July 05, 2020
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Forward Line Notes

Finally, a book that eschews theory and focuses on the Kargil conflict from the perspective of the ordinary footsoldier

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Forward Line Notes
Despatches From Kargil
By Srinjoy Chowdhury
Penguin India Rs 200; Pages: 231
A novel phenomenon in subcontinental military conflicts emerged during the Kargil war in 1999. This was the appearance of print and audio-visual media correspondents in operational fronts. This was perhaps the first time that a large number of young media representatives were allowed to witness the conflict first hand by being given access to forward areas. The visuals and on-the-spot commentaries between mid-May and August-September 1999 brought the realities of the Kargil war into the drawing rooms and 'chaupals' of Indian homes. This process of transparency and spontaneous public attention about our security concerns has found additional content in the form of a number of books and monographs about the Kargil conflict which have been appearing in print since October-November last year.

Despatches from Kargil is part of this genre of books. Srinjoy reported on the Kargil war for the Statesman and the book is perhaps a modified, integrated, at times paraphrased, at times extended version of his despatches covering the conflict. It is a crisply written account of the conflict from the battlefield perspective. Chowdhury travelled with convoys, bunkered with soldiers and witnessed operations at each of the major sectors of the conflict at Dras, Batalik, Mushkoh and other adjacent areas. Once you get over the urbanised yuppy travelogue tone of the first chapter of the book, one is pleasantly surprised by the sensitivity, the sense of detail, the focus on the human, emotional and psychological aspects of the conflict which permeates the chapters covering the military operations.

Srinjoy's reference to the lessons learnt by the Indian army in the 1948 war in the second chapter entitled An Earlier War and the ninth chapter, which is the Epilogue, lend a retrospective as well as prospective prism through which the reader can assess the war in human and political terms. These chapters also refocus our attention on the attitudes and mindsets of the Pakistani military establishment. That their military command utilised the extra time given to them for withdrawal to mine the areas from which they withdrew is a sufficient manifestation of the intrinsic long-term hostile inclinations of the Pakistani power structure towards India.

The particular relevance of Despatches from Kargil is that it does not engage in conceptual and theoretical analysis or evaluations. The story is recounted through the medium of Srinjoy's conversations with ordinary soldiers and officers up to the rank of battalion commanders. He makes the reader a witness to and observer of the conflict through in-the-middle-of-battle remarks, comments and assessments articulated to him by our armed forces personnel. The book, therefore, has the virtue of dramatic realism. The stark realities of the conflict situation take on the characteristics of a "virtual reality theatre" as one reads the book. That's why this book is different from other books already written, and now being written about Kargil. That's also the reason why it is a rare read. Equally interesting are the conversations about the war which Srinjoy had with the local inhabitants in Kargil. Though there is trauma in the views expressed by Kashmiris, there is resilience, a certain stoicism and strength of spirit which comes through in their remarks to Chowdhury.

The book is primarily an eye-witness account of the conflict at the operational level. One is sure that Srinjoy must have met military officers and local leaders at the senior level too. But he hasn't referred to the mindset, attitudes and evolving assessments as the conflict progressed. One wishes that he had commented on the insights provided by soldiers in the field in light of the perceptions of senior military and civilian leaders in the area. He has perhaps been reticent or did not consider the views at the senior level to be of relevance to the trauma and violence affecting the forward areas in the battle.

This is a sensitive and serious book about the trauma and tragedy of the Kargil conflict and is characterised by sobriety, reticent satire and humour. The book is devoid of heroics and one can only contrast Srinjoy Chowdhury's sensitive description of the battle with the trivialisation of the tragedy and violence displayed in Amir Raza Hussain's The 50-Day War - a pedestrian play which had Delhi's chatterati flocking to watch it.

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