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A Prime Minister to Remember: Memories of a Military Chief
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A Prime Minister to Remember: Memories of a Military Chief

Sushil Kumar

Admiral Sushil Kumar

Two excerpts from the book will be published here.

The book will be released by three former Chiefs of the Defence Forces—General Ved Malik, Air Chief Marshal Anil Tipnis and the author—in New Delhi on
Friday, 28 June 2019. The book is published by Konark Publishers Pvt
Ltd, New Delhi.

About the Book

‘Old Soldiers never die...’ are the lyrics from a wartime ballad and this will perhaps be the lasting memory for several military personnel who served with the late Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. His legendary greatness was showcased in the accolades he received on his demise in August 2018. These were glowing tributes from across the political spectrum of India. However, what remained unsaid was the huge impact that Prime Minister Vajpayee had on the armed forces of India. That void has now been filled by this authentic first-hand account, by a Military Chief who served with Prime Minister Vajpayee from 1998 to 2001. Admiral Sushil Kumar was Chief of the Indian Navy during the Kargil War and Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee when Operation Parakram was launched after the terror attack on the Indian Parliament.

The book is about the huge impact that the late Prime Minister Vajpayee had on the armed forces of India. Author Sushil Kumarwas the Chief of the Indian Navy during the Kargil War and Chairman ofthe Chiefs of Staff Committee when Operation Parakram was launchedafter the terror attack on the Indian Parliament.

About the Author: ADMIRAL SUSHIL KUMAR was Chief of the Indian Navy
and was concurrently appointed Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee of the armed forces. The Admiral served with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee from 1998 to 2001 during challenging times that included the Kargil War, hijacking of IC 814 and Operation Parakram following the terror attack on the Parliament. The Admiral remains an ardent admirer of the late Prime Minister Vajpayee. Apart from his distinguished career in the Indian Navy, the Admiral has been an accomplished horseman and his passion for polo remained even as he pursued his professional career in the navy. As a sailor, he has the rare distinction of having played polo on the international circuit.

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A Prime Minister To Remember
Chapter 1 [Excerpt 1]

The Spring of 1999: Kargil Begins

When the history of the Kargil war is finally recorded and analysed, future generations will realise the huge impact of Prime Minister Vajpayee on the conduct of this war and how he projected the armed forces as an instrument of state power. It was a classical lesson in the art of statecraft. How it all began… It was in the spring of 1999 that it all began and I recall this initial phase quite clearly as I was officiating as the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) since Army Chief General Ved Malik was abroad on an assignment. The reports that first came in were quite vague and hazy. They alluded to stray incidents along the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, such as a report that an Indian army patrol that had not returned from a survey and how shepherds had seen suspicious-looking strangers on our side of the LoC. Despite the uncertain information, Vice Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Chandrashekhar was understandably concerned and requested an immediate armed reconnaissance by the Air Force.But Air Chief Marshal Tipnis quite rightly advised against this, saying that hastily inducting the Indian Air Force could send the wrong signal. With only scanty reports available, the situation was confused and seemed to be only a minor border incident in an area that had always been regarded as no man’s land. By the time General Malik returned from his trip abroad, the situation was clear. It was neither a stray border incident nor was it the handiwork of jihadis. Something sinister was obviously afoot as the intruders had entrenched themselves on our side of the LoC in well-fortified bunkers sited at strategically commanding locations. Intelligence sources confirmed the involvement of Pakistan’s army with General Pervez Musharraf as the villain of the piece.

For military chiefs such as I, who had the opportunity to serve with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he has left an indelible mark. Quite apart from his earnest desire to understand our military ethos and way of life, it was his personal touch that brought out the best in our armed forces. This will surely remain a lesson for posterity.

This manoeuvre had obviously been executed over a well-calculated time frame and Pakistan’s treachery had squarely caught us off guard. It was duplicity because it was only in February of the same year that Prime Minister Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif had signed the Lahore Accord, pledging to coexist peacefully, avoid conflict, and stand by a mutual understanding that Pakistan and India were committed to nuclear disarmament. It was internationally welcomed as a sign that the strained relationship between the two countries was improving.

