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Kargil: What kind of a democracy are we that we are shy of facing the truth about our wars?

On the 20th anniversary of Kargil, letting out a story and a few secrets in the national interest. Because we won’t win unless we learn from our mistakes.

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Come summer and the annual spate of entirely well-deserved tributes for Kargil heroes begins. While Indians aren’t unique in loving a good anniversary, we stand apart in how unwilling we are to face even a bit of the inconvenient truth that the finest successes, the most glorious moments, inevitably come laced with. This is why we keep repeating the same errors.

Let’s examine our own recorded military history. We lost Chhamb-Jaurian to Pakistan in 1965, when we claimed to have been surprised by Pakistani deceit. We lost it again in 1971, albeit after a much better defence, even in a war heavily weighted in our favour. We lost that territory forever as both sides kept captured territory in Jammu and Kashmir after the Shimla Accord. That’s a fact nobody denies.

So the question: Would we have done so if we had learnt the right lessons from the earlier setback?

This somewhat convoluted preamble is inspired by our renewed celebration and some self-congratulation of the war in Kargil. Or, more specifically, our victory in Kargil. I emphasise the word ‘victory’ here. It is touching how just because we won a long, sharp and yet limited war of high altitude skirmishes, we have made an annual national spectacle of it, rather than also an occasion for a little reflection, introspection. How did, how could, how the hell could so many Pakistanis infiltrate and get entrenched so deep across such a sensitive and strategic borderline?

We avoid reflecting on what went wrong, why and what can be done, how our national strategic/tactical posture could be strengthened. This larger argument is also instigated by another issue that surfaces during every summer of celebrations: Of how the Kargil inquiry committee report has yet not been fully made public. In the same discussion, as usual, demands for declassification of the half-century-old Henderson Brooks report have also come up.

The Kargil Review Committee's invitation
The Kargil Review Committee’s invitation

No two wars, and accordingly, no two inquiry reports about them, can be more different than these two. One was a debacle, so shattering it ended the Nehru era. The other, eventually, a military success so heady that it won the Vajpayee government an enhanced mandate. And yet reports of official inquiries into both have remained classified, one fully and the other mostly. What kind of a country are we that we are shy of facing the truth about our wars, whether we win or lose?

In fact, in the three-month 20th anniversary celebrations so far you have rarely seen/heard the most important question asked: How did the Pakistanis manage to infiltrate end entrench themselves, with artillery, build jeepable tracks deep into our territory and so on? Who was asleep on the job? Who was called to account for the avoidable loss of invaluable lives of nearly 550 of our fine soldiers, besides injuries to at least four times as many.

Again, go back to our two other major wars, 1965 and 1971, one a stalemate, the other a victory. We still do not have an honest, authorised or official history of either based on reliable, indexed and referenced declassified documentation. I will also tell you in a moment who we last heard complaining about this, because there is a twist there. Remember it’s been 48 years since 1971, and next year will be 55 years since 1965. It’s also been 22 years since the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka. I believe that history too has been written, but kept under lock and key. Doesn’t it make us a unique democracy, though not in the healthiest way?

Just how unique, I discovered 20 years ago in the aftermath of Kargil. The hyper-patriotic breathlessness of annual Kargil celebrations persuaded me to talk about something I had kept in my archives all these years. I decided that it should now be revealed and made part of our larger public discourse. Because future victories are guaranteed more by learning from past failures than from celebrating our successes.

Contrary to popular perception, democracies are actually much harder states than dictatorships for two reasons. One, because in a democracy the national military effort almost always has popular support and participation. And two, because democracies are led by politicians who are much tougher, unforgiving, devious and take-no-prisoners and durable compared to the finest generals. But democracies must have the moral strength to look within, which we do not.

After the Kargil campaign ended, the Vajpayee government set up an inquiry committee headed by Dr K. Subrahmanyam, the father of India’s strategic thought. It had three other members, a former Lt-General (K.K. Hazari), an eminent editor (B.G. Verghese) and an IFS officer (Satish Chandra). Only the first two were present along with Subrahmanyam on 24 November 1999, when I presented myself at 11.30 a.m. at the National Security Council Secretariat in New Delhi’s Lok Nayak Bhawan, as summoned by the committee.

My questioning lasted almost three hours. The questioners were wise, curious and kept me alert. Their interest in me was quite specifically targeted at my interview of Nawaz Sharif, which had set up Vajpayee’s bus ride to Lahore (Kargil followed soon after), my understanding of the Pakistani mind, and more specifically Nawaz Sharif’s mind, my impressions of how we had conducted the war and how the media had covered it.

Minutes reworked and then corrected by me.
Minutes reworked and then corrected by me.

I came back that late afternoon, feeling enriched by the intellect of my questioners. There was only a little thing that still rankled. I had said some of my friends in the Army, including several who conducted the war, a couple at brigadier level, felt that the skill-level and equipment of the average Pakistani soldier seemed better than that of ours. When I said that, Subrahmanyam snubbed me promptly.

“You should not say this here,” he said.

I asked why not since this was meant to be an inquiry on mistakes made as well as lessons learnt for the future. He said you can tell us all these things informally, but not for the inquiry.

“But why, sir, why not?” I asked, and looked at the other members for support. Subrahmanyam leaned forward, patted me on the shoulder, and said something like, young man, you will grow up. I insisted that whatever I had said must be recorded which, I noticed, was duly done by one of the two OSDs (Dr S.D. Pradhan and P.K.S. Namboodiri) present. I had also mentioned this conversation at the memorial meeting a couple of days after Subrahmanyam’s passing away on 2 February 2011, where his family had so graciously invited me to speak.

