The Cheetah looked like a dragonfly as it approached the helipad, mid-day thermals giving it a wobble in the air. The helipad in Drass was busy, extremely active, because heavy brass flew in just days after Tololing had been retaken on 11/12 June 1999. This was so soon after the breakthrough at Tololing that fatigue was still visible in the eyes of the victorious soldiers who occupied the heights. Chief of Army Staff Gen V.P. Malik, had already landed, as had his Director General of Military Operations, Lt Gen N.C. Vij, later to become COAS. So, it was strange to see another Cheetah approaching the Drass helipad when the biggest names in the Army were already on ground.
I asked a young Captain, possibly the helipad security officer, whose arrival it could be? “Oh, it’s a US Senator coming to see for himself and prepare a report about Pakistan Army’s intrusions,” the Captain explained. That would have been a significant scoop, so local enquiries began in order to get the name correct before any information was shared. It wasn’t a US Senator after all, but someone undoubtedly significant, and deeply reflective of how the Government of India at the time handled information in the face of large scale intrusions.
The passenger being ferried to Drass was the doughty Yossef Bodansky, Director of the US Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare. He had earlier been a senior consultant for the U.S. Department of Defence and Department of State, and was also a World Terrorism Analyst with the Freeman Centre for Strategic Studies, Houston. In that tough decade of the 1990s for Indian policymakers, he was one of the few US analysts with an explicitly anti-Pakistan, ISI and jihad agenda. His article in the middle of the 1995 Al-Faran kidnapping of western trekkers from Kashmir was the first that exposed the new group to be a cover for already-existing Pakistan-based terror groups. He was a known favourite in Army Headquarters and the Ministry of External Affairs.
A more transparent time
In 1999, it made perfect sense to fly in Bodansky to show him the Pakistan Army’s Kargil intrusions, India’s resolve, and the Army’s spirit in evicting the intruders. Scores of Indian journalists were already in the battle zone, many cutting their teeth on defence reporting for the first time. There may have been other visitors like Yossef Bodansky, as the Government of India had the confidence to open the combat area, in a policy of information overkill.
The climate during Bodansky’s visit is a far cry from the largest intrusions confronting India since then, because China has now occupied roughly 1,000 sq km of Indian territory in the summer of 2020. Even though resources were fewer in 1999, and operational challenges just as severe as in 2020, Indian institutions had responded in a remarkably contrasting manner. Transparency was the order of the day in 1999, even when a relatively smaller neighbour had hoodwinked India. In 2020, as technology has opened up enormous resources for information dissemination, the Narendra Modi led government has reversed gears on straightforwardness, in the face of its biggest neighbour.
In 1999, Yossef Bodansky was, in essence, a lonesome cowboy following the anti-Pakistan trail. But in 2020, there is a whole posse of anti-China writers, analysts, politicos, and journalists worldwide. Each one would have completed a coronavirus quarantine many times over in the five months that the Ladakh crisis has been brewing. Before allowing foreign visitors, access should have been given to journalists in India, for there is no substitute to live coverage from a combat zone, even if the story is for print.
The Directorate General of Military Intelligence gave The Indian Express permission in 1995 to report on forward positions along the Line of Control (LoC). A photographer was also permitted with access everywhere except the Khamb Fort, which is one of the unique posts on the LoC. That series of stories was the first of its kind, especially given that the ceasefire on the LoC was almost a decade away. Insurgent encounters were a regular affair in Kashmir, just as they were in Nagaland. And yet, Army headquarters had no qualms in permitting and encouraging journalists from undertaking risky ventures, and the Ministry of External Affairs had no reservation in facilitating foreign visitors.
Denial about China
Openness of information played a vital role then and could perform a similar function in 2020. But for that, the Modi government has to first have confidence in its institutions. When the Ministry of Defence uploads a routine summarising document and then removes it hours later, the message is obviously one of being at unease with reality.
Information suppression, or plain denial, like in a totalitarian State, doesn’t change facts on the ground. Even if Prime Minister Narendra Modi denies it, local BJP officials in Ladakh have confirmed Chinese intrusions. Modi could take a leaf from former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in terms of explicitness, who had no hesitation in naming and shaming Pakistan. Transparency begins when the incumbent is willing to say: China.
The author is a Congress leader and Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert. Views are personal.