On 23 May 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi won the most decisive mandate by any incumbent since Indira Gandhi’s Congress government in 1971.
Just three months before, in February, in response to a terrorist attack in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian Air Force crossed the Line of Control and conducted air strikes in the town of Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. This strike was a central theme of the BJP’s re-election campaign.
Nearly seven decades ago, in 1947, militia from the same Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region, then known as the North West Frontier Province, dressed in plainclothes, conducted a surprise invasion on Jammu and Kashmir. Just a few months after Independence, this invasion would kick-start the protracted India-Pakistan conflict centred on Kashmiri territory.
What connects the two events? Twenty-one years ago, in May 1998, both India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests. Over the next 12 months, these two rivals went from making one of the most significant peace overtures to fighting the world’s first and only hot conflict between two nuclear powers.
These 12 months in 1998-99 transformed the India-Pakistan rivalry. Nuclear weapons have since ensured a certain deterrence, and demonstrated that they may not be used in the resolution of political disagreements. But even seven decades after Partition, the rivalry with Pakistan is a substantial vote-fetcher in Indian politics.
This is ThePrint’s PastForward. Through a series of interviews, research and reporting, the aim is to recreate The Year That Changed South Asia. This is the third and final part of a story that begins with India’s nuclear tests in May 1998 and ends with the Kargil War in 1999. But its origins and impact are not limited to these 12 months.
New Delhi: It was arguably the most eventful year in India’s history since the economic reforms of 1991 — first, in May 1998, both India and Pakistan conducted successful nuclear tests, and then, in February 1999, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made a historic bus journey to Pakistan.
Vajpayee, through his valiant diplomatic effort, had made one of India’s greatest peace overtures towards Pakistan. In the months following his Pakistan trip, while the scale of cross-border violence and terrorism rose, backchannel diplomatic negotiations between Vajpayee and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif continued in full swing.
Through these backchannel talks, the two statesmen had managed to carry India and Pakistan in a very different direction to the one the two countries were heading in the year before.
It wasn’t well-known at the time, but during their Lahore summit, Vajpayee and Sharif had made substantial progress towards a resolution of the five-decade-old conflict between the countries. The prime ministers had a freewheeling discussion on Kashmir, which went beyond the official stated positions of the two countries. Vajpayee had agreed not to refer to Kashmir as an integral part of India in public and, reciprocating his move, Sharif had agreed not to bring up the UN Security Council resolutions on Kashmir.
Soon after Vajpayee’s Lahore visit, the backchannel talks began. Vajpayee appointed noted editor R.K. Mishra as his interlocutor, while Sharif appointed Niaz Naik.
A report by the Kashmir Study Group — a committee of academics, foreign policy experts, and American legislators — was a major part of the discussions. The report proposed: “A portion of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir be reconstituted as a sovereign entity — but without an international personality — enjoying access to and from both India and Pakistan.”
In terms of the discussion agenda, this was the farthest India and Pakistan had ever come in terms of resolving the Kashmir territorial dispute.
Unfortunately, the two leaders were unaware of what the future held for them. Not only did their peace efforts go in vain, but also the world was about to witness the first and only instance of a hot war between two nuclear powers.
In Poland, Indian Army chief finds out about an invasion
During the first week of May 1999, Army Headquarters in Delhi started receiving reports of unusual activity in the Kargil and Batalik sectors of Jammu & Kashmir. The reports suggested that there seemed to have been intrusions into Indian territory by Pakistani mujahideen.
When these reports came in, Army Chief General V.P. Malik was on a visit to Poland and the Czech Republic. On receiving these intelligence reports, he asked his staff in India to step up patrolling operations and keep him updated about all the developments.
Soon after, Malik’s colleagues informed him that things were under control. He decided to continue with his foreign visit, even though every subsequent report he received about the scale of intrusion indicated a graver situation than the previous one.
By the time Malik returned to India, it was becoming evident that this was a much bigger intrusion than usual cross-border terrorism. He immediately took a trip to Jammu and Kashmir to get a ground-level assessment.
By mid-May, it was clear that a vast number of intruders had made their way into Jammu and Kashmir and captured a sizeable part of Indian territory. Nevertheless, the Indian military and the political establishment continued to believe these were just mujahideen from Pakistan.
Doubts emerged when Army commanders realized that jihadi outfits hardly ever capture territory. Moreover, the intensity of mortar and artillery fire suggested the involvement of the Pakistani Army.
Initial estimates of the Indian Army and intelligence suggested that the composition of intruders was 70 per cent mujahideen and 30 per cent Pakistani Army. All this while, Pakistan’s Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) kept reassuring his Indian counterpart that the ongoing incursions in Kargil had no involvement of the Pakistani Army.
