Between 4 June and 26 July 1999, I was one of the lucky journalists to have been in the Kargil, Muskoh, Drass, Batalik sectors when the India-Pakistan standoff was on.
Reporting for Outlook, a weekly magazine meant I didn’t write a day-to-day account of the conflict. The absence of a daily deadline meant I could travel little more than my fellow journos and spend time with various fighting units, interacting with brave hearts, understanding their mindsets as they prepared for, fought in and came back from the conflict zone.
The first week of July was a significant turning point in the Kargil conflict.
While peaks around the most imposing height of Tiger Hill were being captured one after the other, the ultimate objective was to gain control of the Tiger Hill.
Below are two reports from that summer–one a prelude to the assault on Tiger Hill and the other on events after its recapture–which signify and attempt to portray the heroics of our brave hearts.
Today–4th July 2012 is the 13th anniversary of the capture of Tiger Hill.
Here’s a small, personal contribution to the reportage of that time, revisited.
“Yeh dil mange more!”
A company commander sent this message to his commanding officer after retaking Point 5140-a vital peak in the Dras sector. The elation and the desire expressed by the officer to carry the task to its completion represents the turning point in this crucial war zone.
Ever since Point 5140 fell on June 20, troops in the Dras sector have had a series of spectacular successes which the commanders are hoping will culminate in the recapture of Tiger Hills. Indeed, after a 45-day battle, only the positions at the very peak, which is the key to taking this range of hills, remains in the enemy’s hands. All other peaks-Point 5100, Point 4700 and Junction-have been freed of the intruders.
Says Col S.V.E. David, deputy commander of the Dras-based 56 Brigade, “The topmost point on Tiger Hills remains the biggest objective. Since it’s a ‘stand-alone’ peak completely dominating the Srinagar-Leh highway, this is the target for us. Once the peak is taken, the highway would be totally free of any concentrated shelling.”
He should know. Ever since 56 Brigade moved here in mid-May, it has been in the line of fire. “Shells have landed on this HQ a number of times,” he says. The evidence is all around-burnt-out barracks, big craters and pieces of tin and bricks strewn around. In fact, till two weeks ago (mid-June), one could not stand at the HQ entrance for fear of being shelled. On June 30, hordes of camera crews, journalists and photographers were being briefed at the entry gate, indicating an improvement in the situation.
And yet, the apparent sense of security remains fragile till Tiger Hills is captured. So why is the peak so vital? For one, its location and height. It’s not the highest peak in the area; at 4,965 metres, it is 75 metres shorter than Point 5140, the tallest peak. But because it stands all alone and rises steeply, ending in a conical shape with no spur or ridgelines on either side, Tiger Hills represents the most difficult target to climb. “Even a small force of 25 to 30 men sitting atop the peak can hold more than a brigade (strength: 3,000 men) at bay,” says Col A.S. Chebbewal of the 8 Mountain Division.
That’s just what has happened. Any attempt to group is easily thwarted by sniper fire. “Our troops have no cover while trying to go up,” says Col David. For over three weeks, troops from various battalions have tried to climb the peak without success. The commanders have changed tack now. Instead of a direct attack, they have cleared adjacent peaks so that the Pakistanis atop the mountains are isolated. Since June 20, the adjacent heights have been cleared one by one but at great cost. At least 25 men, including four officers, have been killed in this action.
National Highway 1A from Srinagar to Leh, which was under constant shelling in this sector, is relatively safer now as all the enemy observation posts on peaks 5100, 4700 and Three Pimples have been retaken. “They can no longer watch the road directly except from Tiger Hills. So the artillery fire is more or less blind,” says Col David.
The traffic is much faster now and the drivers must remain thankful to the men of 2 Rajputana Rifles, 18 Garhwal Rifles and 18 Grenadiers for having made it safer.
For, without the valour of these brave men, the Dras sector would not have been under Indian control. The two-day near-suicidal mission to recapture points 5100, 4700 and Three Pimples as a prelude to the final assault on Tiger Hills is a saga of courage, sacrifice and commitment to the cause that the officers and men of the army have demonstrated. And thereby hangs a tale. On June 26, one of the Pakistani shells landed on the dak bungalow in Dras, destroying the vip suite. This hurt the troops stationed nearby no end and a field commander vowed to recapture the three peaks within 72 hours. Accordingly, a plan for a frontal assault on these heights was charted out. The first attack was on Point 4700.
