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Kargil: The War of Our Times '...The horrific signature of war crawled all across it...'

Text and Photographs by Sankarshan Thakur

The centrestage of the Kargil war as seen from Pandrass-Drass in July of 2019.

Imagine an image airbrushed. Of warts and scars and pocks and craters, and curses that only war can spell. Then imagine the panoramic image on top. Or look at it, just look at it. When I first came upon this sight in the summer of 1999 — man to mountain — the vista looked nothing like this. It was a setting irredeemably scarred. It was littered with hollow shells and field guns, and blackened by what they emitted — gunpowder, smoke, phosphorescence, panic, disarray, dread, destruction, death. Worse. Irreparable injury. Irreparable loss. The horrific signature of war crawled all across it.

Over the autumn and winter of 1998, the Pakistani military machine had sneaked under lowered, lazy guard, and snatched vantage stations right across the range you see and farther yonder. With armed mercenaries at the front, it had breached Indian sovereignty along more than a hundred kilometres of a frozen desolate frontier, often pushing several kilometres in. They had dug in and established dozens of offensive outposts. They had come to dominate key positions above National Highway 1A, the slender and sole road link India possesses to the strategic Kargil-Ladakh frontier. The audacious adventure became a full-blown intrusion as a result of multiple lapses in intelligence and military preparedness; early alerts had been sounded but they were ignored, even scoffed at.

The summer of 1999 was the price the nation paid. It took nine weeks of dour combat — and diplomatic brinkmanship between subcontinental nuclear powers — to knock off the incursion, regain the territories and call a halt to fire. Tens of thousands of civilians lay displaced, close to 550 Indian soldiers were killed in action and thrice the number injured; losses on the Pakistani side, which denied any military role for a long time, remain disputed to today, the number of soldiers dead ranges from 700 to 4,000.

We travelled back to Kargil last fortnight to witness what has changed. From Zoji La in the southwest to Budh Kharbu in the northeast, the frontier has transformed into a metal-plated garrison, possessed of a Battle School to boot; the altitudes looming above are more effectively manned and watched than ever before; Drass and Kargil have become islands of teeming commerce; a benign cloud has come to hang over peaks that once flamed with fierce fire. The panorama on this page has not been airbrushed; it is a picture from today of what was then the centrestage of the Kargil War. Left to right in the image stand some of the key peaks that had been grabbed and occupied, and had to be reclaimed — Tiger Hill, Kala Pahad, Point 4180, Point 5140, Tololing. In the folds behind the mountains to the left of the picture lies Mushkoh Valley; beyond the peaks to the right, Batalik. Twenty summers ago, this photograph, clicked somewhere between Pandrass and Drass on the afternoon of July 9, 2019, would have looked patently and dishonestly airbrushed of the nasty disfigurement that war is. Over the next few pages, you will find a few reasons why.

special 20th anniversary issue - reports from 1999 june-july issues of the telegraph
The approach to Kargil from the Kashmir Valley winds up the steep and often precarious Zoji La, a high pass 36 kilometres long (top left); shut through winters and excessive snow, the road is mostly rutted and in need of constant repair during summer months. Zoji La, nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, opens onto a wind-blown clearing above the tree-line called Zero Point (centre) and meanders on to a hamlet called Gumri (top right) which is often used as a fuel dump during winters. Beyond Gumri, the road plunges into the vast and beauteous Matayen Valley (above right) and eventually leads, along turbulent mountain streams, into Pandrass, Drass and Kargil, where the military presence today is not merely inescapable, it’s domineering
The craggy slope that was once a blistered battlefront, taken by the to and fro of artillery gunfire, is now a grand red sandstone memorial to soldiers. It is looked over by the Tricolour (above) said to weigh 15 kilograms. The air all around is very military, and right overhead looms the Tololing peak — the area has been christened Tololing Range and has a fair few eponymous cafés and coffee shacks. During summer months, the memorial takes a steady stream of visitors. To one side, on a gentle knoll, sits an Arlington-like gallery of tributes in stone to those killed in action (top right). There are other, smaller, memorials littered across this landscape, like the one in Pandrass (top left) for soldiers who battled to wrest the Mushkoh Valley
(Above) Desolate and depeopled during the war, Kargil (right) has more than recovered its original mien. A retail hub and popular night-halt for tourists travelling to and back from Leh and Zanskar, Kargil now has more than a dozen hotels, tens of eateries and a mounting population that has burst frontiers and clambered up the surrounding plateaux; (Top left) Hotel Siachen (left) in Kargil’s main bazaar was the only place journalists covering the war could find refuge in. It offered bed, tea, and on the lucky day, breakfast. Often shelled during the hostilities, Hotel Siachen refused to shut operating. It has acquired a new fibreglass façade, but behind it Siachen remains its old doughty self; (Top right) A voice from today’s Kargil. Prince Qaiser (right) is a child of the war, born in 1999; but he wants to have little to do with what happened. He has heard tales but is unable to be curious. “Kya fayda?” A hotel handyboy, Qaiser says what matters to him is the here and now. “Kaam karna hai, paise kamaaney hain, aage jaana hai, pehle kya hua jaan ke kya milega… haan, phir se jung nahin honee chahiye, jung se bhi kisi ko kya mila?”
Reports from sankarshan thakur in the telegraph - 1999