By 20 May 1999, another Indian Army internal assessment confirmed that mujahideen had no role in this operation — it was the Pakistani Army that had invaded India.
Gen. Malik briefed the Cabinet Committee on Security about it on 24 May. By 26 May, India had launched Operation Vijay.
It was now officially embroiled in a full-blown conflict — both sides hesitated to call it a war — with Pakistan.
But this incident raised a lot of questions. How did the Pakistani Army manage to pull off such an invasion? How did Indian agencies completely miss a foreign invasion?
Moreover, how did India and Pakistan go from a seemingly massive diplomatic breakthrough to the only instance of a hot conflict between two nuclear powers?
Pakistan’s intrusion into Jammu and Kashmir
“In the Pakistani military mind, the breakup of Pakistan in 1971 has stuck around for a long time … It took Kargil for them realise that 1971 (war result) and Bangladesh is a reality,” A.S. Dulat, former chief of India’s external intelligence agency R&AW told ThePrint.
Captain Amarinder Singh, former Indian Army officer and now the Chief Minister of Punjab, wrote in his book, A Ridge Too Far, that the idea of invading India originated in a 1980s Pakistani war-game.
Amarinder noted that after India conducted Operation Brasstacks in 1986, the Pakistani Army developed a war-game called Operation Tupac. This particular war-game ran a simulation scenario, looking at the different possibilities in case Pakistan invaded India.
About a decade later, in 1998, once Gen. Pervez Musharraf became Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, he took up Operation Tupac and decided to implement it.
The new operation was called Operation Koh Paima, and the plan was to invade Jammu and Kashmir’s Drass, Batalik and Kargil sectors, with Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry(NLI) chosen to execute it. Only four Pakistani Army officers knew about this plan, including Musharraf, and they have come to be known as the ‘Kargil Cabal’.
Amarinder wrote that the NLI has its roots in the local militia, which 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. After Partition, this militia was inducted into the Pakistan Army.
The force’s deep knowledge of the terrain and long experience of fighting in the region not only made it the perfect unit to head Operation Koh Paima, but it also made it easier for the Pakistani Army to distract Indian intelligence agencies.
The Pakistani Army used the peak winter months to invade Kargil, Drass and Batalik. At that time of the year, patrolling by the Indian armed forces was minimal.
At the heart of the Pakistani operation was the hope that a surprise invasion would allow them to capture India’s National Highway 1A — the only link between India and Ladakh. If the plan succeeded, Pakistan would effectively take over Jammu and Kashmir.
Sharif’s role in Koh Paima
Till date, it remains unclear whether PM Sharif knew about Musharraf’s Kargil plan. Even if he was aware, there is no clarity regarding the degree of information he had.
“Was the PM (Sharif) in the loop … was he informed? Whatever I’ve gathered from various sources, he was briefed, but not the whole story. So, even while the bus ride was happening, the generals were preparing for Kargil,” Dulat said.
Pakistani journalist Nasim Zehra, in her book From Kargil to the coup: Events that shook Pakistan, claimed that forget Sharif, even Military Intelligence and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence were not aware of Operation Koh Paima.
The Kargil Cabal was pushing Sharif and Pakistan in a completely opposite direction to what Sharif had been pursuing over the past few months, Zehra wrote, adding that after the Indian media started reporting skirmishes in the Kargil, Drass and Batalik sectors, the Pakistan Army finally briefed Sharif on 17 May. But even then, Sharif was not briefed about the army’s involvement, only that it was providing logistical support to mujahideen.
India’s intelligence and patrolling failure
The failure to detect this foreign invasion is seen as one of the biggest intelligence failures in the history of Independent India.
Amarinder wrote that from the Indian Army and police headquarters to commanders on the Line of Control (LoC) to agencies in Jammu and Kashmir, everyone failed to detect this invasion. He wrote the Indian Army didn’t adequately patrol the LoC — there were long gaps which no Indian forces kept an eye on. Moreover, India didn’t follow the basic tenet of mountain warfare — it had no programme for patrolling the Himalayan heights.
“When these things happen … we have to acknowledge that there has been a goof up somewhere,” Dulat said. “How come we (Indian agencies) ignored this? My answer is, if the Pakistanis were to come through, it was through the area we least expected them to come through.”
Gen. Malik said the Indian side was surprised by Pakistani military’s actions, because while the army had had its reservations, they “had taken the Lahore agreement seriously”.
The Pakistani Army used some fine deception techniques to distract its Indian counterparts. The NLI only communicated in the local languages of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and avoided all military jargon. This made radio interception impossible. The army men also dressed in shalwar-kameez and local dresses.
