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War & Witch-Hunts

Army chief V.P. Malik, just before retiring from office, fixes blame for Kargil only on soldiers

War & Witch-Hunts

July 1999: The Kargil war with Pakistan is officially over. The nation rises as one to salute the gallantry displayed and sacrifices made by the junior officers and their men in evicting the Pakistani intruders.

Cut to September 2000: At least 40 officers of the rank of major and below, Junior Commissioned Officers (jcos) and jawans face Courts of Inquiry (CoIs) on charges ranging from failure of command and control to cowardice and desertion.

None of the generals whose duty it was to conduct the war is facing any official inquiry for their flawed leadership. Instead, two of them have been decorated and awarded with plum postings. This has triggered enormous resentment among the junior officers and men.

This is the first time in the history of the Indian army that such a large number of inquiries have been initiated against officers and men. Such action was not even taken after the 1962 debacle. But when allegations in the press and Parliament surfaced that the top brass had mismanaged the Kargil operations, the generals concerned were quick to launch a cover-up operation. The ploy they used was to selectively target battalions entrusted with the most difficult of tasks - charging up the mountain to evict the infiltrators perched atop, a strategy built around high human cost.

Other top targets are officers and men of those battalions charged with failing to detect the intrusions. While the top brass igno-red the early warnings of heightened enemy build-ups at the LoC, the blame's been placed solely on those deployed in Kargil. Even the Subrahmanyam Committee talks of overall intelligence failure.

According to a serving general, more planning should have preceded the sending of men up the treacherous mountains. The suggested plan of action was to take positions on three sides of the hills, launch an aerial attack and starve the intruders. The final assault should have then followed. But the army chief, under pressure from a political leadership facing an election, wanted quick results. One senior officer recalls the chief's brief: "I want the war over quickly, whatever the cost."

As a result, troops were sent on suicidal missions. Some of those who retreated in the face of heavy enemy fire are precisely those currently branded as cowards. Says a senior general at army headquarters, "It was a foolhardy battle which sent officers and men to certain death. Junior officers have been made scapegoats since the seniors who bungled are known to be close to the chief."

Junior officers posted in the Leh-Kargil-Batalik region are outraged the generals should get away. All the blame, they point out, is now sought to be pinned on the junior leadership. "We went into battle absolutely unprepared and without acclimatisation. After having fought under such hostile and adverse conditions, it is painful to see some of us being charged with cowardice and failure of command," says an officer who served in Kargil. Others recall the heroic deed of Captain Vikram Batra, who captured one peak but was immediately sent back into battle and died on his second mission. "Junior officers, disregarding their own safety, took up impossible missions and won us the war. The brass should not now target the juniors which will only demoralise them," says a retired general.

Lt Gen (retd) Satish Nambiar of the United Services Institute talks of the flagging morale in the middle rung and the rank and file. "There seems to be a feeling among junior leaders, on whose effective performance the nation's survival depends (proven without doubt in the Kargil conflict) that the service's interests are being subordinated to personal ambitions of the seniors; what draws particular comment is the 'five-star' culture and ticket pinching. "

Nearly 14 months after Kargil, the generals are covering up their own failures. "In the finest army tradition, it is the general who shoulders all blame for failure and credit for any victory," says a retired general. He recalls that in the battle for Kashmir in 1948-49, Gen K.S. Thimmayya did not fire a single officer. "Similarly, in the 1971 Bangladesh campaign, many mistakes were made at various levels but Field Marshal Maneckshaw never criticised anyone below him." Contrast this with the post-Kargil situation where the generals have cornered all the glory.

The man who orchestrated this unprecedented campaign is outgoing Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen V.P. Malik, who's issued a showcause notice to Brig Surinder Singh, the then commander of the Kargil-based 121 Brigade, asking why he shouldn't be dismissed from service for his various acts of "commission and omission".

The irony is that Malik himself was accused of taking the Kargil intrusions lightly and going on a 'goodwill' visit to Poland and holidaying in Europe even after it was known the Pakistanis had intruded many kilometres inside Indian territory. The COAS has an explanation for his goodwill visit and holiday in the book Dateline Kargil, by journalist Gaurav Sawant: "At any rate, if the chief of a million-man-strong army stops going out when a patrol goes missing or a dump is targeted, then I will not even be able to go to the toilet."

Incidentally, Brig Surinder Singh isn't the only target. Outlook's investigations in Delhi and Srinagar have revealed that at least 40 cases against officers and jcos are being processed at various units in the Leh-Kargil sector since February this year. Asked for an official reaction by Outlook, army headquarters refused to comment on the CoIs. Instead, officers in the Judge Advocate General's branch have told mediapersons that all the officers and men facing the CoIs are likely to be let off with a mild reprimand and they should not be hasty in rushing to civilian courts. Clearly, army headquarters is apprehensive that those being targeted will move the courts.

Army sources in Srinagar say that this motivated inquiry has seriously affected the morale of the force and has created fear of a witch-hunt among battalion and company commanders, who form the cutting edge of the Indian army.

