Kargil: The War of Our Times '...The horrific signature of war crawled all across it...'
Death travels slow on muleback
The tragedy of war seldom ends with the ceasefire bugle
Sankarshan Thakur in Mushkoh (July 13, 1999)
Distant death is the saddest news, when people must depart without the opportunity of even a fleeting farewell. Captain Jerry Premraj got married to his sweetheart in Thiruvananthapuram on April 22, a few weeks before hostilities began on the Kargil frontier. He died on a cold peak above Mushkoh Valley last week, a few days before the hostilities ceased.
Premraj was very far from home and fledgling family when he died but he gave even mates on the front no chance to bid adieu. He had left his artillery unit to join infantrymen going up Peak 4875 so he could guide gunfire on enemy positions. A bullet hit him on the arm and burst a vein. Normally, that would have meant a minor injury but on that height, the blown vein bled too quickly for Premraj to return alive.
“I used to think only injuries to the head, chest and stomach can be fatal,” said one of his unit colleagues. “But after seeing Premraj, I have begun thinking differently. Death just comes where it has to, when it has to.”
Today was the day after the ceasefire; the business of death was supposed to have been over last night. But then, in these mountains, death has a lag time; it could be a while before the news gets to you because it mostly trots slowly down on muleback. There were three of them approaching the Drass roadhead from the Mushkoh hills this overcast morning. Each had a soldier on its back and each soldier was dead. Their mates, conducting the silent cortege to base, were downcast.
One of them had his arm in a sling; and all of them looked dazed. Like they did not know what was happening to them. Did it matter that the hostilities on the frontier were over? “What do we know about all that?” said the jawan with his arm in a sling. “For some of us, it is over anyhow. My friends are dead and we could have been too.” These were men from a Jat Regiment, who have taken on some of the fiercest battles in this war and incurred the heaviest losses.
“Many of my unit men are still up. They are going to be a little upset if they are told the war is over. We were just getting ready to give them a beating,” the jawan said. And then, pointing to his dead mates, dumped on the mules like ugly saddle-straps, he said: “We have to take some sort of revenge for what they have done to us.” He talked of recovering from his injuries — his arm had been grazed by shrapnel — and going back up again to fight along his unit.
“We should keep this right on till they are pushed out. Have you ever seen anyone politely ushering out an armed intruder who got into your home?” But elsewhere in the battlezone, there was also evidence of relief among soldiers. Though it was dyed deeply with caution. “If they genuinely go back and we can march up to the LoC unhindered, this is probably a good idea,” said an artillery major at Pandrass.
“But will they do that honestly? Disengagement should not mean we cease fire and they continue sitting where they are. Or even try to infiltrate down other routes.” The Mushkoh Valley, for instance, has ridge routes running into Sonemarg and further down the Kashmir Valley; the possibility of some militants using the absence of Indian fire to slip into the valley is not being ruled out even by military commanders in the area.
“They could take undue advantage of a ceasefire from our side to employ other strategies for infiltration,” an officer in Drass said. Indian guns had been falling silent late last night and this morning there wasn’t a shot heard anywhere. But disengagement is perhaps a misnomer of a term for what is happening here. What, in fact, is taking shape all along the Drass-Kargil frontier is a permanent engagement of sorts. With the shock they have been given, the military is no longer easy with the idea of vacating winter posts or even letting down the guard along NH 1A.
Till last winter, the army used to pack up for the winter months from positions in Drass and Kargil. But no longer. “We have to remain here, even if there is 100 feet of snow,” said an artillery colonel. “It will mean a lot of money and a lot of hardship but that is what we have earned by being too relaxed and lackadaisical. This has forever been a mischievous frontier. We should have been more vigilant,” he added. More and more troops and artillery are moving into Drass and Kargil.
Even as news of disengagement reached the frontiers, troops and their officers were busy carting heavy war equipment in from the Zoji La. New gun areas were being dug and new kinds of armour, like small mobile rocket launchers, being positioned. An officer looked back surprised when asked why reinforcements were still pouring in if the conflict had been called off. “Well, of course, because we don’t want another Kargil happening in Kargil. If we are not prepared to sit here, what did we lose all those men for?” Must it always take death to teach us lessons?
