Beyond failure of military intelligence, Kargil represents New Delhi’s intellectual bankruptcy. A Ladakhi scholar in New Delhi provides a different perspective.
The Pakistani intrusion in Kargil has a ring of déjà vu about it. Back in 1948, it was also on 9 May that the Pakistani Ibex and Eskimo Forces had captured Kargil and Drass. They advanced towards Leh before being pushed back with the onset of winter.
Later, in 1962, when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army marched into Ladakh’s eastern flank, an incompetently-led and ill-equipped Indian army was taken by surprise. At that time, too, the issue of intelligence failure had been raised. It was only after strong international condemnation that the Chinese troops withdrew to positions north of the MacMahon Line. A repeat of this situation is likely now on the Line of Control.
One question that will not go away is, why does Indian territory get constantly encroached upon, and why does its military habitually get caught napping? Since the 13th century, Kargil has been a strategic point for invading and defending armies alike. It is uniquely placed at a junction that
opens up onto four valleys (Drass-Suru- Wakha-Indus). While the Tibetan name for Kargil seems to refer to kar (white) and akhil (location/place), it is alternately spelt as gar-gil, meaning “cross-junction”, signifying a location at the cross-point between Skardu-Leh and Kashgar-Srinagar.
The Pakistani military has always considered Kargil a vital funnel for operations into Ladakh. Their three-pronged strategy this time was to cut off Drass and Kargil from Leh and Srinagar, before the snow melted on the Zoji-la Pass. Then they wanted to enter the Indus Valley through Batalik and Chorbat-la to capture areas up to Khaltse, and get to Shyok Valley to recapture 254 sq miles of Turtuk. The Pakistani army may well have accomplished their objectives but for the early opening
of the Zoji-la due to unexpectedly less winter snowfall.
Pakistan has been eyeing Ladakh for a number of years, primarily to regain areas it lost to India in the 1971 war. However, it faced two difficulties. First, unlike Kashmir Valley, Ladakh was not ripe for an Islamic revolution, though efforts had been made to communalise the region through subversive means. Secondly, the rugged treeless topography is not favourable for guerrilla operations. Pakistan has therefore resorted to occasional but heavy artillery shelling in Kargil since the summer of 1997, in order to scare the locals away from the high ridges.
This tactic seems to have helped the Pakistani side significantly through the undermining of Indian intelligence gathering. There had been a gradual decline in human activity even in the summer in the high pastures abandoned by nomads. The overall objective may have been to disrupt communications, destroy supply dumps and gain the aid of the local populace in a general uprising.
New Delhi’s assessment has always been that the area along the frontier with Baltistan is not prone to infiltration and subversions. On the surface it does appear that the Shia Purig-pa and Wahabi Shias of Ladakh would be averse to the Pakistani gameplan, but it is nevertheless clear that the Pakistanis had a well thought-out plan for an Islamic uprising in Ladakh.
It has not helped that India committed a blunder back in 1979 when a separate administrative zone of a Muslim-majority Kargil was carved out of a Buddhist-dominated Ladakh. In the short term, this may have succeeded in undercutting Ladakh’s demands for greater autonomy, but by the early 1990s, the Shias of Kargil were refusing to play by New Delhi’s book. They not only refused to support the Union Territory status for Ladakh but also rejected the offer of Autonomous Hill Council status. This seems to have been essentially to mark solidarity with the Kashmiri cause. The Kargil crisis thus seems to hark back to intellectual shortsightedness of some years previously.
Without doubt, there were flaws in India’s military command and deployment strategy as well. To have left the entire stretch of over 75 km of a vulnerable border to a lone brigade in Kargil was a mistake, especially since the Pakistani threats to Ladakh had become clear since 1997. By intruding into Kargil, Pakistan has opened a new front vis-a-vis India: militarily, it wants to control the high ground, and politically, it wants to widen the scope of the Kashmir conflict on the ground.
Pakistan also has an ideological agenda that looks beyond Kargil into China’s Xinjiang province as well. The attempt by Pakistan-based Islamic militant outfits to penetrate western China has been known to be foiled by the Central Asian states, especially Uzbekistan, which threatened Islamabad with severe consequences should it try to push its Islamic agenda beyond Afghanistan. There are reports that hundreds of Chinese Uighur militants trained by the Jamaat-e-Islami and Tablik-e-Jamaat are stranded in Pakistan due to China’s strict vigilance. The possibility of militants looking for a passage via Kargil into Xinjiang cannot be ruled out.
It is quite clear that New Delhi’s policies in Ladakh have contributed to Pakis-tan’s strategic designs. New Delhi’s myopic bifurcation of Ladakh on communal grounds and its policy of giving a free hand to Srinagar to deal with Ladakh affairs have disturbing implications for national security.
Correcting these mistakes may not be easy, as Pakistan has shown its capacity in the present conflict to sustain high-altitude guerrilla warfare tactics. If India is serious about defending Ladakh, it will have to reshape its policy, both by a hearts-and-minds programme among Ladakhis, and by gearing up military preparedness and beefing up the local militia, the Ladakh Scouts. This can only be done if Ladakhi infantry units are conferred with regimental status. India can perhaps live with its Kashmir problem, but further neglect of Ladakh may be suicidal.