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

That year, that Cricket World Cup

In the shadow of a noisy war, a noisy game

Sankarshan Thakur in Drass (June 9, 1999)

The soldier’s dark bunker was lit by a flickering kerosene burner. His bed was a ragged sheet of tarpaulin stretched across discarded gunshell cases and he drank his tea from the same pewter mug that he shaved out of. But he had room in his spartan quarters for a few essential luxuries: a rusted samovar for heat on cold nights, a scrapbook picture of a lusciously disrobed Helen lilting in the “O Haseena Zulfowali” song for sustenance in loneliness and a small black and white television set for watching India’s cricket outings.

The India-Pakistan clash was only a few hours away and the soldier was busy ensuring that his lead battery was well-charged and his set working. “The signals are bad here but for these circumstances, they are good enough. It will be a match to watch,” the soldier said. A contest of cricket in faraway Manchester seemed like an unreal abstraction in the pit of a shell-scarred bunker on the edge of a devastated frontier township. Drass was drowned in the sound of battle, shells ringing eerily through the torn rooftops of abandoned homes, and angry guns booming in response. In the upper reaches of Tololing and Mushkoh nearby, the grim battle for military supremacy raged.

Now an artillery battle, now an infantry assault. Troop convoys were droning up and down the shelled-out town centre, depositing clusters of jawans come to dig fresh gun positions. Some were busy cleaning turrets of resting guns, others preparing to launch another round of pounding. Under a huge marquee, a unit bound for the Mushkoh battleground was finishing a hurried lunch of chapatis, dal and raw, uncut onions. But at the back of all this, time was ticking away towards that other India-Pakistan confrontation on a playground called Old Trafford. For this bunkered soldier, though, the cricket match wasn’t quite just play. It was an all-too-human need known as distraction, a way of escaping the war for a while and establishing touch with a more normal patch of life. And what could be more distracting today, or more normal, than an India match in the World Cup?

An India-Pakistan match, of course, meant para-distraction, para-normalcy. But for the jawan, as for many others engaged along the frontier, the match had another dimension, an almost war-like intensity bubbling over flames of national pride and historical prejudice. The jawan was posted on the Poonch frontier earlier and was disarmingly articulate about the split-level combat mind-set an India-Pakistan cricket game can create. “In Poonch, we never even used to have to check out the result of an India-Pakistan match. If they won, they would fire a few celebratory shots across. But if they lost, they would make our lives miserable. If they lose tonight, they are really going to pack a punch in their bombardment,” the jawan said. “Cricket may be a game but for many of us, it is also an expression of national passion.”

Kargil, too, unhooked herself temporarily from the worries of a battle-weary, disrupted life and lapsed into a surreal embrace with cricket. The few surviving general merchants and public trunk phone operators downed their shutters mid-afternoon to reach their television sets in time for the match. The taxi stand in the centre of town, usually abuzz with out-of-work drivers lounging in the sun, was deserted. Wherever there was a television set, there was a group of people glued like Hamlyn rats to the Pied Piper. Shelling continued to hit Kargil hard all morning and afternoon but suddenly the town seemed to have shut out the battle in its frontyard. Today’s shelling was focused on the nearby Khurbathang plateau just below Kargil’s television tower, where lie the charred remains of a convoy of road-building trucks and rollers bombed last fortnight. Two shells also hit the vicinity of the nearby district headquarters near Baroo and one crashed into a garage behind the Siachen Hotel, the only place visitors to Kargil can now stay in. Splinters flew across the hotel’s rooftops and dissipated in its little patio.