On the night of June 28, the 2nd battalion of the Rajputana Rifles went into attack mode. The challenge was to climb the rockface on a moonlit night under constant enemy fire. “From the beginning, officers and men knew the dangers involved. The enemy was well-entrenched, perched right at the top and he also knew the importance of holding on to 4700; yet our troops went right ahead,” an officer at Dras recalls.
What followed was the fiercest battle to date in this sector. “Our troops engaged in hand-to-hand combat braving bullets and mortar fire, ultimately reaching the top after a 10-hour intense fight,” an officer says. Although 40 Pakistanis were killed, the casualties on the Indian side were also high. Four officers, two junior commissioned officers and 17 jawans lost their lives in this battle. Equally difficult and costly in human terms was the recapture of Point 5100 and Three Pimples. Questions are now being asked whether a little more planning and patience, like in the battle for Tiger Hills, could have prevented such a massive loss.
No one is willing to hazard a guess as to how long it will take but most officers agree that the recapture of Tiger Hills has become that much more easier. “With the enemy no longer in a position to observe our troop movements, the assault on Tiger Hills will now have an element of surprise. As long as he (the enemy) was occupying points 5100 and 4700, we were in direct line of his observation and firing,” a staff officer revealed.
The final assault on Tiger Hills is on. Three infantry units-the 8 Sikh, 11 Gorkhas and 18 Grenadiers-have taken up positions on three sides of the peak (see infographic). Another crack outfit, the 6 Paras, is being kept in readiness should its services be required. The iaf is pounding the hill almost round-the-clock and choppers are carrying out recce flights. Though three sides have been plugged, at least one supply line from the western ridge close to the Mushkoh valley is still open to the Pakistanis entrenched atop. As a result, Indian field commanders are showing great restraint and planning before sending the troops up the hill.
The recapture of Tiger Hills has indeed posed the biggest headache to the army. As a soldier of 8 Sikh returning to base after a 40-day stay in the higher reaches observed, “The enemy has the edge. He can see us from the top and fire at us the moment we raise our heads from behind a boulder. Then there are the constantly howling icy winds and sub-zero temperatures to contend with.” Naik Mangal Singh, his face darkened after constant exposure to snow and the harsh Ladakh sun, had had to trek 27 km before he and his companions reached the spot below the summit of Tiger Hills where they dug in a month ago. Since then, the 8 Sikh, who were earlier engaged in counter-insurgency operations in the Valley, have been sitting tight awaiting further orders.
Despite all this, the mood among these soldiers is one of determination. “We have been given a task and we will carry it to its conclusion, come what may,” says Gurnam Singh. The Gorkhas and the Grenadiers are equally determined. Both these units have been tightening the noose around Tiger Hills for over 45 days. The final charge may be in the hands of the fresh units like the para-commandos. But once Tiger Hills is captured, it will mark a turning point in the battle for the Dras sector. As Col Chebbewal says, “Once Tiger Hills is taken, we’re sure of the highway being under our control.” Col David agrees: “The fall of Tiger Hills will free us from our greatest worry: ensuring uninterrupted traffic on the national highway.”
The battle for Tiger Hills may be the focus of attention right now, but a victory there is only half the job done. The scenarios in the Mushkoh Valley, west of Tiger Hills, and in the Kaksar-Batalik sector in Kargil are far from comfortable. With at least six battalions of the Pakistani Northern Light Infantry now directly involved in the battle across the LoC in these sectors, the task is that much tougher. Putting any time-frame for the conclusion of operations is therefore not possible, and is indeed foolhardy.
EXAMPLES TO CITE
Accept heartiest congratulations on award of Special Unit Citation in Op. Vijay. Convey well done to all officers, jcos and unit.”
Signed, director-general, Infantry.
Just two simple messages sent to the Commanding Officers of the 18 Grenadier battalion and the 2nd battalion of the Rajputana Rifles, yet they led to several rounds of back-slapping, chest-thumping and celebrations among officers and their men. At the end of four weeks of fierce fighting on the mountains of the Dras sector, the two battalions had returned triumphant. “We were elated,” says an officer of the Grenadiers. “After all, such an honour doesn’t come to a unit very often.”
The fighting capabilities and sheer courage demonstrated by these two units were indeed exceptional. The 18 Grenadiers are the heroes of the battle for Tiger Hills while the 2nd Rajputana Rifles were instrumental in recapturing the crucial Tololing peak on June 12 and the Three Pimples and Black Rock peaks on June 28-29. The story of their valour, commitment and sacrifice will go down in the legions of our history. Paens of praise are already being showered on the units from the top army brass at army headquarters.