Consider this:

  • At least two commanding officers of units that bore the brunt of the initial fighting are in the dock for failure of command.
  • Six other company commanders are facing charges of "running away from the battlefield".
  • At least three jcos are accused of cowardice.
  • Officers of at least two infantry units that were at the forefront of the battle find they have been graded so poorly in the battle performance reports that the image of their units has been permanently tarnished.
  • In contrast, none of the generals (see) are in the dock. Instead, two of them, Northern Army Commander Lt Gen Hari Mohan Khanna and then commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, Lt Gen Kishan Pal, were awarded gallantry medals. Lt Gen Khanna remains at his post; Lt Gen Pal is in Delhi as the new Quarter Master General. Maj Gen V.S. Budhwar, the man who commanded the Leh-based 3 Infantry Division when the intrusions took place and who should have been held primarily responsible for the lapses, is now posted at Jodhpur as chief of staff of 12 Corps. The only senior officer who is facing any censure/punishment is Brig Surinder Singh.

    Officers and jcos of 1/11 Gorkha Rifles, 12 Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry and 22 Grenadiers, who were rushed in from Siachen during the initial days of the war, are facing CoIs. Similarly, officers and men of 16 Grenadiers, who were then stationed at Dras, are also targets. Three units under 121 Brigade - 3 Punjab, 4 Jat and 16 Grenadiers - took the brunt of the battle in the first month, until fresh reinforcements started arriving in large numbers. And yet, none of these three units received a single gallantry award in the Kargil aftermath.

    In fact, this discrimination prompted Lt Gen H.B. Kala, the then Western Army Commander, to write to Gen Malik. Kala's main grouse was that his own 4 Jat Regiment had been ignored for the gallantry awards. But he also pointed out that if the seniors of the 121 Brigade had goofed up, then there was no reason for the men to be denied decorations.

    Interestingly, the COAS did not bother to reply to Kala. Instead, the vice-chief, Lt Gen Chandrashekhar, wrote saying that there was no question of decorating these battalions or the men and the army would punish them for failing to detect intruders in Kargil.

    In Srinagar, officers are aghast that there has been selective victimisation even of jcos. "jcos simply follow the orders of their immediate superiors. By targeting them, the seniors are only demoralising the vital link between officers and ORs (other ranks) personnel," a major pointed out. Retired officers that Outlook spoke to, some of them army commanders in their days, are perplexed at the entire campaign. Says a former general: "Only people who want to cover up their faults can stoop to such levels."

    In their reckoning, if some of these officers were indeed found wanting in battle, then the senior leadership also failed. "These junior officers and jcos are being made scapegoats when the fault lies with the senior rung of leadership," says an army colonel. He points out that the Standard Operating Procedure was not followed by the various commanders. "The concept of ground warming (when patrols are sent out once the thaw sets in), when the snow had melted in April that year, was not even adhered to by the senior officers," he says. By that time, both the Pakistani irregulars and the Northern Light Infantry had established positions on the Dras-Batalik-Mushkoh-Turtuk ranges.

    Others point out that Gen Kishan Pal's casual description of the intrusions as a local skirmish was a major faux pas. Says a staff officer in Srinagar: "It was an unpardonable mistake. In the first week of May 1999, the Intelligence Bureau had placed the number of intruders at 200 and the same was conveyed to the military establishment. But the army top brass, including Gen Kishan Pal, stuck to its guns that not more than a handful had crossed over in the Kargil sector." In fact at the Batalik sector, a local hunter, Tashi Namgyal, had informed the army seniors in early May, not once but twice, of the presence of intruders. "But he was ticked off and also chided," says a colonel.

    Many here feel that if blame and responsibility for not taking adequate precautions has to be apportioned, then it has to be across the board. "Why is it that only some are being punished while others are either let off scot-free and even being lauded?" asks a top army officer.

    The witch-hunt continues. A case in point is the 5353 Feature fiasco post-Kargil. When it was discovered that Pakistanis were holding this peak inside Indian territory, the 3 Gorkha and 16 Grenadiers were sent to recapture it. It was a bungled operation. Brig Amar Aul of the 56 Brigade was in charge and one would have imagined that action against him would be on the cards. "But the army headquarters 'punished' him by giving him a plum posting in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands," says an official.

    Similarly no action has been forthcoming against Maj Gen Budhwar, not even censure for his inability to foresee the intrusions and then act accordingly. Interestingly, Budhwar, who has not been acted against, has been found by a CoI headed by Brig Atma Ram to be responsible for withdrawing forces from the Bajrang winter post in the Kaksar sub-sector. This lapse had led to the Kargil intrusions.

    Selective targeting has been evidenced in the case of Col Pushpinder Oberoi of 16 Grenadiers too. Though he is being punished for not carrying out operations in the Dras sector, which he has contested in the Delhi High Court, the army top brass, ironically, has turned a blind eye to his counterpart in Batalik, Col V.K. Bakshi. "How come he has been left alone? Bakshi too was guilty of the same lapses," says a major.

    According to senior army sources, the enquiries have been a deliberate ploy by Gen Malik not to leave any trail of the failures in the conduct of the Kargil war. But in doing so, the COAS has been stoking the smouldering embers of the Kargil controversy. And even in his retirement, the ghost of Operation Vijay will continue to haunt him with Brig Surinder Singh also all set to move the civil courts against attempts to dismiss him.

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