Vajpayee’s ‘defining’ moment

Vajpayee’s ‘defining’ moment

S. Sivadas

S. Sivadas

In the midst of celebrating Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary and also remembering the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on its centenary, as well as the 44th year of the clamping of the Emergency, at least some people have not forgotten about the 20th anniversary of the Kargil operations.

In the Kargil conflict, which caught the armed forces and the Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee completely by surprise, the manner in which the defense forces rallied and responded has been recalled by some officers of the battalions that had participated and also by the accounts written on the subject by some participants, including General VP Malik, the Army chief then, Admiral Sushil Kumar and the Punjab Chief Minister, Captain Amrinder Singh, among many others.

At the launch of Admiral Sushil Kumar book, oddly titled ‘A Prime Minister to Remember’, by a happy coincidence, the chiefs of the three forces that took part in the operation participated and went down memory lane. It so happens that the three were also batch mates and had undergone the course together. It was Air Marshal Tipnis, who was familiar with the topography of the terrain, who provided some insights. He recalled that the area was totally neglected and there were no proper roads even. Patrolling of this vital sector was also minimal. He recalled meeting Vajpayee along with Gen. Malik during the 1999 outbreak. Vajpayee wanted to know from the General if the ground forces were enough to take stock of the situation. When Air Marshal Tipnis chipped in to say that the Air Force was ready to join the operation at the shortest notice, Vajpayee paused for a few minutes and told Gen. Malik to start the operations from the next morning (kal subah shuruwat kariyega).

When he asked Vajpayee for permission to cross the Line of Control, the Air Chief recalled, ‘in a voice firmer than I have ever heard him speak, he said, ‘No, we will not cross the LoC’. By that firm decision, Admiral Sushil Kumar said, Vajpayee turned a ‘strategic loss’ into a massive victory, though it had tied the Army’s hands behind its back. Initially he was reluctant even to use the Air Force in the conflict. Lt General (Retd.) Chandra Shekhar, who served as vice chief of the army, also lauded Vajpayee's role during the Kargil conflict. ‘The Kargil war demonstrated the Indian resolve and the close synergy among the three services,’ he pointed out.

Just as he headed a 23-party coalition of disparate regional parties successfully, Vajpayee also took along the three service chiefs and heeded their advice, listening to them patiently, but he could be firm when it came to critical matters. Admiral Sushil Kumar recalled the time the prime minister had visited the Navy’s latest minesweeper in the high seas and watched with keen interest how the personnel operated it. No wonder he titled his book on the Kargil memories is ‘a prime minister to remember.’

If Kargil was Vajpayee’s defining moment, the 1971 Bangladesh war was that of Indira Gandhi and the 1965 war Lal Bahadur Shastri’s. But, alas, that cannot be said of the 1962 border war that China dragged us into. That betrayal by Beijing across the Macmohan Line was no moment of glory for Nehru or his defence minister Krishna Menon, who had replied to a member’s concern in Parliament, ‘Tanks at 14,000 feet (at Aksai Chin). The Honourable member is dreaming.’ The failure to detect military build-up across the border, or even invasion, has been seen as one the biggest intelligence failures in independent India’s history.

Just as Tipnis mentioned of the total neglect of the border regions, Capt. Amrinder Singh also mentions that neither the Army commanders nor the police headquarters were aware of the invasions and the army did not adequately patrol the LoC which had left wide gaps. The basic tenet of mountain warfare of patrolling the Himalayan heights was not followed.

Just when Vajpayee had made his trip to Lahore in February 1999 to sign the historic Lahore Declaration, General Musharraf had been making plans to take control of Kargil and battle procedures for Operation Badr were being put in place. The hesitation of Gen. Musharraf to greet Vajpayee at Lahore had, strangely, gone unnoticed. The quick succession of events could not have gone unnoticed either, like the Agra summit of 2001 and the Parliament attack of 2003 December. This was soon followed by the cricket diplomacy, when the Indian team played in Karachi with Gen Mushraff in attendance and greeting victorious Indian skipper Dhoni. These were great photo opportunities. Incidentally Kargil was also the first television war with NDTV’s Barkha Dutt giving live coverage from the trenches in the combat zone.

One thing that intrigues observers is how did these neighbours go from a seemingly spectacular diplomatic breakthrough to the only instance of a high altitude war, and that too two nascent nuclear powers. The former intelligence chief, AS Dulat provides a clue. According to him in the Pakistani military mind the breakup of that country in 1971 still rankled and ‘it took Kargil for them to realise that 1971 (war result) and Bangladesh is a reality.’

Vajpayee’s decision ultimately proved to be a clever one. Aimed at establishing the legitimacy of the LoC as the de facto border, it convinced both Pakistan’s allies, China and the US, of the necessity of maintaining its sanctity. US President Bill Clinton called Nawaz Sharif to stress that the US saw Pakistan as the aggressor and rejected the ‘fiction that Pakistani fighters were separatist guerillas.' Soon after he met Clinton at the White House on US Independence Day, July 4, that also happened to be the day when Indian soldiers recaptured Tiger Hill. The US agenda was clear; to ensure ceasefire between the two countries, but Clinton had come around to Vajpayee’s position that this could be done only after Pakistan had withdrawn its troops. And the US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott noted that through fine diplomatic play Clinton and his team managed to force Nawaz Sharif to accept US demands. By the time the talks were over Nawaz Sharif had agreed to pull back the troops thus ending the conflict and establishing the LoC as the de facto border.

All the same the war came at a cost, with 527 jawans killed and 1360 wounded and the Pakistanis capturing all the heights and putting us at a disadvantage. This also, according to Ambassador Vijay Nambiar, brought about a new definition of heroism. Though a costly one in terms of lives lost it showed the extent to which the Army was prepared to go for the sake of the country.

Capt. Amrinder Singh noted the performance of our junior commissioned officers and jawans as ‘unsurpassed,’ and recalled especially the performance of six battalions in the victory, 2 Rajputana Rifles, 13 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles, 1/11 Gorkha Rifles, 13 Jat Regiment, 18 Grenadiers and 8 Sikh Regiment.

Vajpayee had also visited Srinagar during his tenure as prime minister and engaged even with the separatist leaders and was on the road to reconciliation, when he talked of Kashmiriyat, Insaniyat and Jamhooriyat that struck a chord with the people. Even now across the state people recall with fondness the overtures that Vajpayee had made to them two decades back.