- Capt. Jerry Premraj’s parents and brother at the 10th anniversary commemoration in Kargil
Demon versus Demon
From a bunker, the report of flaming guns and a report to the reader
Sankarshan Thakur below Tololing (June 19, 1999)
Yesterday’s report from the front came to you courtesy Associated Press (AP) photographer Saurabh Das. We had been watching the twilight assault on intruder positions around Peak 5140 from a little clearing in the Drass army camp — he through his fascinating arsenal of lenses, I through wondrous wide eyes. Perilous though they are, Drass offers the best spectator seats on the high voltage battle for supremacy over snowy mountains that run along the troubled India-Pakistan frontier.
Looking left to right from the concave, shelled-out centre of Drass, you can see the three heights that hold the key to security on National Highway 1A and to India’s territorial contiguity in upper Kashmir — Tiger Hill stands to the extreme left, still streaked with snow, then comes Peak 5140, a lofty grey mountain with broad flanks, and then, Tololing, a craggy peak with down to earth contours, the kind schoolchildren etch in their drawing books. Tololing was already taken by Indian troops, Tiger Hill was awaiting a final push for conquest and 5140, at the centre of Drass’ panavision screen, was under fire.
Mortar strikes were ripping up its ridges with rapidfire ferocity and so many artillery shells were landing on the mountainhead, 5140 looked like a volcano spewing smoke, or, a demon being slowly put to death. Infantry contingents made noisy progress across the camp, arriving from battle or departing for action, and soldiers on camp skittered about to reach their bunkers before night descended. “The action will begin now,” one helmeted jawan said as he hurried down the road to his muddy haven-in-the-ground, “Get ready for the daily pounding.”
But the attention last evening was already riveted on the drama on 5140. It was dark all too soon and suddenly that other demon began to haunt us: deadline. The artillery fire was beginning to flash behind the smoke plumes on the mountain and embattled positions flickered with bursts of machinegun fire. The recounting for the day was concluded on a laptop in a captain’s lamp-lit shed even as the fiery spectacle unfolded on the mountain. But for the relaying we had to be out again into the open of the night. Saurabh had been at work on establishing a surreal little transmission station in the middle of the battleground — a phoneline and a laptop, the sparkle of its screen under the inky sky like a piece of the moon fallen on dark earth. The story was on its way.
But suddenly the cold air crackled and a wave of splinters flew overhead like lightning. I was down in the cold dust and Saurabh was down but his hand was still clutching the laptop’s side, keeping it safe on an unsteady wall of sandbags. A few moments later came another burst of shell fire, zooming above the camp and disintegrating into the banks of the Drass river behind us. “Send it across,” Saurabh urged, as I read on from the fluorescent screen, “There’s time. Send it across quick. We’ll take a chance, go ahead.”
After a brief lull, the bombardment and counter-bombardment had resumed its high pitch and the pitter-patter had turned to rain. Artillery guns were belching fire from Drass valley’s dark belly and from behind 5140 rose recurrent flashes, lightening up the sky: Pakistani guns responding. They were landing all over the place, rustling up the darkness. But Saurabh held up the screen till the last line had been read out. Around midnight, 5140 was lit up with a hail of flares; it was like a display of fireworks but this wasn’t anyone’s entertainment.
Nobody was quite sure who was firing them: it could have been the Indian forces trying to expose Pakistani positions around the peak for the infantry to hit, but it could also have been the Pakistanis trying to locate Indian troops trying to close in. Each burst of flares was followed by rounds of machinegun fire, echoing eerily in the night. From the pit of our dark bunker — we were four in a four by four hole in the ground — we heard the fire fly across and thud in the vicinity all night.
There was a brief break in exchanges but by dawn, when the first supply convoys begin moving up to Leh via Drass, precision shell fire on National Highway 1A intensified again. The gaily coloured trucks, carrying essential commodities that sustain Kargil and Leh through their long isolation of winter, hurried past the camp in semi-darkness, riding their luck as much as their tyres, mulching on overnight rain. Daybreak revealed more troops preparing to go up, fastening their snowboots and hitching their guns and sleeping bags and hauling themselves up into trucks.
On 5140, the shells were still landing and the smoke still lifting. It hadn’t been taken yet. “But,” assured a young captain, “It will fall to us soon, we are now packing our punch in this contest.” Saurabh Das of AP, more than just groggy from a night spent reclining on a pebbly wall in a dust-ridden bunker, was at it again in the lovely light of the morning, shooting this undeclared war with his own arsenal of lenses.