The Pole Star battalion, as the 18 Grenadiers are called, is currently manning Tiger Hills. More appropriately, it’s on Cloud Nine. As Major Rajiv Kumar, the unit’s adjutant, says: “We have lived up to the motto of the Grenadiers-Sarvada Shaktishali (always powerful). Among the first two units to get the prestigious Unit Citation awarded by the Chief of the Army Staff, the 18 Grenadiers are a young unit compared to many other battalions in the Indian Army. Raised in ’76, it has achieved excellent results in the past 23 years, its latest the battle for Tiger Hills.
Entrusted with the task of evicting well-entrenched Pakistanis atop the Tiger Hill, the Grenadiers had launched their attack on the night of July 3. Three companies of the unit started climbing the Tiger Hill peak from three different directions. Backed by intense and well-directed artillery fire, the columns advanced through pitch darkness.
Captain Sachin Nimbalkar, commanding the Ghatak (deadly) column, was the first to reach the northeast side of the Tiger top. “On their way up, Sachin’s boys were in direct line of attack from the enemy, but the column kept advancing,” said Maj. Kumar, who heads the administrative camp at the base of Tiger Hill. In the meantime, two other columns climbed the peak from the east and the southeast directions. Despite a fierce counter-attack by the Pakistanis, these columns reached the top by 3.30 am. A terse message sent by Captain Nimbalkar said: “Sir, I am on top.” It was July 4 and Tiger Hills, which had become a sort of a psychological obstacle in the minds of the strategists, was at last in Indian hands.
Reaching the top looked easier in the context of what happened over the next two days. Stung by the reverse, the Pakistanis launched a fierce counter-attack from the western ridge of the Tiger Hill which was still under their possession. It took the personal initiative of the CO, Col Kushal Thakur-who, contrary to practice, went into the thick of the battle-to finally mop up the peak, its surrounding areas and hoist the flag atop the point on July 8. The unit lost eight of its best men but the ultimate objective was won. “Hamein to yeh aasaan laga saheb (we found it easy, sir),” says Naik Sumer Singh, injured in the attack and now recuperating in the base camp. And it was a matter of honour for these men to be cited by the army chief and the top brass. In a way, it was also just desserts for the 18 Grenadiers since they had done similar good work in the battle for Tololing Top where the final assault was given to the 2nd Rajputana Rifles.
One of the oldest infantry units in the Indian Army, the 2nd Rajputana Rifles has a 190-year history backing it. “We were the first Indian unit to get the Victoria Cross under the British,” says its CO, Col M.B. Ravindranath. “There have been several instances of bravery and valour.” And yet, the unit has not encountered a situation where it has lost 50 per cent of its officers as it did in the battles for Tololing and Three Pimples within a period of a fortnight.
Asked to clear Three Pimples, Knoll and Hump peaks, east of the Tiger Hills, as a prelude to the attack on the point, Col Ravindranath sent three columns across a terrain that allowed only two ways to go up. The enemy sat perched well on top, dominating both the routes. Yet, all three columns climbed under consistent artillery and small arms fire. The valour of Capt Neikezhakuo Kenguruse, an intensely religious young Naga man, typifies the indomitable spirit the unit displayed. Says the citation recommending his name for a gallantry award: “Despite being injured in the abdomen and bleeding profusely, the officer kept on approaching the bunkers. At a steep climb, he took off his shoes to get a better grip, scaled the cliff face, fixed the climbing rope and took up a rocket launcher to fire at the enemy bunker. Unmindful of his personal safety, (he) charged on the top and personally killed two men with his rifle and two others with his knife before succumbing to his injuries.”
The unit also recounts with pride the brave act of Naib Subedar Sunayak Singh in holding on to his post for four hours while being vastly outnumbered. “What Sunayak did is the perfect example of what this unit is all about-once given a task, we only know that it has to be done, whatever the cost,” says Col Ravindranath. Sunayak, of course, does not look at it as anything exceptional. “Yeh to hamara farz tha (this was our duty),” he says. In the battle for Three Pimples, Col Ravindranath lost three of his best officers. Still, the officers and men of the 2nd Rajputana Rifles are awaiting fresh orders to get into another battle and live up to its motto-Veer Bhogya Vasundhara (Only the Brave enjoy the fruits of the earth)