The Kargil Conflict of 1999 is one of India’s most prominent military victories. The conflict not only established Indian hegemony in the Kargil sector but also displayed the readiness and courage of the Indian troops in protecting the territorial integrity of the nation. Kargil Vijay Diwas, observed every year on the twenty-sixth of July, commemorates the end of the conflict and is a day to remember and exalt the noble acts of the Indian Armed forces in the Kargil conflict against Pakistan.
The stage is set
Before Kargil, India and Pakistan had fought three wars against Pakistan- the Independence War in 1947, the war in 1965 and the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Post the Bangladesh liberation war, relations between the two countries seemed to cool off. There were no conflicts for nearly thirty years before Kargil, except for the skirmishes in Siachen in the 1980s.
It was in the 1990s that relations between the two countries began to deteriorate. With the worsening of Kashmiri separatism and insurgency and with India and Pakistan’s respective nuclear tests, hostility blossomed. The two countries signed the Lahore to defuse the situation in February 1999, but the damage was done. They were heading toward conflict.
The Indian Army occupies and guards some of the highest manned posts in the world in the Kargil sector, with several crossing five thousand metres altitude. The conditions here are harsh and frigid even in the summers, let alone the winters. Indian troops vacate their posts during the bitter winters, when temperatures plummet far below freezing temperature, making it impossible for humans to survive for long periods. As the snows thaw at the end of the winter, the troops return to the posts, guarding them till the next winter takes over their duties.
The Kargil sector is of great strategic importance. National Highway 1, Leh’s lifeline and a major transport route for the Indian Army, passes through the region. Many of the high-altitude posts here overlook the highway, and control of these posts would mean practical control over it, for one could disturb any movement with artillery firing.
Taking note of the empty bunkers in Kargil during the winters,, Pakistan hatched a shrewd plan- to occupy and fortify their positions in these vacated Indian bunkers in Kargil during the winter of 1998-99, while disguised as militants. This ambitious mission was Christened ‘Operation Badr’.
Thus, elite Pakistani Special forces troops from the SSG or the Special Services Group of the Pakistan Army and a few battalions of the Northern Light Infantry, a Pakistani paramilitary force, occupied over a hundred posts in Kargil after infiltrating into Indian territory through the Line of Control, either under the cover of artillery firing or because of the absence of guards on the Indian side.
Captain Saurabh Kalia
Based on a tipoff from a local shepherd, Captain Saurabh Kalia of the 4th Battalion of the Jat regiment went on a regular patrol to follow up on the information about the infiltrators in mid-may. This resulted in a firefight with Pakistani rangers, who soon surrounded and captured Capt Kalia and his team when they ran out of ammunition. Following their capture, they were tortured barbarically to death for twenty-two days in Pakistan. Their bodies were later over to the Indian army, which were mutilated beyond recognition. Captain Kalia’s family even stated that they could not recognise his body. The Indian government served a notice to the government of Pakistan on the grounds of violations of the Geneva Convention which dictated the humane treatment of Prisoners of War, but nothing has been done.
Pakistan has since denied the torture of Captain Kalia and his men several times. However, Captain Kalia’s father has persistently been campaigning for justice. He has approached many international organisations, the Indian government and allies, but in vain. He continues to fight for his son even today.
After this incident and a few other encounters with the Pakistani rangers, the Indian Army understood that these were not militants but the soldiers of the Pakistan Army. The government of India then responded to Operation Badr with Operation Vijay to push back the infiltrators, mobilising over 200,000 troops.
What followed was a series of fierce battles in the frigid slopes and peaks of Kargil. Braving low temperatures and despite facing an enemy with an overwhelming geographical advantage, the Indian Army pushed back the infiltrators and got Kargil back into Indian hands. The stories of courage, sacrifices and even humanity in the battles of the conflict should be remembered for eternity.
The Battle of Tololing
Tololing was one of the most important positions occupied by the Pakistani troops. It overlooked the Srinagar-Leh Highway, blocked by the Pakistanis with heavy artillery firing.
