Wednesday, 5 October, 2022
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This Kargil hero was made a scapegoat, but fought to restore his brigade’s honour and won

Brig. Devinder Singh was blamed for failing to detect intrusions, but once his name was cleared, he told Shekhar Gupta that the Army’s system truly worked.

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The mostly untold story of the Kargil War is that of Brigadier Devinder Singh, commander of the 70th Brigade in the Kargil (Batalik) sector. He fought and won two wars — one, in Batalik, against the Pakistanis, and the second against the ‘system’ that made him the scapegoat for failure to detect the intrusions. He finally won his case in the courts and had his honour restored in 2010.

He spoke in detail to Shekhar Gupta shortly thereafter on NDTV’s Walk The Talk. Read his story of a war game where he was the ‘enemy’ commander who showed how an intrusion was possible and later fought it back; the story of Capt. Manoj Pandey, who won a posthumous Param Vir Chakra under his command; and the unlikely story of an officiating battalion commander, Lt Col. Amul Asthana, who wrote an inland letter over Singh’s head to the Army chief, explaining why his battalion was being flung into assault while it wasn’t yet ready, and found a hearing instead of being victimised.

Here, some key excerpts:

Shekhar Gupta (SG): It’s been a long, long haul — first the battle against intruders, then a battle against prejudice…

Brig. Devinder Singh (DS): You’re right. The battle against the intruders was short. This has been a long battle, it has been eleven years.

SG: And when the battle against the intruders was fought, even that looked like a very long battle.

DS: True. Every moment was difficult. In the beginning one felt that it was a touch-and-go, but we knew that in the end we’ll win. It was all because of the young boys and even those at the higher level. Everybody had resolved in their minds to deliver the goods.

SG: Now you have the special satisfaction of having won this order from the Armed Forces Tribunal, taking away some adverse remarks on your performance in that battle.

DS: This one is not so much about adverse remarks against me. It is more about my brigade — we had accomplished a task under very difficult circumstances and had done an extremely good job of it, but somehow, for whatever reasons, the credit that was due to us was denied. Also, certain aspersions were cast on our conduct. And I’m grateful to the tribunal that they have been able to set the perspective right.

SG: So yours was a fight for honour and history…

DS: That’s right. One wanted to set the perspective right, not only because it was wrongly recorded in some secret reports, but the boys felt that somebody else was taking credit.

SG: Because once the war is over, history is what matters.

DS: Absolutely right. There was another thing — combined with this, I was given an adverse report, that the success was not mine and someone else had to be brought in.

SG: That you were a poor commander?

DS: That’s what it implied, basically. That somebody else had to be brought in, who brought the success thereafter. But no one had been brought in, so it was a fictitious tale. The division headquarters at its level had its own role to play, the corps headquarters at its level had its own role to play, the army headquarters at its level had its own role to play. But in Batalik, we were the only people. And if the division says the duties of the higher headquarters towards the lower headquarters are very well clarified, the higher headquarters have to render assistance to the lower headquarters in times of major operations.

SG: So if they render assistance, it can’t be shown as though they had come and taken over and that you were just there naam ke vaaste (in name only)?

DS: Absolutely. So this distortion was there, and it’s very interesting that they had named the deputy GOC of 3 infantry division, who was there only for 72 hours, whereas the entire operation lasted 80 days. And even this major operation took about 10 to 12 days.

SG: On the eastern flank?

DS: No, on both the eastern and western sides.

SG: Why did it happen? Take us back to the history. Is there something that could’ve led to a prejudice?

DS: We have gone over it and I can only think of two reasons, apart from any personal prejudices, which the Armed Forces Tribunal held that the corps commander held against me, and that is why it said that the entire report had to be set aside. The motive for this, in my view, was probably that giving 11 infantry battalions to one brigade is a unique situation. And since this was a historical document, there was a motive at this level to try and show that the brigade was divided into two and that there were two commanders.

