February 16, 2020
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Drawn Into Battle

Bharat-Pakistan padosi, saath saath rehna hai, Pyar karen ya vaar karen, dono ko hi sehna hai... Jo hum par guzri, bacchon ke sang na hone denge. Jang na hone denge." - Atal Behari Vajpayee's peom "Ab Jang Na Hone Denge", which he recited at Lahore.

Drawn Into Battle
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That was in February during the 'historic' summit between the prime ministers of India and Pakistan, when the two signed the Lahore Declaration. Three months later, the same Vajpayee had to give the go-ahead to the Indian forces to launch airstrikes on Pakistani intruders in Kargil - the first time fighter jets were being pressed into action since the '71 war.

Clearly, what's happening in Kargil is not a one-off. If anything, it represents a new phase of Pakistani military activism in Kashmir. The infiltration from Dras to Batalik and the setting up of near-permanent encampments follows two years of heavy shelling of the area. It signals that the Pakistanis have upped the ante. Deliberately, with much planning.

On its part, the Vajpayee government has been caught unawares. Kargil is a political and diplomatic setback for it. Vajpayee's ostensible legacy, the Lahore initiative, lies in tatters. The Pakistanis have brazenly occupied Indian territory in between photo-ops and handshakes. And in an election year, the bjp will be hard put to explain how the Pakistanis could capture Indian positions at all.

The truth is that Vajpayee's government is guilty of naivete: it failed to realise that in Indo-Pak relations, politeness can't supplant full defence preparedness. The LoC is not just another border, it's a civilisational fault-line, with no quick-fix solutions. Even so, Vajpayee was believed to be reluctant to order airstrikes; but his hand was forced by George Fernandes and L.K. Advani. It still took nearly five days after the army's request for air support for him to agree to these strikes. On Friday, the Congress met President K. R. Narayanan and attacked the government's handling of the situation, but backed the military initiative.

The Kargil situation has been simmering for a while. For years, this district of Ladakh had been unaffected by militancy. But in the last two years, the Pakistanis had turned on the heat, pounding the area, particularly Dras, with heavy artillery. The aim was to terrorise the Shia-dominated town of Kargil, forcing its inhabitants to evacuate. Civilian casualties ensued, and many Kargil denizens relocated to the Buddhist-dominated district of Leh.

What's frightening is that the political-military establishment didn't see it coming. Much of the blame lies with the intelligence agencies, who failed to spot this infiltration: 600 heavily armed soldiers, digging themselves in over months, and not a single alarm going off.

The oversight means Indian forces will have - literally - an uphill task in ejecting the intruders. The Indian army suffers the handicap of not occupying the heights. Taking advantage of winter, Indian laxity and their command of the heights, the intruders have occupied many positions on the Indian side of the LoC. The Kargil engagement is a fight to wrest these back. Had they gone undetected, the fear is the Pakistanis would have pressed even further in an attempt, perhaps, to redefine the LoC.

Matters picked up pace on May 28 in the aftermath of the loss of two Indian planes and a chopper.Islamabad seemed to be softening. It handed over the body of one pilot, Sqn Ldr A. Ahuja, to Indian army officials and released a picture of the other pilot, Flt Lt K. Nachiketa, captured somewhere on the LoC. Sources claim the strikes against the militants were particularly harsh on Friday.

In the afternoon, Nawaz Sharif called Vajpayee and offered to send across foreign minister Sartaj Aziz for immediate talks. Vajpayee conveyed to Sharif that Islamabad had to take the first step towards ending the conflict. Meanwhile, Sharif announced separately that he had put the Pakistani air force on high alert.

In all recent border skirmishes, the Pakistanis have never tried such a brazen action across the LoC. Since it is clearly delineated here - unlike in Siachen - both sides have traditionally moved their troops to lower altitudes in winter, and resumed their high posts once the thaw sets in. The Pakistanis broke the pattern this year.

Inevitably, given the terrain, what started as a flushing out operation has escalated. Fighters have been pressed into service; heavy artillery fire exchanged. Casualties are mountingó24 Indian soldiers killed, 12 missing and 84 wounded so far. And given the incendiary mood, a drift into war is always an ominous possibility.

In a sense, Kargil was waiting to happen. For 10 years, the Indian army has been chafing at the leash in Jammu & Kashmir, losing precious men and material in Pakistan's proxy war. It had sought greater operational flexibility. It was only two years ago that local army commanders were finally given the autonomy to take action if there was cross-border firing. Till then, they had to seek permission from army HQ in Delhi to retaliate. In view of the sensitivity of the LoC, and of world opinion, the army has been relatively restrained. But now, despite the loss of two jets, a helicopter and many soldiers, the army and the air force are in no mood to back off. They want to keep the heat on till they've retaken the posts.

Easier said than done. The intruders are well-entrenched; reports suggest they may even have built cement bunkers. Once the airstrikes stop, ground action will start, and it will be long and bloody.

Now, of course, there are no two opinions on the government's course. Militarily and politically, it's imperative that the intruders be ejected, for not only do they violate Indian sovereignty, they also threaten to cut off the vital Srinagar-Kargil-Leh road. So the Indian response, correctly, has been swift and unrelenting, surprising many in Pakistan who see India as a soft state.

What does this mean for Indo-Pak dialogue? The foreign office is divided. Some feel it should go on; others feel it is pointless. It's ironical that while Vajpayee and Sharif were signing the Lahore Declaration, the isi was planning this operation. Said an Indian diplomat involved in the Lahore initiative:  We had no illusions even while signing the declaration. One couldn't expect any material change in their behaviour. 

Yet, he feels the  intensification  of the dialogue means  we at least start talking to and not at each other . He feels Pakistan is trying to expand its area of operations in j&k due to  disquiet  that militancy hasn't yielded the results expected in the early '90s. Till recently, Pakistan used to speak of indigenous Kashmiri militancy; now it speaks more of the Mujahideen.  They've realised that the Kashmiris are not responding, so now they have to bring in the Mujahideen to keep the 'jehad' alive. 

To Vajpayee's credit, he did not abandon the diplomatic route right away. Before sending in the iaf jets, he called Sharif and conveyed to him that politically this was unacceptable. Sharif apparently suggested the two directors general of military operations get in touch. But events had spiralled well beyond that.

It's surprising that some - including George Fernandes - feel Sharif was unaware of this action by his forces. This is absurd. Such a massive operation couldn't possibly be a rogue isi or army operation. In any case, isi chief General Ziauddin is a Sharif appointee.

The Pakistani gameplan is obvious. Militarily, grab the heights and what territory it can; diplomatically, focus international attention on Kashmir. Pakistani information minister Mushahid Hussain is all over the world media castigating India for destabilising the area, insisting that the Indian action corroborates the Pakistani theory of Kashmir being the flashpoint in nuclearised South Asia.

For once, the Pakistani drumming has fallen on sceptical ears. Few buy their assertion that it has nothing to do with the intruders, especially in view of claims made by the militant groups themselves. For example, Tehrik-i-Jehaad, operating out of Muzaffarabad, announced on May 22 that its guerrillas had captured 800 km of territory in the Dras-Kargil sector. Other guerrilla groups also claim they will send more militants into the Kargil-Dras sector. The fact of the matter is that it's a joint army-isi-militants operation.

For India, the position is unequivocally clear. Eject the intruders. Now Pakistan has to make up its mind whta it wants to do. The last shot is yet to be fired.

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