The Battle of Tololing was one of the fiercest battles fought in the conflict. For over three weeks, 18 Grenadiers and 2 Rajputana Rifles of the Indian Army adapted and improvised to the changing challenges of the rough terrain and fought resiliently. The final assault was mounted in the late hours of June 12 by a team led by Major Vivek Gupta. Ascending the jagged, difficult terrain, the team fought valiantly and hoisted the tricolour in the early hours of June 13. However, the price paid was high. Major Gupta and ten others were martyred during the final assault, and during the course of the three-week battle, a total of sixty-six soldiers and officers laid down their lives.
Tololing was an important feature, the capture of which changed the tide for the Indian side. High on Josh from the victory, 18 Grenadiers went on to play a crucial role in the battle of Tiger Hill, another pivotal Indian victory in the conflict.
The Battle of Tiger Hill
Tiger Hill is another crucial feature in Kargil. Standing at an imposing 5307 metres, it too, overlooks the Sringar-Leh highway.
In late May, the Indian Army discovered that Tiger Hill was occupied by Pakistan’s forces- including the elite SSG and artillery.The 8 Sikh infantry of the Indian Army had tried to clear the position but had failed to do so because of bodily weakness due to a lack of acclimatisation.
In mid June, soldiers from 18 Grenadiers, the Ghatak commando group and 8 Sikh regiment were called to Dras to acclimatise and train. Finally, at 2000 hours on July 3, the final Indian advance to capture Tiger Hill began. In the initial assault, heavy artillery firing from the Indian side ate at the enemy troops, but the Indians were pushed back. However, the attack resumed soon.
The Delta company of the Indian side, consisting of the men of 18 Grenadiers and accompanied by a 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 an attack from the rest of the men. Subedar Yadav would go on to win the Param Vir Chakra, the highest wartime gallantry award. He is the youngest recipient of the award, at just nineteen years old.
The Ghatak platoon and Grenadiers summoned all their strength despite the freezing conditions and captured the entire summit of Tiger Hill. 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.
Operation Safed Sagar
Operation Safed Sagar was launched by the Indian Air Force, complementing Operation Vijay. While only a limited role of the Air Force was permitted, it proved exceedingly efficient in its duties. The Air force had begun contributing to the Indian victory even before the discovery of Pakistan’s troops- IAF fighters had been carrying out reconnaissance operations in the sector, giving the Army crucial information about the positions of the enemy. As the conflict advanced, they took on several roles, including attack and reconnaissance missions. IAF helicopters and transport aircraft also played a crucial role, providing rations and necessary goods to Indian soldiers on the frontline. They also evacuated hundreds, if not thousands, of Indian soldiers, giving them life-saving medical attention in time. Without the Air Force, the price paid for the victory would have been even higher or perhaps, it would not have been possible.
The Kargil conflict is usually regarded as a conflict that was fought on land by the Indian Army, supported by the Air Force. However, the Indian Navy silently contributed to the Indian victory too.
The Indian Navy, in the summer of 1999, began their routine summer exercise, called ‘Summerex’. However, this year, something had changed. Usually held in the Bay of Bengal, it was now shifted to the Arabian Sea, close to Pakistan’s waters. As it progressed, the Indian Navy, seven times the strength of Pakistan’s fleet, had gotten bolder. The assets of the Navy were all equipped with actual wartime missiles and directed toward Karachi, ready to bomb in the case of a single suspicious movement. Practically, Indian naval assets had blockaded the Karachi port.
India’s blockade of Karachi proved highly effective. Cornered, the Pakistan Navy shifted its assets from Karachi and any Pakistani ships remaining were told to stay put. The Indian Navy also constricted Pakistan’s trade, leaving Pakistan, at a point, with only six days’ worth of fuel, according to Nawaz Sharif, the Prime minister of Pakistan at the time. This operation was called ‘Operation Talwar’.
