February 16, 2020
Home  »  Magazine  »  National  » Cover Stories  » Cover Story »  A Step Across The Thin Line?

A Step Across The Thin Line?

To widen or not to widen the conflict-that is the vital question. Troops want a free hand, but it's not coming just yet.

A Step Across The Thin Line?
Patience and restraint, the two recurrent motifs in India's approach to the Kargil conflict, are wearing thin on the ground. Five weeks into a bitter, taxing battle in this northern sector, with the forbidding prospect of a long haul ahead, two distinct schools of thought are emerging on the future conduct of operations. The mood among the Indian armed forces deployed on this front is, slowly but surely, veering away from the one basic ground-rule New Delhi has steadfastly clung to: that the LoC is to be kept sacrosanct. The implications, if the militarist view comes to prevail, are colossal.

In pure operational terms, it is felt, crossing the LoC is a bleeding necessity. The reasons are simple, and many. Take the fight for Tiger Hills, which has become a kind of psychological block for the army. Soldiers of three crack infantry units have been at it since mid-May, in a vain bid to dislodge Pakistani troops from the crucial peak. The scenario is near-hopeless: hauling yourselves up on ropes at 15,000-odd feet, over a killing 80-degree gradient mountain face, weighed down by 40 kg backpacks, braving icy winds and sub-zero temperatures. Forget enemy guns, even boulders flung from the top take lives. The bodycount is climbing. Yet, the operation continues.

The sheer human cost, that too for elusive benefits, has impelled a rethink in army circles. A  simple' thing like transgressing the LoC would allow the Indian army to tip the scales by cutting the supply lines of the intruders. In the face of operational exigencies, ground-level personnel are getting impatient with the reluctance exhibited by New Delhi, the diplomatic niceties, the international opinion. 'The American General (Anthony) Zinni has been to Pakistan to persuade them to back off. If nothing happens, then we want the decision to cross the LoC taken in a week's time,î says an officer.

Meanwhile, far removed from the blood and sweat of the actual fighting, the government, military strategists and political parties do not think that option should be exercised. For, it could mean a widening of the conflict and even a full-scale war. And in the post-May '98 scenario, any possibility of a war must also factor in the nuclear option. Not to forget the threat by Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif to 'use the ultimate optionî.

Reasons Lt Gen Satish Nambiar, director, United Service Institution: 'Having adopted the stance that we did to keep the Kargil affair localised, it would be advisable to keep it at that. We should not worry about the time-frame. We should carry out the operation very deliberately with minimum casualties.'

The dilemma becomes even more acute if you juxtapose these stark options against the mysterious swings of public opinionówhich rides alternately on a desire for retribution and a wariness of war, especially vis-a-vis the nuclear aspect. Already charged by a sense of betrayal and anger at Pakistani duplicity, it gets visibly heated up every time a bodybag arrives from the front. This is the most intangible commodity and dangerous precisely because of that. In an election year, a beleaguered government, being blamed for one of the greatest security blunders India has faced in years, can't ignore it. Where is all this heading? Is it taking India towards a more  proactive' approach against Pakistan, a wider conflict?

For now, while not oblivious to the pressure from the troops for a military carte blanche, New Delhi is holding out. It's banking on diplomatic pressure to force Islamabad to back off. The visit of Gen Zinni to Islamabad was watched carefully in India. Initial reports suggest the US general has not met with success. And that's unfortunate. Every day that passes increases the pressure on New Delhi.

The Kargil campaign has seen some victories. But if the army was happy with the recapture of Point 5140 at Tololing last week, it's subdued by the fact that Tiger Hillsóthe most dominant feature on the Dras-Kargil stretch of the Srinagar-Leh highwayóstays under enemy control, despite the Mirage 2000 pounding on June 24. It's slow, very slow progress. The mood among troops is one of anger.

