The famous Indian Territory, Kargil, commands a well-known claim to fame – owing to the year 1999- when India and Pakistan, two nuclear states, fought their limited and last war in the barren Himalayan peaks – splendid high altitude warfare. The glorified year witnessed Pakistani military intruding the Indian side of the de facto border, the LoC, a war that lasted 74 days and claimed greater than 1000 lives and concluded with India heralding victory and worldwide respect. India had successfully established itself a nuclear state in 1974, while Pakistan had been testing secretly and conducted its first official test in 1998. It is widely vouched that Pakistan’s freshly nurtured nuclear abilities encouraged it to afloat what later became the Kargil war in 1999 and that’s what curbed India to respond to the attack.
Prior to the infamous Kargil war of 1999, the Indian Army possessed only one brigade with three units consisting of approximately 2500 soldiers employed to guard 300km of Indian territory along the LoC spanning over Zojila and Leh, practically an impossible task. Certainly more units were required, but the need never felt. Following genuine traditions, posts along Indian and Pakistani territory were both vacated during winters, on terms of mutual understanding in view of the inhospitable conditions at 14000-18000 feet high posts. Owing to the heavy snowfall, this area was practically cut from the rest of the world and housed no possibility of motorable roads, artillery guns, or high tech surveillance.
History takes it back when local shepherds reported Pakistani militants in Kargil at the beginning of May 1999. Initially, mistaken to be Kashmiri separatists, the Indian Army only raised brows when they realized that the oncoming potential threat after sightings of a huge number of militants and infiltrators along the LoC. The Pakistan Army, known to have found advantage in the seasonal shortcomings, notably the lack of Indian troops at that time of the year, had executed a planned intrusion into Dras, Mushkoh, Batalik and Kargil and after crossing the LoC for 4-10km into Indian Territory, had occupied 130 winter-vacated posts. The region also saw heavy shelling that damaged the ammunition dump in Kargil. The aim was to cut off the highway (NH 1A) that connected Srinagar and Leh, and eventually Ladakh and Siachen – a move unforeseen by the Indian Army.
THE INITIAL CHAOS
The portion of the Indian Army deployed to release the intruded areas did not initially realize what they were up against. They pictured it to be a bunch of militants who had intruded and captured their posts. A unit was tasked on May 17 to recapture Tololing, being closest to the national highway, following which the Indian grenadiers found through reconnaissance that the intruders were not plain militants, but adequately armed soldiers. In their possession, they held mortars, machine guns, automatic weapons, with a potential of high-intensity firing.
The Government of India responded immediately with “Operation Vijay” and mobilized 200,000 troops. Crafty enough, on July 3, the Indian grenadiers were directed to capture the strategic Tiger Hill – 5,307 meters high (17,410 feet) – one of the highest and toughest to capture, though equally beneficial. After three fierce counter-attacks and several causalities spread over 11 hours, the Indian flag could be seen atop the mighty hill on July 8.
AIRFORCE AND NAVY INVOLVEMENT
Sensing the major danger, the Indian Air Force (IAF)’s helicopter gunships were requested to fire upon the Pakistani bunkers, which brutally failed when a Pakistani stinger missile brought down a helicopter, resulting in a temporary halt in IAF’s ground attack. They called it “Operation Safed Sagar”. The Indian Navy also joined by blocking Pakistani ports in the name of “Operation Talwar”, threatening to seize their sea trade. Using this opportunity, Pakistan stepped up attacks, shelling NH1. At this point, India’s centric focus was to win back posts that directly overlooked this important highway.
Soon after, the Indian Army launched a major offensive post recovering documents verifying greater official Pakistani involvement, successfully recapturing key areas in Batalik. Following this, the operation initiated to recapture Tololing lasted for 25 days and claimed 25 Indian soldiers. In vital areas where artillery or airpower was known to prove futile, the army resorted to frontal ground assaults, during the night time. The major turn of events was when India released intercepts of conversation between General Pervez Musharraf (Pakistan Army Chief) and Lt. General Aziz Khan (Chief of General Staff) that verified Pakistan Army’s involvement.
Nearly two months into the conflict and India had successfully regained most of the infiltrated areas in the armed fighting that followed. Facing international diplomatic opposition, the Pakistani forces withdrew from the remaining Indian positions along the LOC. The then US President, Bill Clinton, forcefully convinced Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif to pull back troops from Kargil. Worthy to note, Pakistan’s PM himself cut out the supply of weapons and food to its army in order to retrieve them back and allow Indian troops forward towards Tiger Hill.
Starting July 11, Pakistani forces began to withdraw. The Indian Army with the Indian Air force initiated the final attacks, day and night, and it was on July 14 that Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared “Operation Vijay” a success. The conventional Kargil war came to an end on July 26 1999 after the Indian Army confirmed the complete eviction of Pakistani intruders. This day is marked in Indian history as the Kargil Vijay Diwas.
The conflict brought to light heroism such as pronounced by Captain Vikram Batra. After overcoming the enemies’ advantage of heights, he led a tactical attack that made easy India’s way to conquer Tiger Hill and ultimately the battle. His next operation contained an uncanny mountain rivalry of capturing a 17000ft high Point 4875 (now Vikram Batra Top). As the opposite army heard about it, they intensified assault with a mortar and automated fire, only to be forced to retreat by his bravery. His name got etched as one of the greatest military heroes when in a bid to save his mate, he succumbed to enemies’ bulletin chest, deservingly earning India’s highest gallantry award – Param Vir Chakra.
The cold attempt also exposed the unpreparedness of Indian troops, their insufficiency, lapses in control, and lack of high-caliber arms. Thus, this war also stands responsible for the enhancement of the defense budget, weaponry, logistics, and deployment strength across all Indian posts, all times during the year with thorough fencing of the LoC.
The conflict not only unmasked the tough truths of combat in high terrains, but also the political imperatives combined in an unforgiving environment to fight India’s military advantage. What Pakistan earlier blamed on Kashmiri insurgents, turned out to be a concocted trick of its own paramilitary forces, led by General Ashraf Rashid. This was looked down upon and subjected to criticism and threats of isolation from all over the globe, with Pakistan losing its credibility. The world applauded India’s restraint for not crossing the LoC and staging an all-out war, and India gained hearty relations with many counties thereafter.