Much after the fighting in Kargil had ended, came press reports that the intrusions happened because the warnings of the Kargil sector Brigade Commander Surinder Singh had been ignored by his superiors. It was said that the brigadier had, in letters to his immediate seniors sent between August 1998 and March this year, informed them of “increased threat perceptions and possibility of incursions” by Pakistan-backed infiltrators across the LoC in Kargil.These include Singh’s communication to the Chief of Army Staff, which stated that his “requests and urgent communication to GoC 3 Infantry Div in view of the enhanced threat perceptions have been turned down in writing”. These revelations caused an uproar in an India going into parliamentary elections, even as the army command refuted the press writings. Maj Gen (retd) Ashok K. Mehta argues that the whole matter was something cooked up by the media.
The villain of Kargil has been made into the hero. The press believes that the army has made Surinder Singh the fall guy, when in reality what the journalists did was to literally put words into the Brigadier’s mouth, fabricating or doctoring letters on his behalf where none existed. It attributed to him the profundity and clairvoyance of predicting the Kargil intrusions.
The Congress party of Sonia Gandhi went one step further saying that Kargil was stage-managed. This is a rather absurd interpretation of the facts at Kargil, but one that is leading to the politicisation of the Indian army.
Anyone familiar with military procedures, chain of command, and the system of processing threat assessments will understand that Singh was at best exaggerating the threat, at worst, missing the woods for the trees. For journalists reporting the Singh episode, some knowledge of operational procedures was essential to sift the wheat from the chaff, especially in the no-war no-peace LoC environment of Jammu and Kashmir.
Equally important is to understand the difference between infiltration and intrusion. For the last 10 years, in its third proxy war in Kashmir, Pakistan has been the post-master of infiltration. Intrusions, on the other hand, although not a routine occurrence, have occurred in areas where delineation of the LoC is disputed or are close to the LoC, but never 10 or 15 km inside Indian territory, and never more than one at a time, and certainly not on the scale demonstrated in Kargil
The customary alarm bells Singh was ringing related to infiltration and infiltration alone. The enhanced threat was sourced from 500 Afghans reportedly training in Gunikote in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir who posed a danger by infiltration through his sector mainly to the Srinagar Valley.
At no stage, ever, either in briefings or wargames, was Singh known to have spelt out an enhanced threat to the LoC of large-scale intrusions and that too, by Pakistani army regulars. In fact, he admitted in his one and only letter of 28 June 1999 to the Chief of Army Staff Gen V.P Malik (who has incidentally said that he has not received the letter quoted in the introduction), that he had no puts whatsoever about the clandestine intrusions carried out by the Pakistani army.
What Singh had been tomtomming was the threat of infiltrators to the Leh road and to his rear areas 50 km away from the LoC in the Padam Valley. When the intrusions did take place in areas under his command, they surprised Singh as much as they did the army chief. No one in the chain of command had anticipated intrusions involving wholesale violation of the LoC, 27 years after it was sanctified. The truth is Pakistan’s operational expertise outfoxed the defensive, laid-back forces in the Kargil sector. The military high command failed to cope with this unexpected contingency because it had not factored it in its operational planning. It cannot be anyone’s case that Singh’s divine warnings were ignored by his superiors to invite Pakistani intrusions.
In view of this, the rest of Singh’s complaints regarding denial of aditional resources become periphral. No professional soldier will accept denial of a helicopter or one company of soldiers or even some winter gear, as an alibi for permiting deepseated intrusions to take place. The elementary question is ‘hat ground surveillance and paolling were the four army and one BSF battalions doing in Kargil? The most bizarre claim is that Singh was refused permission to patrol.
Lessons for all
Singh is not the only villain of Kargil, though only he and one of his battalion commanders were removed from command. This is not unusual but it was avoidable. In the 1962 and 1965 wars, dozens of commanders were relieved of command. Prima facie, Singh’s immediate superior, the Leh divisional commander Maj Gen V.S. Budhwar is also culpable. Budhwar came close to being sacked but as that would have further disturbed the command structure, the idea was dropped. That Budhwar’s name did not figure in the Kargil gallantry list, however, is clear indication that he too was a casualty of war.
Lt Gen Kishan Pal, Corps Commander, the next senior in the chain of command, is also under a cloud as his distinguished service award was not unanimous. His fate, along with that of others, will be determined by the findings of the Subramaniam Committee and the army’s After Action Report. A separate enquiry has now been ordered to investigate the leakage of Singh’s 28 June letter to Gen Malik. No one culpable, hopefully, will escape unpunished.
Singh is not the fall guy. He was removed from command for operational reasons. Sections of the India media have created a myth that the Kargil brigade is a privileged selection grade command. Until the intrusions happened, it was considered the most dormant sector in Kashmir. The only hot-seat brigade in the country is the high-altitude Siachen brigade next door.
As in the case of Vishnu Bhagwat (the voluble Indian navy chief sacked earlier in the year), Singh used and was used in turn by the media and the Congress, each for their own ends. National security interests were subordinated to political expediency. The breach of the Official Secrets Act was blatant. What followed was an infringement on the army’s command structure in the run up to the elections
Kargil has lessons for everyone. As far as politicians are concerned the military must be made out of their bounds. Making intrusions to secure political high ground must be made taboo. The media, for its part, requires to be more discerning in the selection of stories and verification of material. Most of all, the stories must be run past defence analysts who can help eliminate the absurdities and anomalies. Unfortunately, India is a country without trained defence correspondents. Appointing defence experts as consultants could be an interim step while the press builds up its reportorial strength
The biggest lesson is undoubtedly reserved for the military. The army command cannot take the media for granted. Equally, they cannot ignore a Singh-like story simply because they find it ridiculous beyond rebuttal. The army has to devise a strategy to pre-empt, contain and even fight speculative stories. By doing too little too late in repudiating the Singh story, it damaged not only its credibility but also the hierarchcal confidence within it.
If the Kargil war has given the army a new 14 Corps at Leh, in this age of information war, it must modernise its media liaison cell by drawing in professionals. Unfortunately, staffing defence public relations with stuffy babus who understand neither the media nor the military is the intrusion the army has been unable to evict.