Also read: How Indian Army’s valour and Vajpayee’s diplomacy won the Kargil War for India

SG: So that it wasn’t chaos…

DS: Yes, that they had done their bit. It was well-articulated and thought-out.

SG: But it could normally be chaos — 11 battalions under a tactical brigade headquarters. Now what could be the prejudice? We keep hearing stories about the operational differences and differences that came up during war gaming before intrusions were detected.

DS: Operational differences — well, I’d served with 15 Corps commander Lt Gen. Kishan Pal in the Valley just before the Kargil War. That report of his was set aside by the then-Army chief.

SG: What happened just before the intrusions were detected?

DS: This was in April 1999. It’s standard procedure to have a war game every year so that you assess your weaknesses and take action accordingly. In fact, it was the corps commander’s own war game, and in this, I was made the force commander, northern area (‘enemy’ commander) along with Maj. Gen. Mohinder Puri, who was the overall red line (enemy) commander.

SG: But you, as an enemy commander in the war game, said ‘I can intrude and occupy your heights’?

DS: Yes, we said we can do it and this was kind of OK, accepted. And then they said will they (Pakistani troops) be able to reach the national highway passing from Zoji La to Kargil? As an enemy commander, I’d asked for more troop levels, but they (the war game coordinators) had said that any more movement than this and the Indian Armed forces would discover the “intruders”.

SG: Were there sharp words exchanged?

DS: No, none of that. It was a proper discussion and they said, you’re short of the highway but if you just sit down there you’d be able to interfere. The reasoning was that we (Indian Army, the defender) will be able to suppress them with artillery and run more convoys at night.

SG: Even when the intrusion took place, there was a difference in perception?

DS: I was told on 8 May to shift to the Batalik sector. And I moved immediately with my tactical headquarters — which is basically a commander and his G3 (Army jargon for General Staff Officer No.3). By the evening, I was in Batalik sector and there were no resources available. So, I built up on the local battalions which were there in Batalik, and we took stock of the situation and recovered all the patrols that had been ambushed. Meanwhile, some resources had been released to me.

SG: So that is where some of the patrols got lost?

DS: Prior to my moving. That’s how the intrusion was confirmed. On 3 May, it was reported. It took them five days to send patrols, those patrols were fired upon and there were casualties. And by 7 May, it was confirmed that there was a problem there. On 8 May, I was sent to take over the situation and contain the intrusion, and at a later stage, as troops become available, evict the intruders.

SG: So when did this ‘45-vs-600’ question come in?

DS: On 10 June — the then-Chief of Army Staff (Gen. V.P. Malik) visited my sector and we had a briefing. It was then that the point was brought up that the operations were going slow. The point was put up by the corps commander.

The question came up, “why was it going slow? Was it because of a lack of resources?” And I said, absolutely right. And he said, “what is your assessment of the situation?” I said there are about 600 regulars and the GOC of 3 infantry division was asked and he said about 400-450 regulars.

And Lt Gen. Kishan Pal said “just 45 or so militants”. That implied that with whatever resources we had, we weren’t doing our job. And I had about four or five battalions in bits and pieces, not fully effective. They had come down from Siachen. They were just about adequate to contain. And that difference of opinion was understood by the chief. So I was promised additional troops with the proviso that they’ll take some time to come but I had to deliver success. As an immediate measure then, there was a stalled operation at Point 5203, and I personally had to take charge of that operation, where I was wounded later.

SG: What kind of injuries did you suffer?

DS: I suffered a splinter injury from shelling on the rise. That operation was successful. Then we waited for another seven or eight days till we got additional battalions, then we organised ourselves and started the operation on 29 June and success was delivered by 7 or 9 July.

SG: I hear the story that while this build-up was going on, a really intrepid battalion commander of yours was writing directly to the chief saying that his unit was not yet ready for battle and was being flung into it.