But today, the shelling and the intensifying frontier battle were pushed back to the status of asides in street conversations. All chat was centred on prospects of the India-Pakistan clash in Manchester, not the confrontation on the nearby frontier.

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
Jawans unloading ammunition

An inch of metal for miles of motherland

The price soldiers often pay, and the prize they are handed

Sankarshan Thakur in Mushkoh Valley (July 11, 1999)

This war is not about peaks and ridges on this damned frontier; it is about the men trying to hold them against odds that other men and nature have together mounted. You get only one life and these men have been ready to lose it far from their home and hearth and family for as little as a patch of cold unyielding earth that wouldn’t even offer them space for final rest but which is part of what we proudly call our nation. In the end, they just become ungainly dead-weights on the backs of unknown mules, their dignity wrapped in ragged blankets. If they are fortunate, these blankets will somewhere have a little badge of honour pinned — an inch of metal for miles of the motherland.

“What is there in it for the jawan?” asked a brigade major at the graveyard that a camp deep in Mushkoh Valley had become. “What is in it for him but death? He will probably get a commendation that he won’t be there to celebrate and in a little while, everyone will forget about him and his wife and children and stricken parents.”

The brigade major was sitting in a rag-tag tent frenetically signing commendations for his martyred troops. The battle for Mushkoh was pirouetting overhead — artillery and mortar fire zooming from this side and across — but the brigade major had taken 15 minutes off his operations room to commit himself to giving his dead troops the best and only parting he could in the circumstances.

“I’d rather not sign these high-sounding commendation letters,” he said. “I’d rather have my men with me, even if I am cursing them. But if they don’t get even this, what will they?” Tears were defying the resistance of his eyes. It was the third night of fierce battle on the unkind heights of Mushkoh — the fight was with an entrenched enemy with all of nature’s ferocity on his side — and the camp was brimming over with the grim news trickling down from the peaks.

Close to twilight, the hill overlooking the camp — worsted route to the battlefront — became suddenly streaked with troop parties returning. Soldiers on camps gathered at the foot of the hill to receive their mates but this was no hour for hearty welcomes. Many of them were haplessly wounded and with the camp finally in sight, they were running down the perilous slope for succour. Three jawans of the 2nd Naga unit had bullets lodged in their midriffs; they were bleeding profusely and they were running down for their lives.

Even those who escaped injury in the battle weren’t in much better shape. Their faces were black with dust and gunpowder soot. Their eyes were bleary, their general countenance quite delirious.

“We have defeated the bastards,” said one of them. “But he took the lives out of us.” Returning soldiers reported an awesomely well-prepared enemy. They were prepared with arms and ammunition for months of battle. They had had so much time on the peaks that they had dug tunnels deep and cosy enough to have as many as 40 troops.

On one of the peaks they had even constructed a temporary seven-foot high mosque with sheets of tin. They were, in fact, comfortable enough to have crafted a metal dome on top of it. As the injured were being rushed into the bunkered MI room at the base, another platoon came trundling down. There were about 15 men taking turns at carrying a grievously shell-hit Naga soldier on a stretcher. The soldier was lying on his stomach and the gunny bag wrapped around him was soaked with blood. A little further up, we ran into a four-mule pack slowly descending a ridge; each had a dead soldier slung on its back. Their accompanying mates weren’t even looking up. By dark, the artillery launched a massive assault on identified enemy concentrations.

The attack was inaugurated by stunning bursts of multi-barrel rocket launcher (MBRL) fire. Then came mortar fire from base in Pandrass, just behind the hillfold from Mushkoh. And finally, Bofors guns, recently carted up the treacherous route into Mushkoh, began the noisy finishing job. From our vantage point, with a clear view of Rocky Knob, one of the major intruder concentrations in Mushkoh, we saw two Bofors howitzers pounding for close to an hour. “Excellent shot,” the gun commander shouted each time he saw through his field glasses a direct hit being scored. But the counter-offensive from intruder-held peaks and Pakistani artillery positions behind the LoC was no less shattering.

