery in the toughest battle conditions. One of them, young Captain Haneef-ud-ddin, VrC, of the Army Service Corps, attached with a Raj Rif battalion, who died due to multiple bullet injuries in the Turtuk Sector, has the rare honour of a sub sector, Sub Sector Haneef, named after him.

What made the Indian Army fight and achieve victory against such heavy odds? Undoubtedly, most of the officers led from the front. A number of studies have been carried out to find out the answer. Other than patriotism and individual bravery, the answer lies in the adage ‘Naam, Namak, Nishaan’ in terms of the regimentation among the Indian Army’s proud units and regiments, whose gallant officers and men felt motivated and compelled to keep going forward even in the most dangerous circumstances – for upholding the name of the units and the honour of their flag. Therein lies the secret behind the Indian Army’s bravery and its saga of success.

Today, on the 24th Vijay Diwas, Victory Day, let us sit back and think about the proud success of the Indian Armed Forces at Kargil and the gallant actions of our soldiers, many of whom who did not return alive to their units and families. May their memories stay alive and motivate new generations of the military and our youth so that they continue to protect our country and its people!