DS: You’re right. It’s a very famous battalion — 1/11 Gorkha, and Lt Col. Amul Asthana was the officiating CO at that time. They were released to me at Leh on 9 May. By the time they reached Batalik, we had to walk for two-three days to reach the battlefront. So, 17-18 May, they were asked to attack on a feature named Kukarthang, which is a very difficult feature, like Khalubar. This was just ten days after the intrusion was detected. And when I asked him (Asthana) about his assessment, he said his battalion was of 250 strength only. He said I don’t have the resources and I’ve been asked to launch this attack but we will.

I asked him that evening, what are the chances of success? So he said, “Sir, I will be able to field only around 50 to 60 effective troops there because I have to maintain them”, and incidentally, the exercise was to be led by Manoj Pandey, a brave boy. They said, “Sir, there is an ice cliff, which will take us an hour-and-a-half to negotiate”. The artillery had not been fully established because they’d just been inducted, and it was coming in bits and pieces. The distance was too close and we couldn’t continue firing on the object for very long. So they felt that the chances of success were not even one per cent or even half a per cent. So, one was in a constant turmoil because one would have lost 40-50 boys.

SG: For nothing…

DS: For nothing, yes. And the attack had to be somehow called off. Already, the orders had been issued at the corps level.

SG: And there was pressure.

DS: There was pressure. These were the initial stages. But senior commanders at this stage were probably not sure how strong the intrusion was. We had become very sure that there was a very strong presence and this was not a walkover or a few militants, because over the days that we’d been inducted, firing had been going on. They’d been firing at us so we knew that they were a solid, substantial presence. So, to lodge a full-scale attack against them without preparation would’ve been a sheer waste of life.

So this kept going on, when finally, at quarter to twelve, we called off the attack. There were a lot of queries — “why was it called off? Who called it off?” — which was my responsibility, so I said I did because I thought that it was appropriate and I felt that we needed more preparation and more time. And this is really what became the bone of contention between me and the commander who said that operations were slow. They were slow because the resources were not there.

Also read: The bus ride that almost helped Vajpayee, Sharif rewrite history of South Asia

SG: And so your CO actually wrote an inland letter directly to the chief.

DS: Yes, I was not aware. He wrote to the chief saying, “I’m being asked to attack, but I don’t have enough machine guns or mortar”. So this reached Gen. Malik, and as he wrote in his book, it pricked his conscience. And he made a visit to the headquarters of 15 Corps and checked the status there. Because probably he’d been given information earlier there that everyone was well-equipped. I’d like to mention that in the Kargil review committee, it was mentioned that two battalions were released to 70 Brigade on 9 May. But they were not up to their strengths.

SG: So the fact is that Manoj Pandey (who won a posthumous Param Vir Chakra later) then vindicated himself. Today, somebody might say he was afraid of assault but he vindicated himself.

DS: No, he was a very brave boy. It’s sad we lost him. And not on one occasion but on numerous occasions, he delivered the goods.

SG: But to that extent, we can see that the system worked because this was not 1962 repeated, when you were told to charge, march on regardless. That means somebody even at the top took notice of just a lieutenant colonel in the field writing an inland letter. Normally in the Army, that would’ve been called insubordination.

DS: Absolutely. Everything used to be paid heed to, because the end aim was to deliver against the enemy.

SG: And what could have been a disaster there became a victory later. But Brigadier saheb, let me say something — the example of 1/11 Gorkha Rifles and Lt Col. Amul Asthana and then Manoj Pandey, then your own example. One got justice right then, because at the top, the chief saw some sense and also made sure that the officer was not victimised for his courage to speak the truth. You’ve taken much longer. It’s taken 11 years but it’s still vindication. So you can say that whatever happens, there is something in the system that works.

DS: I couldn’t agree with you more. I firmly believe that the Army is an excellent organisation and it has delivered very, very well. But aberrations are always there, and there are wrong people at wrong times, and because of a few individuals, the value-based system is going haywire.

SG: And there are wrong moments and wrong circumstances.

DS: Yes. So I think, in this way, it is very necessary for senior officers to be part of a value-based system.

Also read: How Pokhran nuclear tests kicked off a year that changed India-Pakistan ties forever


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