Says an officer involved in planning strategies on the ground: 'We've drawn a sort of a semi-circle on many positions but to complete the circle we'll have to cross the LoC.î Adds a staff officer, 'It is now very clear that the enemy troops on these heights are extremely well-trained, well-acclimatised and well-stocked. Our attempts to cut off their supply lines have been only partially successful, mainly because they have too many routes.î To block these routes, a decision on the LoC is required quickly, officers feel. The soldiers are chafing against the handicap imposed on them, and say they are made to fight the war according to Pakistani rules. Says a jawan from Bihar, 'First they brought us here without any preparation. We said, for the motherland's sake, even that's acceptable. But when they say don't cross the LoC, we feel very angry.

The anger only mounts when the jawans see so many of their colleagues die fighting such a tough battle. And the casualty rate is indeed high. 'We're losing too many men too quickly,î says a company commander. Officially, the death toll is 165 dead and over 300 injured but indications on the ground are that the deaths are much more. Even among the injured, over 80 per cent are unlikely to walk for the rest of their lives. Many have even gone blind, having climbed the icy heights without snow goggles.

Why are the commanders and jcos demanding a decision within a week? They know the race is against time, with barely three months to go before the Manali-Leh and Srinagar-Leh highways become snow-bound and Ladakh is cut off. A supply corps officer points out, 'Once the Pakistanis know both roads are closed, they'll pound us even if a bicycle stirs out on the vulnerable stretches.

The counterpoint is that the military view on widening the conflict can't be treated in isolation. A full-scale war has political, strategic, economic and diplomatic ramifications. Not that crossing the LoC is not being considered by the government. Many do support it, arguing that a war is inevitable, and 'the choice is to be prepared for it or not to be prepared for it. It's the Pakistanis who will escalate itî. But the dominant view favours restraint, for now.

Given that the Indians were caught off guard, commanders at the front want to make amends. 'So far we've been only reacting to what they've been doing. It's time we became a little proactive,' says a strategist. That is, to create a front of its own choosing and engage the enemy there. The army brass is well aware of the feeling. The army chief, Gen V.P. Malik, on June 23 tossed up the LoC question, left it open but said the decision would have to be taken by the Union Cabinet. Meanwhile, the army brass appears to have given the go-ahead for a build-up from where an offensive can be launched immediately.

The Dras-Leh stretch is moving into a stage described by a senior officer as 'preventive defence.î In other words, arrangements in anticipation of a retaliatory attack if India launches an offensive are being put into place. State-of-the-art radars of the air force have begun dotting the terrain. Guns of the air defence artillery have been placed strategically to protect the precious Bofors guns from incoming Pakistani fighter jets. Missiles with varying ranges have been placed at crucial heights over the past one week. 'Once the defences are in place, the next stage is an all-out offensive across the LoC, maybe in the Kargil sector, maybe in some other place,î defence sources said.

A crack para-commando unit, which moved into the zone two weeks ago, acclimatised itself with various altitudes starting from 9,000 feet, going up to 12,000 and then 15,000 feet. It's now ready to launch the first attack, waiting for orders. When it comes, if at all, will depend on the threshold New Delhi has set for itself. Pakistani strategists too are watching the evolving situation. They miscalculated once by not anticipating the strong Indian army and air response when they launched the Kargil operation. They can misread events now only at their own peril. The Indian foreign secretary, K. Raghunath, had warned that there is a limit to India's patience and restraint. Even Lt Gen Nambiar agrees: 'The international community should not bluff itself that restraint can be shown indefinitely.î

The news from Batalik and Kaksar hasn't been very encouraging. There have been successes, but each time troops thought they'd captured a vital height, the Pakistanis appeared on peaks nearby. 'The only inference one can draw from this is that the enemy is present in far larger numbers than we first thought,î an officer points out. Further west on the Srinagar-Leh highway, in the Mushkoh Valley too, the progress is slower than expected.

With winter not far, the troops are reconciled to a Siachen-like situation. 'Winter or no winter, we'll have to hold this entire stretch, the conditions be damned,î says an officer. But that's easier said; the entire area will be snow-bound and temperatures will fall below minus 60 degrees for over eight months. 'How many of our units have had the experience of Siachen?î asks a commanding officer. He has a point. Troops like the Ladakh Scouts have an in-born ability to stay at these heights but to expect every Indian soldier to adjust himself is madness, officers point out.

