The month of July always brings back memories of the summer of 1999 when India experienced a range of emotions—pain, loss, anguish, pride, triumph and military victory—thanks to the young men and their not so young leaders who conducted one of the most famous military campaigns in what, till then, was an obscure place: Kargil. Operation Vijay, the official name of Indian Army’s fierce counter-offensive in the rugged terrain of Ladakh’s Kargil-Drass-Batalik area, is probably the most well-known military operation in independent India’s history.
It is rightly known as the first military conflict that entered Indian drawing and bed rooms, thanks to the then fledgling Indian TV news industry. In subsequent years, many of us in the media have written and reported on the heroes of those days, about the victory achieved by the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force against heavy odds. Kargil, 1999 is by now very well chronicled. So why am I writing this piece?
Because, I finally found time to read what is perhaps THE most authentic and comprehensive account of the Kargil conflict. Lt Gen Mohinder Puri, who commanded the 8 Mountain Division—hastily rushed into Kargil from Kashmir Valley—as a Major General in 1999, waited for than 16 years to pen down his memories and his observation on the conflict that has come to define the Indian Army’s image in the 21st Century. His book Kargil: Turning the Tide, published by Lancer Publishers in 2015 can easily be described as the most intimate account of the Kargil conflict simply because it is written by the man who led the Indian charge in that limited theatre.
Although Gen VP Malik has written a detailed account of Kargil 1999, his was a take as seen from the strategic level. Many others too—soldiers and journalists included—have described what happened in Kargil, but I recommend Gen Puri’s book for the simple fact that his is the on-ground report. While the first nine chapters clarify many doubts that students of recent military history may have had about the conduct of operations, the initial mistakes, the setbacks and the recovery all along the front line, to me the most important part of this book are Chapter No. 10 and 11 titled Principles of War and Reflections, respectively. The entire essence of Operation Vijay is encapsulated in these two chapters and contains many lessons which I am sure, Gen Puri’s successors deployed in this sector have imbibed in the later years.
The 8 Mountain Division, rightly called ‘Forever in Operations’ since it has never had a moments respite after its raising in 1963 (in the north-east), is now entrusted with guarding the entire Kargil-Drass-Batalik frontage of the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan.
Gen Puri has been frank in admitting some of the pitfalls and mistakes that inevitably happen during a hot war but he has also shed light on how innovative tactics—employment of Bofors gun in direct firing role, for instance—helped the Indian troops turn the tide. He also gives due credit to the Indian Air Force and points out that restrictions imposed by the political leadership in not allowing crossing of the LoC, actually created more problems for the air warriors since they did not have enough depth to launch their attacks and instead of approaching the objective from south to north, the air attacks had to launched in east-west direction, restricts the IAF’s options. The Army too suffered because of the restrictions. As a formation commander he wanted limited permission to cross the LoC for purely tactical purpose but the terms were unambiguous. As Gen Puri says: “Exercising…the options to cross the LC would have meant faster operations, lesser casualties without much loss of credibility. It would have shown us as a nation which applies restraint but cannot be pushed around. Wars if thrust upon a country must be fought on enemy’s territory; unfortunately in military terms we failed to achieve this objective.”
That despite this major restriction and many other adverse factors such as difficult terrain, critical equipment shortages and intense public scrutiny, then Maj Gen Mohinder Puri and his officers and men of several units finally evicted the intruders and regained Indian territory , albeit at very heavy cost, cannot be forgotten. As the nation gears up once again to celebrate the anniversary of the Kargil victory later this month, those interested in what actually happened in those summer weeks in a remote border area 17 years ago, must get hold of Gen Puri’s honest account of the Kargil conflict, if only to understand what it takes to stake your life to protect the nation.