On 26 May 1998, the Indian Air Force conducted the first air strikes against the intruders, launching Operation Vijay.
After some initial hiccups, the Indian Army and Air Force closely coordinated their war effort. The Cabinet Committee on Security met almost every day until the second week of July, the end of the war.
“Though India failed to detect the invasion, we were very quick to respond… both diplomatic and militarily… and this shifted the advantage back towards India,” Vijay K. Nambiar, former High Commissioner to Pakistan, told ThePrint.
According to ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, who has written extensively on the Kargil War, there were three important aspects of the Indian strategy.
“First, Vajpayee laid out the condition that India would not accept a ceasefire until Pakistan had fully cleared out,” said Gupta. The rationale behind this move was to ensure that India would continue to control all the territory on its side of the Line of Control. Vajpayee believed that if India accepted a ceasefire without pushing out the Pakistani infiltrators, the territory captured by the Pakistan Army, would essentially belong to Pakistan forever.
“Second, under no circumstance would this be escalated beyond the Line of Control in Kashmir, and essentially remain (limited to) the same Kargil, Drass and Batalik sector,” said Gupta.
“Third, even as it evicted Pakistani soldiers from its territory, India would not cross the LoC and go on the other side.”
Vajpayee directed his military that at no point could it cross the LoC. The decision meant that Indian soldiers had to claw back their territory without opening up another front, as they had demanded to put pressure on Pakistan. It tied the Indian military’s hands behind its back and had its fair share of critics.
Gen. Malik himself said he was in favour of crossing the LoC if India ran out of options. “When I asked for permission to go across the LoC, it was only because I felt in case we cannot undo things in the Kargil sector, then we will have to have another alternative,” Malik told ThePrint.
But India would soon reap the benefits of Vajpayee’s decision.
“It was a clever move. It was aimed at establishing the legitimacy of LoC as the de facto border. And eventually, both the US and China said the sanctity of the LoC should be maintained,” Gupta said.
India’s war effort
The Kargil War was a costly one for India — 527 soldiers died and 1,363 injured according to official figures. The Pakistani Army had captured all the heights, and the terrain put the Indian Army at a great disadvantage.
“(Kargil) brought about a new definition of heroism. It was a very costly war in terms of Army lives. But it showed the extent to which the Indian Army was ready to go for the sake of the country,” Nambiar said.
On 31 May, five days since Operation Vijay was launched, Vajpayee publicly said it was a “war-like situation” in Kargil.
The violence escalated rapidly over the next 10 days. On 10 June, the Pakistan Army returned mutilated bodies of six Indian soldiers, enraging the military and political establishment.
Meanwhile, by 15 June, US President Bill Clinton was urging Nawaz Sharif to withdraw troops from Kargil.
In this period, the armies fought the Battle of Tololing, seen as one of the major turning points of the war.
By 29 June, the Indian Army had captured two important posts near Tiger Hill, a major feature on the Kargil landscape. By 4 July, it captured Tiger Hill, which was seen as a de facto victory for India.
Amarinder noted that the performance of India’s junior commissioned officers (JCOs), regimental officers and other junior soldiers was “unsurpassed”.
He wrote that the performance of six battalions was especially instrumental in India’s victory — 2 Rajputana Rifles, 13 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles, 1/11 Gorkha Rifles, 13 Jat Regiment, 18 Grenadiers and 8 Sikh Regiment.
On 14 July, the Indian government declared Operation Vijay to be a success, and by 26 July, all of the Pakistani forces had been evicted from Jammu and Kashmir.
The Sharif-Clinton meeting and the end of the War
Vajpayee’s decision to show self-restraint had paid off diplomatically.
During the conflict, Clinton called Sharif and stressed that the US saw Pakistan as the aggressor in the conflict. He also rejected the “fiction that [Pakistani] fighters were separatist guerrillas”.
Sharif was soon boarding a flight to Washington. He met Clinton at Blair House on 4 July, America’s Independence Day and also the day Indian soldiers recaptured Tiger Hill.
Clinton’s agenda was clear — ensure a ceasefire between Pakistan and India. He had also come around to Vajpayee’s condition that the ceasefire could take place only after Pakistan withdrew its troops.
Strobe Talbott, the US Deputy Secretary of State, wrote that through fine diplomatic play, Clinton and his national security team managed to force Sharif to accept the US’ demands.
By the time their meeting was finished, Sharif had agreed to withdraw his troops from Kargil, ending the conflict and establishing the Line of Control as the de facto border between India and Pakistan.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.