Rahul Bedi documents the story of Brigadier Surinder Singh, the army’s fall guy for Kargil.
Was the Kargil conflict a famous victory for our armed forces, or an unforgivable waste of men and money? And is the army taking the wrong man to task for the lapse? Noted defence writer Rahul Bedi probes the victimization of Brigadier Surinder Singh.
Until the mid-seventies, soldiering in India was a glamorous and gentlemanly profession. Military officers were bright, upright men, and highly respected in society. Soldiers talk nostalgically of the days when a mere note from the commanding officer on behalf of any jawan to the local authorities back in his village carried weight. Those were the times when the esprit de corps in the service was strong and invitations to swinging regimental officers’ messes much sought after. Salaries were low, but the lifestyle rather lavish, in what was largely a gentleman’s army. Many of its officers were, in reality, eager boys trapped inside grown bodies, seeking to indulge passions like shikar, riding, polo, outdoor living and danger.
From independence until the third war with Pakistan, in 1971, there was ample opportunity for the latter. And it was amply vindicated, except for the disastrous war with China. But then, in that instance, it was the political and not the military establishment that forced ignominy on the country. The bravery and tactical brilliance of all ranks in the three wars with Pakistan is well recorded and the subject of study in combat institutions around the world.
Politics was rarely, if at all, discussed by officers, who, if passed over for promotion, retired gracefully, confident of their status in society. Promotions were merit-based and by and large fair, with undeserving candidates rarely ever crossing their limits of incompetence. Army chiefs and senior commanders brooked no political interference in operational matters and were listened to with respect. When asked by Indira Gandhi to move into East Pakistan in early 1971, the Chief of Army Staff General Sam Manekshaw firmly told her that it would take at least ten months before his force would be ready for combat. Mrs Gandhi listened and Bangladesh came into being in December that year. In short, the olive green uniform enjoyed an exalted status. Which it was soon to lose.
Army Headquarters, backed by the political establishment, is determined not to fix responsibility for the lapses which led to the Pakistani intrusion, and for operational blunders. It is instead steadily working towards pinning the entire blame on Brigadier Surinder Singh, the commander of the now-famous 121 Brigade at Kargil.
The army’s professionalism and apolitical stance began to slowly unravel after the Third Pay Commission in the late 1970s. Officer ranks were diluted, ostensibly to enhance career prospects, but their responsibilities reduced in inverse proportion to their promotions. Periodic cadre reviews led further to a lop-sided rank structure, creating a situation in which lieutenant generals discharged duties previously performed by middle-ranking lieutanent colonels and similar ranks in the other two services. This was the moment for which the politicians and civil servants had been waiting. Having always regarded the military with suspicion, they were simply waiting to gain ascendancy over the services. Sadly, succeeding military chiefs and senior officers did not disappoint them, seeking political and bureaucratic patronage for career enhancement. Over the years, the military’s standing deteriorated. It reached a stage where the military was almost entirely excluded from the “security loop”. The service chiefs, for instance, were told about India’s multiple nuclear tests in 1998, just hours before they were carried out. The military was also not made aware of India’s cache of chemical weapons stored at various DRDO laboratories across the country, that are now being destroyed under the global Chemicals Weapon Convention.
Today, India’s military faces a crisis of confidence as it struggles against a shrinking defence budget and arbitrary equipping and personnel policies to re-order and modernize itself within a nuclear weapon state. It is also engaged in a stand-off with the civilian-dominated Defence Ministry, which is diluting the former’s authority by dominating operational decisions and internal service matters. There has been little or no effort to involve the services in nuclear planning after Pokhran II, and in India’s decision to deploy a credible sea-, air- and land-based minimum nuclear deterrence. There is also no single point of military advice today at the higher levels of strategic decision-making. Underpinning this is a political establishment uninformed about complex nuclear affairs but which is the final arbiter of its proposed command and control systems which, too, is far from being formalized.
The picture of frustration and disgruntlement within the Indian army was elucidated by the Army Training Command at Shimla. It recently listed some of the shortcomings of an army career — meagre wages, loss of image and glamour, and heightened frustration amongst the middle ranks of officers, who were flocking to leave service. Given the opportunity of a “golden handshake”, it said, a majority of the officers would quit service. A recent job survey has ranked the defence services seventh out of a total of nine options listed. Efforts at attracting quality personnel to the defence services in adequate numbers, half-hearted as they are, have failed. This has also led to an overall fall in standards.