Vajpayee’s response deeply concerned by the evidence of this perfidy from across the border by a country he had recently visited, with his hand outstretched in friendship, Prime Minister Vajpayee galvanised the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) into action and issued a clear-cut directive to the armed forces: ‘Evict the intruders, but do not cross the LoC!’ ‘Not crossing the LoC’ was a serious operational handicap for our armed forces but the Prime Minister stuck to his decision. He knew that a war between adversaries with nuclear capability could have disastrous consequences and his insistence on ‘strategic restraint’ paid off in full measure. It garnered massive international support, and more importantly, it ensured that the war would be fought on terms dictated by India. This indeed was Prime Minister Vajpayee’s masterstroke which paved the way for a strategic victory at Kargil.

Pakistan’s vulnerability

By early June 1999, as our Army and Air Force were preparing for combat operations on the LoC, task forces of the Indian Navy’s Western Fleet had swiftly deployed and seized the initiative in the North Arabian Sea. Very well briefed, the Prime Minister was aware that Pakistan’s lifeline lay at sea, its vital oil supply having to be ferried in bulky tankers across the oceans. With the Indian Navy taking the initiative, the task forces were already astride Pakistan’s jugular.

Pakistan’s treachery at Kargil was a setback but the armed forces bounced back and the war ended with India’s victory. Their valour and sacrifice had done the nation proud and accolades were heaped on the armed forces. But ‘in the fog of war’, the larger picture sometimes goes unnoticed. And so was the pivotal role played by Prime Minister Vajpayee.

This would certainly prevent escalation and confine the conflict to the LoC. Within a few days, Pakistan realised how seriously vulnerable it was and began escorting its oil tankers at sea. When I reported this development at the next meeting of the CCS, the Prime Minister’s quiet smile conveyed his satisfaction, for it showed that the pressure tactics of what is termed ‘coercive diplomacy’ had put Pakistan on the defensive.

Precautionary stage

By the end of June, 1999, as operations on the Himalayan heights at Tololing and Tiger Hill reached a climax, tension mounted as desperate Pakistani Generals threatened nuclear retaliation. At a COSC meeting of the armed forces’ Chiefs on 18 June 1999, General Ved Malik issued an advisory for our armed forces: ‘Be prepared for war—whether declared or otherwise’. The Indian Navy’s combined Western and Eastern Fleets were poised for combat and the Prime Minister had been continuously briefed about our Navy’s deployment. With Defence Minister George Fernandes kept in the loop, there was confidence in the CCS that the overwhelming superiority of our Navy to Pakistan’s Navy, would have a sobering effect on Pakistan. And the media reflected this confidence. For instance, a headline in Hindustan Times read: ‘Alert Indian Navy helped pin down Pakistan in Kargil’. With an escalation imminent, the situation radically altered, particularly for the Indian Navy whose task forces were positioned at strategic choke points in the Arabian Sea.

Being an international waterway, with neutrals present, the ‘precautionary stage’ for war was thus an important threshold for our Navy, as the Rules of Engagement (ROE), which define any unacceptable provocative action or use of force, needed to be applied in accordance with the international maritime convention. The Defence Minister accordingly arranged an urgent meeting with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra. Apart from the ROE, which are basically for self-defence, I also explained the implications of a Maritime Exclusion Zone (MEZ) to prevent unauthorised entry of civilians in a naval zone, as was done during the Falklands War of 1982. Having been adequately briefed before the CCS meeting, Prime Minister Vajpayee readily appreciated the Navy’s request for enforcing the ROE in the northern Arabian Sea. In his inimitable and confident manner, the Prime Minister nodded his approval and with his green signal, the Indian Navy flashed the code word for Operation Talwar. And so it was that the operation began, aiming to blockade Pakistani ports and cut off its sea trade as well as the routes that Pakistan used to convey imported supplies of much-needed oil and fuel. As designated task forces of the Indian Navy commenced advancing forward, our monitoring stations intercepted a Pakistan Navy signal, which surprisingly, was uncoded. It was from Pakistan’s Navy headquarters to Pakistani warships with the message: ‘Remain in harbour’. Navies worldwide have a professional understanding amongst themselves and are conscious of their role and potential. And since they always operate in international waters with other Navies also present, they know how to keep their distance. This is in contrast to the situation at the LoC. That was the interpretation I gave at the CCS meeting for the Pakistani Navy’s message that we had intercepted. It evoked keen interest and triggered an animated discussion, with Prime Minister Vajpayee finally breaking into his characteristic smile and adding with a poetic flourish: ‘Perhaps Pakistan’s Navy wanted nothing to do with General Musharraf’s Himalayan folly!’