The conflict ends
On 4 July, following the victory on Tiger Hill, the prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, agreed to withdraw the Pakistani forces. However, some of them chose to fight on. India pressed on the assault until the remaining forces, concentrated in the Drass subsector, were flushed out. The fighting finally ended on July 26, known today as Kargil Vijay Diwas.
Param Vir Chakra
The Kargil conflict brought to light many heroes of the Indian Armed Forces. The stories of the Param Vir Chakra awardees, winners of the nation’s highest military honour, are some of the most stirring tales of bravery. The write ups are abridged/ unabridged versions of their Param Vir Chakra award citations.
Captain Vikram Batra
Captain Batra of the 13 J&K rifles led his unit up to Point 5140, a crucial feature in the Drass subsector of Kargil. He surprised the enemy by climbing up a difficult route and killed four men in hand to hand combat. The point was captured due to his quick thinking and leadership abilities.
On July 8, his company was tasked with capturing Point 4875, a narrow feature with sharp ridges, extremely difficult to climb. Captain Batra attacked from a narrow ridge, and the enemy was taken by surprise. In the fierce hand to hand combat that ensued, Captain Batra killed five soldiers. He was, however, gravely injured, but still lobbed grenades into enemy positions while leading his men. Captain Batra gave up his life in the battle, but his initiative and valour played a pivotal role in capturing point 4875.
Lieutenant Manoj Pandey
Lt Manoj Pandey of the 7 Gorkha rifles took part in a number of operations in Operation Vijay. One of these operations was the advance toward Khalubar, when he was the commander of his platoon. Late in the night of July 2, his platoon came under severe enemy fire as they were approaching Khalubar. Lt Pandey moved his platoon to a safe and advantageous position, and began leading his men and attacking two enemy positions in succession, killing four enemy soldiers. As he assaulted the third, he was hit by bullets on his shoulders and legs, but led his men, undaunted, to the fourth position, when he was hit by machine guns on his forehead. Despite this, while breathing his last, he hauled a grenade into the fourth position occupied by the enemy and destroyed it.
Subedar Major Yogendra Singh Yadav
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.
Rifleman Sanjay Kumar
Rifleman Sanjay Kumar volunteered to be the leading scout of the attacking column tasked to capture the Flat Top of Point 4875 in the Mushkoh Valley on 4 July 1999. During the attack when enemy automatic fire from one of the sangars posed stiff opposition and stalled the column, Rifleman Sanjay Kumar, realising the gravity of the situation and with utter disregard to his personal safety, charged at the enemy. In the ensuing hand-to-hand combat, he killed three of the intruders and was himself seriously injured. Despite his injuries, he charged onto the second bunker. Taken totally by surprise, the enemy left behind a Universal Machine Gun and started running.
Rifleman Sanjay Kumar picked up the UMG and killed the fleeing enemy. Although bleeding profusely, he refused to be evacuated. The brave action on his part motivated his comrades and they took no notice of the treacherous terrain and charged onto the enemy and wrested the area Flat Top from the hands of the enemy.
Rifleman Sanjay Kumar displayed conspicuous gallantry, cool courage and devotion to duty of an exceptionally high order in the face of the enemy.
The Kargil conflict produced four Param Vir Chakra, eleven Maha Vir Chakra and 1327 Vir Chakra awardees. Over five hundred soldiers were martyred in the conflict. The names of many are lost in the annals of time, but their sacrifices are just as important as those of the ones we honour the most.
The Kargil conflict was one of the most brutally fought in recent history, and the first ever between two nuclear nations. The arduous conditions produced heroes whose exploits continue to inspire us even today – heroes who did the unthinkable, who did what needed to be done. War is nothing to be romanticised – soldiers work in extremely unhygienic and dangerous conditions while fighting hypoxia, memory loss, depression and impending oedema in the high altitude terrain. In addition to the medical challenges, there exists the possibility of dying the very next moment by stepping on an enemy mine or by getting shot by an enemy bullet, if not in a million other possible ways. However, they still see it through and deliver for the nation. This is a day to honour the sacrifices and resilience of these brave-hearts who protect the nation, come what may.