- Saurabh Das of AP strikes a pose with soldiers returning from conquered peaks
With soldiers returning with Pakistani military ware from the recapture of Tiger Hill
Leaving Sanjak the morning after the bombing of the skies
With soldiers returning with Pakistani military ware from the recapture of Tiger Hill
Among some of the friendliest creatures on the Kargil frontier
Attempting a satphone connection atop Ishaq’s Jeep in the Sindh gorge near Batalik
At a newly dug gun-point on the Zojila-Drass road
Along the high and desolate road to Kargil
Writing the copy on how Mushkoh Valley was secured; it would later have to be phoned in
'The gun must go up at any cost'
Even commanded to die, the soldiery was forever ready to comply
Sankarshan Thakur in Matayen (June 13, 1999)
The young officer was brief and blunt with the bad news. “It’s a near impossible mission, Sir,” he said, saluting his commanding officer. “We are working like mules on the heights and dying like dogs.” It was close to midnight and we were camped near an artillery unit. It was dark save when the guns flashed like claps of lightning tearing the ground. Rain and howling winds had pushed the temperatures well below zero; the snow tents fluttered like paper balls in a breeze, perilously close to being blown away. But the officer’s report was more numbing than the weather.
The field gun they had been trying to push up a ridge in the Tololing heights for two days was still stuck on the slopes. “It’s a heavy gun, Sir,” the officer said, “and we are having to carry it up a 70 degree gradient. There are no tracks, no mules to carry the load and the enemy is constantly firing from the other side.
He is on a height just 400 metres across and we are just like sitting ducks for him.” The commander sombrely listened and then smiled a sardonic smile. “That is why it makes my blood boil when I daily hear announcements from Delhi that we have taken this height and captured that peak. Here we are senselessly stuck trying to take a gun up to a point where it will be shot down in five minutes. And they have already been claiming from briefing rooms in Delhi that we have Tololing and Mushkoh. They should realise what we are up against. They should give some respect to the soldier on the front.”
The point to which the gun had been ordered was barely half a kilometre from enemy positions and reports from observation posts said the risk of it being blown away were high. But the orders remained unchanged; the gun had to go up. The commander had 120 men on the ridge pushing the gun and ammunition to positions from where they could mount an assault on the enemy-ridden peak. They were having to wade through freezing mountain nullahs by dark — no frontline operations are possible in daylight for the men are too exposed to enemy fire — and climb up gravel and snow, often under fire. In places, they were having to tie themselves and their equipment with rope and plough through chest-deep snow, night after night.
They had no food — what was sent from bases down below was freezing to stone — and they were having to gulp snow to escape dehydration. “The army is meant to face difficulties and overcome them. That is what a soldier’s training is. We are following orders and we are ready to die. We are doing all that but then higher-ups should sometimes understand logic and common sense,” the commander fumed. His unit had just come from the plains and been ordered to action on dizzyingly cold heights.
Most of his jawans had had no opportunity to get acclimatised to the weather on the terrain. They did not know the mountain routes, nor had any idea of enemy positions. But they were manfully lugging a 300-kilo gun barrel and much else over boulders and snow. “We have the comfort of tents and we are at a much lower altitude. Imagine that jawan trudging in the snow at that height.” Every now and then, technicians from the signal van would arrive with new grid positions and firing trajectories.
They were trying not only to give artillery cover to soldiers climbing up but also to directly hit enemy bunkers and pickets in the mountains. The battery fired all night, the Bofors and medium-range guns blasting the silence and lighting up the rainy night like strobes in a frightening theatre. News was crackling from a radio in one corner of a dimly-lit tent. “Reports of heavy fighting on the India-Pakistan border have been received... Indian officials claimed significant gains in the Drass sector where the artillery battle has been intense according to wire reports.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani foreign minister, Sartaj Aziz, who is on a visit to Beijing, is likely to meet his Indian counterpart in New Delhi for talks on...” The young officer, tired after his long march up and down the height, quietly wondered what they were going to talk about. “They are mutilating our soldiers, they are invading our territory and claiming it as their own and we want to talk to them. About what?” His commander, meanwhile, had spoken to his superiors and his orders were clear and as before. The gun had to be taken up at any cost. The message was quietly relayed to the young officer. “At any cost, Sir,” he said, his voice suddenly crisp. “We will take it up at any cost.” He rose, saluted and walked out into the thundery night.
- An artillery gun point in Pandrass