It is against this rather depressing state of the Indian military that some 3,000 soldiers from Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry along with Islamic mercenaries insouciantly crossed the Line of Control (LoC) in Kargil last year, at heights above 14,000 feet, and occupied a wide swathe of territory spread over some 140 kilometres. They even ferried two artillery field guns, piece-by-piece, aboard helicopters, and re-assembled them atop the mountain peaks. These guns wreaked havoc firing down on Indian troops, before they were neutralized half-way through the war, which ended last July. It eventually took eleven weeks of bitter fighting by brave and under-equipped Indian soldiers, and Washington’s considerable influence, to evict the intruders. Over 1,200 combatants, including 519 Indian soldiers, died; another 1,100 were injured, half of them permanently maimed. India spent Rs 19.84 billion on the war. Currently, permanently manning the LoC, where temperatures average minus 20 degrees celsius, dropping to minus 60 degrees, is costing India around Rs 8-10 crores per day.
But Army Headquarters, backed by the political establishment, is determined not to fix responsibility for the lapses which led to the Pakistani intrusion, and for operational blunders. It is instead steadily working towards pinning the entire blame on Brigadier Surinder Singh, the commander of the now-famous 121 Brigade at Kargil. The laborious exercise over the past eleven months, of dragging Brigadier Singh from cantonment to cantonment to face incomplete courts of inquiry, — some of which had to be scrapped — is merely a ham-handed attempt by the establishment to cover up the failures of his seniors and to lay at rest the ghost of military inefficiency. This disingenuous and whimsical strategy of half-baked inquiries and petty harassment is also an attempt by the establishment to wear down Brigadier Singh. But in Brigadier Surinder Singh they have a formidable foe, determined to fight right down to the wire.
A highly decorated infantry officer, Singh was commissioned into the Mahar Regiment. As a captain in Nagaland he was awarded the Sena Medal for gallantry for leading a daring raid on an insurgent camp. Posted as a major with the same 121 Brigade at Kargil he commanded years later Singh captured Pt 5108 post from the enemy in the Kaksar sector in 1980 and was bestowed with a Commendation Card by the Chief of Army Staff for his bravery. Promoted to Colonel, Singh commanded 5 Mahar, which was selected to be part of the Indian contingent to the United Nations Peace Keeping Mission in Somalia. He was awarded the Vashisht Sewa Medal for distinguished service in Somalia. Thereafter Singh was promoted to Brigadier and posted to head the 121 Kargil Brigade in June 1998.
However, halfway through the Kargil conflict last year, Brigadier Singh was relieved of his command and attached to the 15 Corps headquarters at Srinagar. Thereafter, he was posted to Secunderabad as sub-area commander but shifted within a few days following the publication of documents in a weekly news magazine, which revealed that Brigadier Singh had briefed the COAS General Ved Prakash Malik a year earlier of Pakistan’s plans to transgress the LoC. Hereafter, Singh was posted as Deputy GoC (General Officer Commanding), 23 Infantry Division at Ranchi but never assumed charge there. Accused of leaking these documents, he was summoned before a three-member court of inquiry at Leh. Singh’s valid objection — that the inquiry probing the leakage comprised subordinates of Major General V.S. Budhwar, GoC, 3 Infantry Division and Singh’s commander, against whom he had filed an official complaint — was ignored.
The inquiry court, headed by a brigadier, dragged on. But when it was time for Brigadier Singh to cross-examine witnesses in December, as was his right under army law, he was suddenly ordered to report to 25 Infantry Division at Rajouri on attachment. Since December 1999, Singh has been at Rajouri, awaiting legal proceedings to be launched against him by the GoC.
This pattern of swiftly moving Brigadier Singh around has persisted whenever Army Headquarters seems to be losing the initiative. “The ploy is to keep Brigadier Singh isolated and disoriented,” officers said. The idea was to keep him occupied and involved so that he would not have time to marshal his resources and information, and take on the army top brass in civil courts, which the army cannot control.
Ironically, Major General V.S. Yadav, Commander, 25 Infantry Division, has neither met Brigadier Singh over the past five months he has been in Rajouri, nor is he aware of why the former Kargil brigade commander has been “attached” to his command. Brigadier Singh was himself taken aback by the “attachment” move, since army law decrees that an attachment is a follow-on procedure after a court of inquiry is completed, which was far from the case. An attachment is the corollary to a court of inquiry initiating formal legal proceedings against the accused officer, in order to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to ask for court-martial proceedings. The court-martial itself is presided over by five, seven or nine officers, usually of higher rank. As per army rules, the local GoC would record evidence known as Summary of Evidence and all witnesses would be examined in the presence of the accused. Thereafter, the GoC would declare his verdict.
Citing Army Rule 184 — under which the accused in a court of inquiry is entitled to the inquiry findings — Brigadier Singh wrote to 25 Infantry Division, asking to be provided the evidence the Leh inquiry had found against him, to enable him to prepare his defence. The authorities wrote back expressing ignorance about the subject.