The media reported this development with exuberance. Jane’s International Weekly’s headline, for example, commended the Navy with: ‘Indian Navy muscle hastened end to border fight’

The Vajpayee Impact Following the Lahore Accord of February 1999

Pakistan’s treachery at Kargil was a setback but the armed forces bounced back and the war ended with India’s victory. Their valour and sacrifice had done the nation proud and accolades were heaped on the armed forces. But ‘in the fog of war’, the larger picture sometimes goes unnoticed. And so was the pivotal role played by Prime Minister Vajpayee. His was a stellar contribution but remains blurred in the background—perhaps a reflection of his own modest and unassuming character.

A Prime Minister to Remember: Memories of a Military Chief

Synergising the armed forces

When the chips were down, it was Vajpayee’s iron will and positive approach that galvanised the armed forces to combat a well-entrenched enemy on the icy Himalayan heights where incredible feats of valour and sacrifice by our jawans and officers brought glory to the nation. This synergy that he infused into our fighting forces, ultimately transformed a tactical loss into a strategic victory for India. Though Kargil happened two decades ago, the manner in which he synergised and motivated our armed forces is testified by the messages that remain on record.

For instance, I sent the following message

Naval Headquarters: 5 July 1999 Personal for: Chief of Army Staff and Chief of Air Staff

With admiration and pride all ranks of the Indian Navy salute our Army and Air Force for their stunning feats at Kargil under daunting conditions. And now your capping success at Tiger Hill says it all. As we guard the seaward flank, the Indian Navy is inspired and motivated by the intrepid action of our comrades in arms. Good hunting and God bless…

Admiral Sushil Kumar

General Malik conveyed his thanks: Army Headquarters Personal for Chief of the Naval Staff,

Dear Sushil,

Thank you for your warm appreciation of the performance of our officers and jawans at Kargil. Your message gives us the encouragement to carry on our endeavour until every intruder is evicted. Your warning to the Pakistani Navy has been an extremely useful contribution. The enemy is fully aware that he faces the synergised effort of the Indian armed forces.

With warm regards,

General Ved Malik

Personal Rapport

The Prime Minister had an uncanny instinct by which he felt the pulse of the armed forces, but to get to know the forces better, he institutionalised a procedure for the Chiefs of the Army, Navy, and Air Force to meet him regularly at his residence. Since he was a man of few words, it was difficult to fathom his thoughts for he hardly spoke at this weekly interaction. It was the Chiefs who did all the talking, generally about our military life in the forward areas. He seemed to have an earnest desire to understand this facet of the Indian armed forces. Strategy and tactics were never discussed during this interaction.

Through his personal touch, Prime Minister Vajpayee established an emotional bond that infused synergy into the rank and file of our front line forces. Its force-multiplying effect became evident during the ongoing Kargil war and thereafter, in many other events that followed.

A lesson for posterity

For military chiefs such as I, who had the opportunity to serve with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he has left an indelible mark. Quite apart from his earnest desire to understand our military ethos and way of life, it was his personal touch that brought out the best in our armed forces. This will surely remain a lesson for posterity.