Opinions are mixed among former army bosses on the question of crossing the LoC. Former army chief Gen Shankar Roy Chowdhury feels that militarily, 'to defeat them, it's important to strike across the LoCî. But like others, he too feels international opinion and the high casualties that would ensue have to be considered. One of his predecessors, Gen S.F. Rodrigues, a member of the advisory board of the National Security Council, favours restraint. He points to the post-Kosovo situation in which nato is on a roll. 'Do we want to give them the slightest opportunity to interfere?î he asks. In the long term, he says, Pakistan is 'an irritant too small to impinge on us...we shouldn't give it that importanceî.

Lt Gen V.K. Sood, former vice chief of army staff, is dead opposed to a cavalier response: 'You have to weigh the diplomatic and military options and consider the payoff from each. Pakistan has been isolated internationally because of our restraint.î As for casualties, he says that in 'any calculus of fighting in high altitude, the attacker vs defender ratio is 10:1 because of the overwhelming advantage the defender has. But we are succeeding in this difficult terrain, we shouldn't get unnecessarily worried.î He doesn't think strategic decisions like going to war should be based on public opinion. But he agrees with Nambiar that India can't show restraint indefinitely. 'There has to be some time-frame for Pakistan to back down.î

Several former army generals share the feeling that while the going is slow, it's steady and that there's no need to panic. Former western army commander Lt Gen H.K. Kaul feels Islamabad is not prepared for a full-scale war: 'Unless they want to commit suicide, I don't think they want war.î He feels that if India reverses its stand on the LoC after so many weeks without any new fact emerging, it would lose world support. He points out that in '65 and '71, the casualties were over 8,000 and nearly 9,000, respectively. 'If you have a war now, casualties will be far higher than what we have now.î Nambiar feels commanders were 'propelled into assaulting some features because of the compulsion of doing somethingî and this explains the initial high casualties. 'Don't push the army into ending it quickly. Do everything very deliberately. If a stalemate arises, we should consider opening up elsewhere, after we are fully prepared with equipment and adequate reserve forces.î

Politically, the Kargil affair is troublesome for a government facing elections by September. It's necessary for it to end it by then. There's some unanimity that war is avoidable. Says the bjp's K.N. Govindacharya, 'This is a battle of nerves. A fine balance between maturity and sensitivity is needed. But if Pakistan wants to commit harakiri by escalating the conflict, let themî. Former bjp MP, Maj Gen B.C. Khanduri, admits the military is fighting without freedom to manoeuvre. Says he, 'The basic ingredients of a successful war is to be able to choose the time, place and method of fighting. None of these is available to us.î He agrees with the government's approach and says it may not be desirable to escalate the conflict despite the pressure, 'but it can't go on indefinitely.î

War is not an option even the Opposition relishes. The Congress' Mani Shankar Aiyer says 'war can't be the objective of any government. Yet it must be ready if it's inflicted, keeping the doors to peace open while being vigilantî. He realises the military is in a Catch-22 on the LoC question, and adds the 'the government has to strike a fine balance between military and diplomatic imperativesî. The cpm's Prakash Karat doesn't think the country is itching for war: 'The primary task is to remove the intruders, and to assert that the LoC can't be changed. Widening the conflict would be politically disastrous, it would help Pakistan internationalise the Kashmir issue. We'd fall into Pakistan's trap.î The West is watching too. Says US-based South Asia specialist Stephen P. Cohen, 'There's an Afghan saying,  revenge is a dish best eaten cold.' Two nuclear neighbours can't play the game of I'll hurt you if you hurt me.î

India is at a crossroads. The need is to look beyond Kargil too, in terms of what kind of relations Pakistan wants with India. 'We must use economic, social and ideological pressure on Pakistan henceforth, like taking away its mfn status,î says a government source. But what is to be done now? Says a senior army officer, 'There are too many witch doctors suggesting too many things. We want to expand the operations but finally, as the chief said, the decision will have to be the government's'.

with Ishan Joshi in Srinagar, Ashis K. Biswas in Calcutta, Ramananda Sengupta and Ludwina A. Joseph in Washington

Next Story >>
Google + Linkedin Whatsapp

The Latest Issue

Outlook Videos