Through the night they blistered Mushkoh’s army camps with field gun and mortar fire. By dark, Indian soldiers also spotted a remotely piloted vehicle (RPV) sent into Mushkoh to pick up fresh blueprints of Indian troop concentrations. If something had to give a lie to Pakistan Premier Nawaz Sharif’s pledges on respecting the LoC’s sanctity, it was probably the flight of the RPV by night into Indian skies. There are no unilateral withdrawals on this frontier. If Indian troops in some sectors have found the enemy decamped, it is probably only because he had been militarily repulsed.

Indeed, even claims that National Highway 1A has now been secured are being constantly taunted from across the LoC. Pandrass, which falls bang on the national highway, is, for instance, being shelled intermittently through day and night. Even Drass has had its share of shell-scarring even after they “secured” NH 1A. But the most insistent evidence of the battle raging on is troops departing for the frontier and troops returning dead or wounded or frazzled. What’s in it for them? At best an inch of metal for miles of motherland.

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 Captain and the Enemy

Celebration, and correction, over the remains of a dead Pakistani soldier

Sankarshan Thakur in Mushkoh (July 10, 1999)

Here is a little glimpse into the man we describe by that disliked anonymous noun called The Enemy: Captain Imtiaz Malik of the Pakistan Army’s 165th Mortar Regiment. Captain Imtiaz perished in the fierce battle over Point 4875 on the night of July 7. But if he knew how to fight, he perhaps also knew how to love. In his breast pocket was found a letter from his wife, Samina. It was a crumpled sheet of blue and spattered with the dead captain’s blood. The post mark on the envelope showed that Samina had mailed it in Islamabad on June 14, probably the last letter she sent to him. There were also other missives from his wife Captain Imtiaz had kept on his person through to the end — two cards, for instance, of the kind young lovers are wont to write to each other. It would seem too indecent an invasion of a dead man’s privacy — or a young widow’s grief — to reveal their contents. Suffice to say that Captain Imtiaz was a man well loved by his dear ones. And perhaps he loved his dear ones as much; else, he wouldn’t have bothered strapping his wife’s letters to his heart in battle. But to infantry troops who had taken the personal effects of Captain Imtiaz, the letters were objects of momentary pleasure at best and ridicule at worst.

“The fellow must have fancied himself as a bit of a Romeo,” one of them said as they spread out the recoveries from Point 4875 on the floor of a tent in the forward camp. “Even on the battlefront, all he seemed to care about were love letters.”

The infantrymen, just back from a torrid battle on Point 4875, were still in the heat of the moment and Captain Imtiaz to them was nothing but just the personification of the enemy who must be loathed and lampooned. Captain Imtiaz and his men had given Indian troops a hellish few hours on the peak; they had claimed several Indian lives and caused many more casualties. As leader of the offending Pakistani platoon, Captain Imtiaz deserved nothing but the worst in the infantrymen’s eyes. And now that he was dead what better way to hurt him but taunt what he had left behind. It took a word from the soldiers’ officer to inject a note of sobriety in the proceedings as they catalogued the recoveries from the enemy camp.

“He, too, was just a human being like one of us,” the officer said. “A man and a soldier following orders. He, too, was a member of some family, someone’s son and someone’s husband. Look at how we preserve our own letters from home.”

In his hand the officer held a letter to Captain Imtiaz from a senior in the Pakistani Army commending him for selection to a specialised artillery course. It was full of praise for the young captain and its tone, typically, was utterly patronising. “Their senior officers write to their juniors just like ours do,” remarked a soldier on hearing the letter’s contents, and the tent rippled with a round of well-meant laughter. Captain Imtiaz, if only for a moment, had become just another soldier doing his duty and rising up the ranks in just another army.

“I got a similar letter from my instructor when I passed out of artillery school,” said one soldier, sounding suddenly piquant and even a little affectionate. By now the tent floor was a mosaic of the debris of a destroyed Pakistani bunker — probably the most engaging exhibition so far of the depth of Pakistani involvement in the invasion of upper Kashmir. Among the stuff the Indian soldiers had brought back from Point 4875 were two long-range Pakistan Army field transmitters, a dozen-odd Operation Cards (identity cards) of Pakistani soldiers, rank and unit labels of the Northern Light Infantry, the main Pakistani regiment involved in the incursion, gas masks and chemical weapons filters, a roll of Konika colour film, ration supply registers for forward units and an albumful of photographs of soldiers with each other and with their families. But, perhaps, the key recovery was a file in which were notings of the minutest details of Indian artillery and infantry positions in the Drass sector.

