New Delhi: The India-Pakistan Kargil War nearly brought the two volatile neighbours on the brink of nuclear war after Pakistani army regulars intruded into Indian territory before being pushed by Indian forces in a two-month-long effort called ‘Operation Vijay’.
But events leading up to the conflict had seen some of the most unprecedented peace overtures between the countries, or at least by the Indian side and the Pakistani civilian leadership.
Given that it has been two decades since the Kargil War, ThePrint looks at some of the relatively lesser talked-about details on the events preceding the war.
Nuclear Tests to the Lahore Summit
Once the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government came to power in March 1998, it dropped India’s decades-long aversion to testing nuclear weapons.
The concerted and serious efforts to develop nuclear capability had started about a decade ago, under Rajiv Gandhi’s term as PM, but through the early part of the ’90s, the Indian political leadership wanted the country to possess the required capabilities to develop a nuclear weapon within days if necessary, but was not enthusiastic about conducting a nuclear test, fearing an international backlash.
Vajpayee’s government changed all that.
The BJP manifesto in 1998 had promised to conduct the nuclear test right away if the party was voted to power. It did just that — the Vajpayee government conducted two successful nuclear tests in Pokhran, Rajasthan, on 11 May and 13 May in that year.
A couple of weeks later, however, Pakistan reciprocated with its own nuclear tests at Chagai, Balochistan.
What followed was intense global pressure on the Indian and Pakistani political leadership to give up their nuclear weapons. India was also handed punitive nuclear sanctions, which barred the country from receiving developmental loans from the World Bank and trading with the world.
The concerted international pressure was part of the reason that Prime Minister Vajpayee decided to visit Lahore but there was also more to the story. Both Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, genuinely believed in achieving Indo-Pak peace.
In their first bilateral meeting, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in August 1998, Sharif had talked about how he had driven to Delhi in his own car to attend the Asian Games in 1982.
According to former R&AW Chief, A.S. Dulat’s book, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, on hearing of this anecdote, Vajpayee and Sharif’s advisors suggested that a India-Pakistan bus service should be started and Vajpayee should visit Pakistan on the inaugural bus journey.
After considerable internal bureaucratic haggling, Vajpayee made the historic trip to Lahore in February 1999, which led to the famous diplomatic statement, the Lahore Declaration. It marked one of the greatest attempts at ensuring peace between the two nations.
Peace and War
The Lahore summit was hailed as an extremely successful visit, lauded by the press on both sides.
But even as Vajpayee left for New Delhi from Lahore, the then military chief of the Pakistani Army, General Pervez Musharraf, boarded a helicopter to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), according to former Indian Army Chief, V.P. Malik’s book, Kargil: From Surprise to Victory.
By February, his plan to invade the Kargil and Batalik sectors of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was already underway. Under Musharraf, Pakistan was finally trying to avenge the 1971 war and its effect.
The plan, dubbed ‘Operation Badr’ involved the Pakistan Army’s Northern Light Infantry (NLI) heading the intrusion into Indian territory. And by flying to PoK, Musharraf was essentially signalling to his army that it was not to buy into any of the peace measures but concentrate on their operation to recapture J&K.
There have been debates regarding the degree to which the civilian leadership was privy to the details of Operation Badr but a consensus suggests that Sharif wasn’t aware that the Pakistani Army had indeed entered Indian territory.
The idea of Operation Badr, however, was inspired by war exercises conducted by the Pakistani Army in the 1980s, called Operation Tupac, according to the book, A Ridge Too Far, written by the Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh.
Operation Tupac was designed around the idea of the Pakistani Army invading and capturing J&K. Once Musharraf took over as the Chief of Army Staff in 1998, he went about implementing it, appointing two generals to head the operation.
Pakistan’s NLI and India’s intelligence failure
The Pakistani NLI had some pedigree in the region. Captain Amarinder Singh, in A Ridge Too Far, says that the NLI has its roots in the local militia that the British raised in northern Kashmir in the early 20th century. The local militia was representative of all diverse cultures, religions, and languages of the region and the NLI is its successor, according to Amarinder.
The force’s deep knowledge of the terrain and decades of experience of fighting in the region, not only made it the perfect unit to head Operation Badr but also made it easier to con Indian intelligence agencies.
Regardless, Indian intelligence agencies completely failed to detect that the NLI soldiers had intruded into Indian territory. Moreover, they failed to deduce the Pakistani plan from the various phone and radio calls in PoK. And most damning of all, they completely failed to detect the massive arms build-up in PoK.
The meeting before war
The Indian Army and intelligence first detected the Pakistani intrusion in the first week of May 1999. It would take them a couple of weeks more to realise that it was the Pakistani Army and not government-backed mujahideen behind the intrusion.
On 24 May, in New Delhi’s South Bloc’s operations room, the atmosphere was tense, writes then Indian Army Chief General V.P. Malik in Kargil: From Surprise to Victory.
Malik was set to brief the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) about the evolving situation in the Kargil sector. The political establishment knew that some Pakistanis had intruded into Indian territory and that the country’s army was involved. No one, however, knew about the scale of the intrusion or the nature of the Pakistani Army involvement. It was Gen. Malik’s job to cut through the fog of confusion.
“In the Kargil sector, the Pakistani army had intruded into the areas of Batalik, Kaksar, Dras, and Mashkoh with the aim of holding ground permanently so as to interdict the strategic Srinagar–Kargil highway and the road from Kargil to Leh along the Indus River,” his book says Gen. Malik told the CCS.
By the time the CCS meeting ended, India was effectively at war with Pakistan.