The passage of time gives me the reason to take this further. Within a fortnight of that deposition, I received a letter marked “secret” and “most immediate”, signed by Subrahmanyam in his capacity as the chairman, Kargil Review Committee. Enclosed was a “record” of discussions with me for my approval. I was amazed by how soon this had arrived, knowing how Bharat Sarkar functions, but then we had Subrahmanyam, at the other end.

By and large, it was quite accurate and exhaustive — seven typed sheets, nearly 5,000 words, superscribed secret. But on closer reading there was trouble.

There was careful editing, rewriting and paraphrasing that so subtly changed the meaning or emphasis. It was so sophisticated and clever that I was left with no doubt that it was deliberate. I sat down with the draft and corrected in longhand. You see some of those key passages in the second visual accompanying this column. But every page was similarly blue-pencilled, and more or less rewritten. I am appending some of these pages here (keeping out just a few parts which should still remain secret).

The committee’s larger interest was in protecting the “system”. Of the three examples quoted here, one was apparently a minor change in my statement that Sharif said “should” Vajpayee travel to Lahore, he would be given a welcome he wouldn’t forget.

It was made to read as if he had proposed that Vajpayee come to Lahore. I had told the committee, quite truthfully, that Vajpayee had spoken with me earlier and had said that if I could get Sharif to invite him in an interview, he would say yes. The change was small but served the committee’s purpose of distancing Vajpayee from the decision to go to Lahore.

Other passages recast what I said on the government’s communication inadequacies, persistent denials and insistence that there was “no big deal” even after the IAF joined battle, and suffered casualties. The third, of course, was the one that got Subrahmanyam to caution me in the first place. The observation on the soldiers’ skill levels and equipment was there, but worded as if the opinion was mine. I edited it again to specify that this was what I had been told by our own officers.

On 14 December 1999, I sent a corrected copy to Subrahmanyam with a polite note. I got no reply. Weeks later, some unknown officer called me to say that generally, the committee had decided not to make much use of my testimony. Twenty years later, I still cannot figure out what it contained for the committee to find it so useless. Maybe it just confirms the pattern, our instinct to cover up, whether in defeat, or victory.

And here’s the twist on the absence of authentic, official history of the 1965 and 1971 wars. Who did we last hear “officially” complaining about it, in writing? The Kargil Review Committee!

A version of this account was published in 2014 in India Today magazine.

Also read: 20 years on, a Kargil lesson still holds true: Indian Army can’t afford to learn on the job


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  1. This was one of the “finest article” written by shekhar sir….thank you for making some kargil committee proceedings public…i think this article would be a great tribute for those “young soldiers and their families” who lay down their lives for the indian people…these young soldiers died to “bridge the shortcomings” we as a nation (our system) have….it is a very common now in “our kind of system” that “in these kind of situations it the ‘foot soldier’ who pay the price and the generals/top brass go Scot-free”….as if they had no responsibility, as if they are in “position of power” to enjoy the perks/privileges associated with that powerful position–rather than taking responsibility for their folly. it is like “power without responsibility”….

  2. Shekarji…. I follow and read a lot of articles and shows that you conduct.

    Firstly I really do like your shows and articles. They are filled with facts presented well and is honest.

    While I might not agree to everything you opine on I genuinely like your presentation and the fact that you don’t shout to get your point across.

    I am biased too and so can you be…. And you have the right to be because you probably know many more facts than I do…

    Thanks. I enjoy reading and watching your shows.

  3. Very well balanced and quite thought provoking article in line with other great articles from the The Print team. My concern is related to the quality of its translation made to reproduce its Hindi version. I am a native speaker of Hindi but could not make much out of the Hindi version of this story. Somebody needs to make sure about the quality of translation coming out from such an reputed media group.

  4. Even though enemy were in well position, Indian Armed Forces captured their positions. So our forces are much better than Pakistan

    • Stupid! You and your forces couldn’t do it! It was military withdrawal which you father president Clinton forcibly made pakistani pm to do! Mujahideens and troops left captured peaks as pakistani pm had announced succumbing to US pressure. Your vintage army was not in a position to retake heights!! You are an artificial, liar nation. A 7 times small country is a problem for you

      • hahah lol search battle of tololing and tiger hill ,how indian army kicked you ,and btw musharaf asked nawaz sharif to go to USA ,he knew his plan had been failed

  5. The complete and authentic Henderson-Brooks report was leaked several years ago, I think in 2014, and can be found on the internet. I have read it.

  6. Thanks for the timely reminder, Sir. Transparency is fast becoming a one-way street in India where civil society will need to reveal everything they do to the state, whereas the state itself adheres to no disclosure norms apart from the fig leaf of RTI.

    • Your line quote ” transperncy is fast becoming a one way street in India”. Unquote
      If you have read the article it shows there has been no transperncy since 1962.

    • “Come summer and the annual spate of entirely well-deserved tributes for Kargil heroes begins”- that is the very first line of the article. Maybe you don’t understand what “well-deserved” means ?

  7. Lay members of the public still do not know the truth about 1962, although its outcome is seared on our national consciousness. Perhaps, if we had a culture of candour in our national discourse, some of the mistakes of the past would not be repeated.

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