Remembering Kargil for the wrong reasons

The nation on Wednesday remembered the martyrs and celebrated the Kargil Vijay Divas. The day, however, also revives memories which are not uplifting

Photo courtesy: Facebook
Photo courtesy: Facebook

Uttam Sengupta

Socialites of Lucknow would converge every evening at the Central Command Hospital in the cantonment with bouquets, fruits and sweets, followed closely by TV crews and newspaper reporters. The ladies and the men accompanying them would be there to express a nation’s gratitude to the injured soldiers who survived the battle at Kargil and were rushed to the Command Hospital at Lucknow for surgery, recovery and further treatment.

Every evening, the soldiers would tell the ladies and the cameras, amidst flashing bulbs and applause, that they were looking forward to rejoin the battle and teach the ‘dushman’ a lesson as early as possible. One day I mentioned to an Army officer that the men seemed to be in remarkably high spirit, considering many of them had escaped death by a whisker. He nodded, smiled but said nothing.

Long after the Kargil War, I met the officer again and this time he recalled my comment and laughed. Nobody in the Army, he assured me, looked forward to a real war. With bullets flying and the deafening sound of explosions around you, he added, the men had no time to even think clearly. War, he told me, was not glamorous. “You remember the soldiers who would tell visitors that they were longing to get back to the battle? Every evening after the visitors and the media left, they would plead against discharge any time soon,” he commented with a sardonic smile.

Kargil was also the time when a group of Military Intelligence (MI) officers got in touch. They wanted to speak but wanted an assurance that their identity would remain a secret. We had several meetings outside the office and they had a fascinating story to tell. Kargil was blamed squarely on the failure of Military Intelligence, which failed to sound an alert when Pakistani troops occupied the posts abandoned by Indians at higher altitudes.

The MI guys confided that because they moved around in civilian clothes, had secret funds to give informers and because they were free to come and leave as they pleased, others in the Regiment held them with barely concealed scorn and jealousy. On top of that, they claimed, they reported directly to the Army headquarters and not to the Brigadier or the Colonel of the Regiment on the ground.

All that changed in the year before Kargil, they claimed. MI officials were asked to report to the commander of the local units they were attached with. And many of them were promptly given canteen duty and asked to look after procurement, storage and transport of provisions. Some were asked to supervise the kitchen. One MI officer earlier had a jurisdiction, say, across 50 or a 100 kilometres with his own band of informers. But now with many of these officers withdrawn into the barracks for canteen duty and fewer MI officials on the job, the network of informers went into complete disarray.

What’s more, unlike earlier times, they confided, the MI was asked to take approval of the unit commander every time the MI wanted to pay the informers. Permission was often delayed and sometimes denied. This also put off the informers, who stopped passing information.

I remember one of the MI officials telling me, “Earlier we would report on the commanding officers as well, about their corruption, dealing with their men and socialising with outsiders. But in the months preceding Kargil, the commanding officers sought to derive pleasure by humiliating the MI operatives.”

Several Army officers I spoke to at the time had confirmed the narrative. They also said that though it was then a practice to abandon posts at high altitude in winter, Army patrols were regularly sent out to look at the posts and report back. Why the patrols also failed to detect movement of the Pakistan Army, they said with a knowing smile, was anybody’s guess.

I also remember Kargil for the large number of young Army officers and jawans killed in the operation. They paid the penalty for the lapses of their seniors. And 1998-99 was again the first time when I found serving Army officers giving political statements to the media and emphasising the need to teach Pakistan a lesson.

It was a sad, tragic and an eminently avoidable war. While the Army and the nationalists celebrate the Kargil Vijay Divas today, I remember Kargil for the wrong reasons.

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