Thursday, August 6, 2009

Kargil - as I remember it


The Tenth Anniversary of the victory in “Kargil War” somehow got soggy in controversy. Instead of commemorating a crisp, well-fought and spectacular victory achieved at great human costs against the Pakistani intruders on the snowy heights of Ladakh, India’s northern-most territory, the ruling coalition in India headed by the Indian National Congress quite unwisely happened to politicise it. Reckoning it as a war that was fought and won by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), now occupying the Opposition benches in the Parliament, it attempted to downplay the Anniversary. That the (surreptitious) diabolical Pakistani incursions through the icecaps of the Himalayan heights posed a great threat to the nation and its integrity happened to be coolly overlooked. But for the hype created by the Defence Forces, the media and sundry patriotic pockets in the country the ruling party at the Centre, in a display of uncamouflaged ingratitude to the guardians of our frontiers, had almost succeeded in giving the Anniversary a miss. It was virtually at the last moment that the Prime Minister seems to have decided to go and lay a wreath at the Martyr’s Memorial at the India Gate on 26th July, the date on which ten years ago Indian defence forces wrested back the last of the territories occupied by the Pakistani invaders.

Those who have not been to Ladakh may not be able to fully appreciate the significance of the Indian victory. A plateau with an average elevation of around 10,000 ft (about 3000 mts.) with most of the surrounding mountains above the snowline, Ladakh is an arid mountainous region of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) spanning the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges and the Upper Indus valley. In those rarefied heights where normal activities for a plainsman are a torture, waging a war would seem to be an impossible proposition. Known for its rugged beauty and quaint culture, it has now become a tourism hotspot.

I happened to visit Ladakh more than 40 years ago when it was still a restricted area. Outsiders were not allowed to enter without a permit. I, too, had to obtain one even though I was in the service of the Government of India. So, one beautiful September morning I left Srinagar, the capital of J&K, wangling a ride with an Army Signals major in his jeep proceeding to Leh as a part of an Army convoy, the then district headquarters of Ladakh. With a brief halt in the green and captivating Baltal valley, which now seems has been sacrificed at the altar of religious tourism, we laboured up the highway to the famed Zoji- la, the Pass on to which Gen Thimayya of the Indian Army, in a brilliant tactical move, had hauled Light Stuart Tanks to surprise the Pakistani intruders in 1948.

Once we crossed the 11575 ft high Zoji-la, the landscape underwent a dramatic change. Gone were the green Kashmir conifers covering the sides of the mountains and green grass over the meadows. It was now a series of rugged, bare seemingly inhospitable mountains with an occasional trickle of a stream in the plunging depths of the valleys, and the highway, arcing along the contours of the rocky mountainside, climbed up or went down in loops to cross over to interminable series of naked mountains. We travelled sometimes metres away from the Cease Fire Line, which post-1971 became the Line of Control (LOC),that was violated through 1998-99 precipitating the Kargil War. Stopping for coffee at Drass, reputed to be the second coldest inhabited place in the world and overlooked by Pakistanis occupying the heights on its north, we headed down the same highway that Pakistan attempted to cut off in 1998 to disrupt the logistics of Ladakh.

On our way up we stayed only for a while in Kargil. The local Brigadier was hosting a delegation of members of parliament to a lunch on the banks of the Suru River that flows through the town. We, too, were made to join in. It was a lovely setting by the side of the narrow stream in the generous shade of low hanging trees, a rare luxury in the midst of the surrounding dryness, coupled with the lavish Indian Army fare laid out.

However, the severity of the conditions in which the Army had to function became apparent a few miles away as we came upon a bridge guarded by three soldiers, two on one side and one on the other. With no habitation for miles around, they were by themselves for weeks without a change of scene. With several such crucial points to guard lonesomeness of the soldiers could only be imagined.

On our way back from Leh, as we rolled down from the heights of Fatu-la, at around 13700 the highest pass on this highway, we skirted what looked like a tallish hillock only to discern in the half light a huge a settlement down below. It was the Indian Army brigade at Kargil sprawled a few hundred feet below on a huge flat ground so unlikely in the hilly surroundings. Looking at it from that elevation one could imagine what medieval army encampments would have seemed like at dusk. Several thin wisps of smoke rising up in the air, scattered blinking lights and stray men moving around, almost ant-like, consummated the scene.

Back then Kargil was a small village, dusty, dirty and so dry that the cracked lips made smiling a painful exercise. With around a dozen shops, it was mostly dependent on the Army for supplies and provisions. It has now grown out of all proportions, more so because of the “War-tourism”. The “Kargil War”, somewhat like the Kuwaiti War, was a highly televised war bringing it to the bedrooms across India, raising among the people a curiosity about those rugged heights where the soldiers bravely fought, gave their lives and yet won the “War” for them. No wonder, the benefits of tourism, now a thriving industry, have trickled down giving the place, I am told, a prosperous appearance. One improbable blessing of the “War”!

It was during the day that I happened to realise that what had looked like a tallish hillock the previous evening was a tall, well-shaped mountain dominating the town. Known by its elevation as “13620” it had a forbidding presence and, worse, its heights were occupied by the Pakistanis who could watch every move of the supremely vulnerable brigade down below. Dislodged from it during the 1965 War, it was handed back to them as a sequel to the Tashkent Agreement. The Major, who had won it for the country, it seems, wept like a child when he heard of the hand-over. He had lost many of his brave men who, fearlessly facing enemy bullets, struggled up the feature and clawing their way up inch by inch. A strategic gain, achieved with super-human effort and endurance and at the cost of fresh young blood, was given up on the negotiating table! That dark sinister-looking mountain, as I saw it sitting out on the grounds in front of the Signals Mess, has remained so deeply imprinted on my psyche that the intervening forty-odd years have not been able to wash it away.

The 1999 “War” along the heights from Drass to Kargil would have been, if anything, fiercer. Having seen Kargil with the malefic “13620” towering over it, I wonder how a government can play politics with the sacrifices of the cream of the country’s youth. Surely, people wouldn’t allow it, as the courage, fortitude and the spirit of sacrifice displayed at Drass or Tiger Hill or Tololing are now the very stuff of the nation’s military folklore. Deeply embedded in the nation’s consciousness, efforts to dislodge them would be a futile exercise.