Operation Vijay, popularly known as the Kargil war today, was fought between May-July, 1999, and was the last major military conflict fought between India and Pakistan. Though it was not a declared war, the conflict ended in victory, with India recapturing most of the territories occupied by Pakistan initially. In the course of the conflict, the Indian Armed Forces worked together seamlessly to produce a resounding victory for the nation. The endeavours of the Indian Army deserve remembrance and celebration today, because, exactly twenty four years ago, they altered the course of this historic conflict for the better at the battle of Tiger Hill.
The surrender of Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war left her humiliated. Thereafter, there were few armed conflicts between India and Pakistan for a long stretch of time other than the skirmishes for the Siachen glacier in the 1980s. The relations between the two countries seemed stable and mostly peaceful for a long time.
However, the situation escalated in the 1990s with the surge of Islamic extremism in Kashmir. Pakistan was rightly accused of funding, training and sneaking some of the extremists into the region, while India was accused of illegal occupation of Kashmir and human rights violations. The relations between the two countries declined further with both of them testing their nuclear war capabilities in the late 90s. The Lahore declaration was signed in February 1999 to cool off relations between India and Pakistan, but the stage was already set for conflict.
The seeds are sown
The Indian Army guards and occupies some of the highest manned posts in the world. Several of these posts are located atop mountains thousands of metres high in the Ladakh region, where conditions even in the summers are harsh and frigid – temperatures can drop below zero on what is supposed to be a warm summer day. Hence, understandably, these posts are vacated during the winter due to extreme conditions.
It was in one such winter, the winter of 1998-’99, that Pakistan decided to take matters into her hands. Thus began Operation Badr, a brainchild of the Pakistan army. The operation involved training soldiers and officers of the Pakistani army to infiltrate and occupy the vacated posts of Ladakh- all when disguised as Mujahids.
Besides gaining the strategic advantages of occupying these posts, Pakistan also wanted to draw international attention toward the Kashmir issue by sparking a widespread conflict between the ‘mujahids’ and the Indian Armed Forces. However, their bluff was called after Pakistan military ID cards were found, marking the beginning of an unofficial war.
Strategic importance of Tiger Hill
Tiger Hill is located in Drass, known for its cold, arid and unforgiving climate and ragged, rocky terrain dotted with magnificent mountains. Tiger Hill, with an altitude of 5062 metres, is the highest point in the Kargil sector of Ladakh. It has great strategic importance, overlooking National Highway 1A, which connects Srinagar and Kargil. As a result, any enemy atop the mountain would be in an advantageous position- capable of disrupting movement on the highway using artillery. Besides, the headquarters of the Indian Army’s 56 Brigade, the main Indian unit that operates in the area, is also clearly visible from tiger hill, enabling the enemy to study and understand the movements of Indian troops with great clarity.
It was in late May that it was discovered that Tiger Hill was occupied by Pakistani forces- namely the 12 Northern Light Infantry supported by the Special Services Group- Pakistan’s elite Special Forces unit, the artillery and engineers. The 8 Sikh regiment had, on several occasions, tried to mount attacks on Tiger Hill, but they were unsuccessful in the venture, owing to physical weakness due to lack of acclimatisation.
On 15 June, Brigadier MPS Bajwa, commander of the 192 Mountain Brigade, was ordered to relocate the brigade headquarters from Kashmir to Drass. He commanded the 8 Sikh, 18 Grenadiers, 2 Naga, and 13 J&K Rifles battalions. The soldiers were given time to acclimatise and train. Besides, 18 Grenadiers had helped to win Tololing, and were high on experience and confidence.
The Battle of Tiger Hill
At 2000 hours on the third of July, the Indian advance began. Major Rathore of the 18 Grenadiers led his men of the Alpha Company toward their designated region and captured it, but were unable to move forward.
Simultaneously, Lt Balwan Singh, who was commanding the Ghatak commando platoon, went deep into enemy occupation, coming close to the summit of Tiger Hill. However, they were pushed back and joined the Delta company in safety. Heavy artillery firing continued to eat at the enemy troops, but the infantry were pushed back.
However, the attack resumed soon. The Delta company, accompanied by the Ghatak commando platoon, ascended a vertical ice wall of a thousand metres while braving freezing rain and reached the peak, taking the enemy by surprise. Subedar Yogendra Singh Yadav and five others led the assault. Only Subedar Yadav survived amongst the six, prompting Captain Nimbalkar, leading the Delta company, to launch another attack. His men reached the top stealthily and took the enemy soldiers by surprise. Fierce fighting ensued till 0400 hours. They captured the first seven-eight bunkers atop tiger hill in quick succession.
The Ghatak platoon and grenadiers took the entire summit of Tiger Hill. However, they were still being attacked from a Westward position occupied by the Pakistan Army. This position was soon cleared by 8 Sikh.
Finally, at 0730 hours on the fourth of July, General Puri, the commander of the 8 Mountain Division, informed Gen VP Malik, the Chief of Army Staff at the time, that the enemy would not be able to dispatch the grenadiers from atop the hill.
Subedar Yogendra Singh Yadav
Subedar Yadav, nineteen years old at the time, was enlisted with 18 Grenadiers. Subedar Yadav was a part of the team that climbed the 1000 m vertical cliff via the northeastern approach to the top of Tiger Hill and won the Param Vir Chakra, the highest wartime gallantry award for his courage. The following is from his Param Vir Chakra citation-
Grenadier Yogendra Singh Yadav was part of the leading team of Ghatak Platoon tasked to capture Tiger Hill on the night of 3/4 July 1999. The approach to the top was steep, snow bound and rocky. Grenadier Yogendra Singh Yadav, unmindful of the risk involved, volunteered to be in the lead and fixed rope of his team to climb up. On seeing the team, the enemy opened intense automatic grenade, rocket and artillery fire killing the commander and two of his colleagues and the platoon was stalled. Realising the gravity of the situation, Grenadier Yadav crawled up to the enemy position to silence it and in the process sustained multiple injuries. Unmindful of his injuries and in the hail of enemy bullets, Grenadier Yadav continued climbing towards the enemy positions. Lobbing grenades and continuously firing from his weapon, he killed four enemy soldiers in close combat and silenced the automatic fire. Despite multiple injuries, he refused to be evacuated and continued the charge. Inspired by his gallant act, the platoon charged on to the other positions with renewed punch and captured Tiger Hill Top.
Grenadier Yogendra Singh Yadav displayed the most conspicuous courage, indomitable gallantry, grit and determination under extreme adverse circumstances.
Aftermath and legacy
The Battle of Tiger Hill would change the course of the Kargil war. Tiger Hill was a point of great strategic significance, the capture of which greatly boosted the morale of the Indian Forces. Besides, since Tiger Hill looked over the important NH 1A, the capture of the mountain greatly enhanced the logistical operations of the Indian Army. The Kargil War ended later, on the 26 of July, when victory was declared against the Pakistan army after three months of fighting. The Battle of Tiger Hill remains one of the most important and impressive battles in India’s recent history. The heroes of Tiger Hill will be remembered forever for their valiant and resilient actions.