“Thank god our gun positions have now been shuffled about,” said one officer, aghast at the sharp detail the Pakistanis had in their possession. “I used to wonder why their fire was coming so close to us, but now we know.”

Among what was obviously a treasure for Indian troops was also Captain Imitiaz’s bank passbook and a wad of cheques he had had no opportunity to use. In the event he went away signing an overdraft on his life.

'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

Climber, Crawler, Soldier, Spy

What we knew of Pakistani embattlements on the heights courtesy a smart trooper

Sankarshan Thakur in Drass (June 15, 1999)

When he slipped off his snowboots, the captain revealed feet that had gone puce, scraped away by the cold. His soles were blistered and peeling and he had sprained his ankles and hipbone. He could barely walk. “I am happy just to be back,” he said. “Several times up there, I was certain it was going to be the end of me.” He had just returned from a mission up Height 5140, which now appears close to falling back into Indian hands after the success of Tololing.

“We are moving in on the enemy but they are very well entrenched,” the captain said. “They almost had us. They are very well armed, very well stocked and they still have the advantage of secure bunkers on heights.” The captain’s two-man mission had taken him right to the top of Height 5140 and he had surprised himself a bit by getting all the way there, considering it is an infiltrator-held peak. “There seemed to be nobody there but, suddenly, they began firing from their bunkers and foxholes and we had no cover.” The captain and his mate, caught unawares, lay in the snow for long hours pretending to be dead.

“It was clear he had us covered with his guns because when I tried to move a little to seek artillery cover on the field phone, he fired. It was a very lucky escape.” The captain did eventually manage to get long-distance artillery fire and used it as cover to make his way back. What he had to report was, however, worrying for his superiors. They have built three-storeyed, generator-equipped bunkers around the peaks, they have ammunition to last them a year and they have made themselves so comfortable on the heights, some Afghan mercenaries have even brought up their women. Four of them were among those killed in the battle for Tololing over the weekend.

“Often, even sustained artillery fire cannot dislodge them because they dig into the security of their deep bunkers,” said a senior field commander in the Drass sector.

“From the first hand reports we are getting from our boys, it is clear they have been preparing for the intrusion over years. This is not an overnight operation. Neither is it just an infiltration by mercenaries. The planning and execution is being done by Pakistani army regulars.” But the Indian troops’ assault on peaks overlooking the critical National Highway 1A is now getting into high gear. Snatching Tololing early on Sunday morning not only earned them a strategic perch from which to consolidate but also give their morale a quantum boost.

“They know it is a matter of time before they are killed or pushed back,” the commander said. “We have surrounded them and the concerted artillery and infantry assaults of the last couple of days have shaken them badly.” Height 5140 has three infantry columns closing in now, aided by precision artillery bombardment from batteries in the Drass Valley. Jawans are moving bunker to bunker, using grenades, handfired anti-tank missiles and even flame throwers to eject infiltrators from their positions. Units of special group para-commandos have been sent in to secure the Marpola peak southwest of Height 5140.

Once supremacy over Marpola is achieved, it will be easier to cut off the supply lines of infiltrators on Height 5140. Marpola overlooks the supply routes of Height 5140 and adjoining hill features from the Pakistani side and infantry detachments hope to seal them off with the advantage of Marpola’s heights. Field commanders felt the gains will be slow to come and the battle long. “We know we have him cornered, so we will suffocate him, minimising our casualties,” one said. Always exposed to enemy fire and rather unused to operating at such high altitudes, he is braving heavy odds. The injured captain’s unit, for instance, had arrived from Bihar a week before hostilities began and was immediately ordered to action on the peaks. “I have had no training in climbing mountains. All I did was climb a hillock during my course days at the National Defence Academy and here I was, shinnying up 18,000 feet under enemy fire,” the captain said.

He had Siachen clothing and the advantage of a pub tent, where he survived a week on cigarettes and chocolates

“There was nothing else to eat, the food sent up from base was frozen so hard it was difficult to bite off” — but his jawans were out in the open snow in sub-zero temperatures without snowboots or down jackets, essential at such heights. “It is so terrible. We do not even have basic equipment for our soldiers,” he said. “I had snowboots but they are totally inadequate for climbing. It has no grip in the snow and twice I slipped and nearly killed myself without the enemy having to fire a shot.” He still had a sense of humour. But humour is perhaps the weapon you need most to survive here and fight on.

The end

Credits:

Sankarshan Thakur

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