Some 19 years after the war, ThePrint pieces together events that prevented the Indian Army from capturing some vital heights during the war.
New Delhi: Days before the 19th anniversary of the 1999 Kargil War, which falls on 26 July, a little-known controversy of the time is getting a fresh lease of life.
On Sunday, social media activists supposedly based in Pakistan, repeatedly targeted Gen. Ved Prakash Malik (retd) for the Army’s inability to recapture at least three heights near the Line of Control that continue to be in Pakistani possession.
Gen. Malik was the Army chief during the war.
The discourse was particularly centred on a strategically significant feature, Point 5353, which has a domineering view of the national highway between Srinagar and Leh. It has never been occupied by Indian forces since the war.
ThePrint pieces together the events that prevented the Army from regaining Point 5353 (the numbers denote the height of the peak in metres), including a directive from the Vajpayee government and failed attempts to broker a settlement with the Pakistani army.
An objective of the war
The war was sparked by the presence of intruders, backed by the Pakistani army then headed by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who occupied the heights between 11,000 and 17,500 feet.
The intruders had illegally occupied peaks named Tololing, Tiger Hill and unnamed features like Point 4170 and Point 5353 that belonged to India on a 100-km long front.
They were also functioning as ‘observers’ for the Pakistani artillery to direct fire on Indian military traffic.
The heights are vital to the Indian Army as in the summer months they are used to stock up on winter rations before the national highway is covered in snow. This is also the route for supplies to be ferried to soldiers on the Siachen Glacier.
When the Indian Army set out to free the territory of intrusions, with aid from the Air Force, recapturing Point 5353 was one of its objectives. The Army launched “Operation Vijay” and the air force “Operation Safed Sagar”.
When the operations began, the Vajpayee government made it clear that men and aircraft had to go about their task without crossing the Line of Control, increasing the complexity of mountain warfare.
This severe limitation was probably responsible for Indian forces not being able to clear all the heights used by the Pakistanis to impede Indian traffic.
This reporter, who was with the 18 Grenadiers battalion led by Colonel Kushal Thakur when the Kargil War was reaching its climax — it was never formally declared a ‘war’ — was given a view and a sense of the strategic importance of capturing Point 5353.
From the village of Holiyal in the Mushkoh, where a dilapidated primary school was used as a forward operating base for the battalion, Point 5353 was just east of and behind Tiger Hill through a tract called Sando Gully.
The officer had then pointed out that if the Pakistanis are to be denied a strategic view of National Highway 1A, then Point 5353 would have to be cleared.
The fact that it continues to remain in Pakistani hands shows that it is clearly an unfinished agenda of the war.
But accounts on why this happened and why India decided to drop the capture of Point 5353 have emerged now, the latest being Gen. Malik’s tweets this Sunday.
Without going into the specifics, the General tweeted that the Army had completed its missions by 26 July, 1999.
Kargil war. On 14 Jul 99 Pak Army had accepted ceasefire & withdrawal on our terms. Failed to withdraw from 3 locations close to LoC. Our mission was incomplete. Took permission from PM, attacked those locations & threw them out forcibly. Mission completion declared on 26 Jul 99
— Ved Malik (@Vedmalik1) July 22, 2018
But ThePrint has pieced together a fuller account of why Indian troops could not achieve all objectives, including capturing the domineering Point 5353.
An order and a barter
Apart from insisting that men and machine do not cross the LoC, the Vajpayee government believed that the objectives had been substantially achieved. Then defence minister George Fernandes repeatedly said that “Point 5353 was on the Line of Control” and that by convention, the heights on the LoC are never occupied by either country.
But one of the reasons why the war began was that the intruders, in the winter of 1998-1999, had occupied positions that India was traditionally vacating.
The second reason for the Army’s inability to secure Point 5353 is illustrated in the account of the skirmishes by Lt. Gen. Mohinder Puri (retd), who was at the time a Major-General commanding the 8 Mountain Division and in whose theatre the major battles took place. His account, therefore, has to be one of the most authentic.
In his book, Kargil: Turning the Tide (Lancer, 2016), Gen. Puri acknowledges that “a lot of controversies were generated on the status of Point 5353 after the war”.
He then provides the reasons: “This feature lies on the Pakistan side and to capture it, the attacking troops have to approach from the north entailing crossing the LC (Line of Control). Since the LC was not to be crossed and the feature being on the Pakistan side, we had no plans to secure it”.
Indian forces then sought to make a barter.
“The enemy occupied Point 5353 as an observation post. In turn, we were in occupation of a feature on the LC. The Pakistani CO established radio contact with CO 16 Gren (commanding officer, 16 Grenadiers) and requested vacation from this feature. We asked him to reciprocate and vacate Point 5353 to which he agreed. However, he reoccupied Point 5353 on 2 August and in retaliation besides occupying the feature vacated by us, 16 Gren was directed to occupy Point 5245 which was southeast of Point 5353. With this event, the war ended in the Mushkoh-Drass sector.”
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