Several senior officers were surprised at General Palʼs appointment as DGMI: they said the DGMIʼs post had acquired even greater importance after the Kargil war and given Gen Palʼs reaction to the Kargil intrusion, he was perhaps not the best man for the job. But official sources said he was close to Gen Malik, who was responsible for the reshuffle.
Reportedly on instructions from Delhi, the army then began recording the Summary of Evidence (on the basis of an incomplete court of inquiry), presided over by a brigadier (the same rank as Brigadier Singh) from the local counter-insurgency Romeo Force. Four witnesses were summoned, but left after lounging around for days without being questioned. Brigadier Singh, meanwhile, was frantically demanding to know, but to little avail, whether the court of inquiry at Leh which “pointed the needle of suspicion” at him for leaking the documents, had finalized its report or not. The army, tied down by regulations, has not yet responded, as the inquiry cannot be deemed complete without giving Brigadier Singh the opportunity to examine witnesses. The inquisitors were becoming victims of their own rules and procedures!
This stalemate ended in early April. Brigadier Singh was summoned to the newly-formed 14 Corps headquarters at Leh for yet another court of inquiry, this one investigating the withdrawal of troops from high-altitude posts along the LoC during the winter of 1998-99 which made the Pakistani infiltration possible. This was the first inquiry into operational matters against Brigadier Singh, nearly a year after the Kargil invasion, but that too was to go badly wrong.
Headed by Brigadier Atma Ram, this new inquiry was instituted following the findings of Lt Gen A.R.K. Reddy, Chief of Staff, Northern Command, who was appointed by army headquarters to conduct an internal investigation into the lead up to and execution of the Kargil war. The inquiry was also tasked with examining Major General V.S. Budhwar. Brigadier Singh protested that the inquiry was illegal; Major General Budhwar being Brigadier Atma Ram’s senior, the inquiry could not fairly examine him. Once again, army headquarters prevailed. It insisted on proceeding with the investigation, certain of blaming the vacation of the vital Bajrang Post on Brigadier Singh, securing an indictment and proceeding, more confidently this time, down the path of attachment before eventually opening court-martial proceedings against him. Army Headquarters’ confidence stemmed from the certainty that they could ascertain that the decision to vacate Bajrang Post in early March 1999 was Brigadier Singh’s alone, taken without Gen Budhwar’s concurrence.
Unfortunately for Army Headquarters, a note emerged — tucked away in a file it was not meant to be in — confirming that General Budhwar not only knew about the withdrawal, but had actually authorized it and made no moves to re-occupy Bajrang Post. Brigadier Ram’s inquiry was promptly wound up. And against all odds and the best efforts of Army Headquarters, General Budhwar became a principal protagonist in the inquiry. A fresh three-member inquiry headed by a lieutenant general was instituted around the end of April and Brigadier Singh, yet again, summoned before it to furnish evidence. The court of inquiry is believed to be continuing its deliberations and officers feel its findings might just lead to widening the net in affixing accountability for an avoidable crisis, the consequences of which will be felt in terms of human lives and money for decades.
Officers said a complete lack of threat assessment and failure of surveillance by 3rd Infantry Division at the higher command level led to the Kargil intrusion. They said all intelligence was viewed piecemeal and little or no attempt was made to collate it. Even National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra admitted that India had been “surprised” by Pakistan in Kargil. 3rd Infantry Division, commanded by Major General V.S. Budhwar, was also believed to have been provided intelligence about Pakistan building an all-weather road from Gultari to the LoC. Pakistan pushed its supply convoys and artillery pieces to the front along it, which were responsible for a majority of the casualties.
“It was no great secret that Pakistan had been building a road in the region since 1997 or amassing troops of the Northern Light Infantry at Skardu,” said a civilian intelligence source. He said Colonel (GS) Avtar Singh, responsible for preparing the Division’s intelligence assessments, either blatantly ignored reports of repeated incursions by Pakistani helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles into his area of responsibility, or was simply unable to comprehend their crucial relevance. The 3rd Infantry Division was also reportedly forwarded a report in the December 1998 issue of Al Dawa, the monthly magazine published by the Lashkar-e-Toiba militant group based near Lahore, which stated that the militant group had successfully pushed some of its cadres into the Valley through the Drass region. Al Dawa declared that the militants were trained at Skardu, headquarters of Pakistan’s 62 and 80 Brigades. Requests by Brigadier Surinder Singh for helicopter reconnaissance around this time were initially denied by General Budhwar. Ultimately, when a handful of helicopter sorties were despatched to the LoC in the Batalik and Drass areas, they were instructed to comb the nullahs instead of the ridges, where Pakistani troops were already well-entrenched.
“The Pakistani plan did not envisage venturing into the nullahs but executing a holding operation along the strategic heights to realign the LoC and interdict Highway 1A between Srinagar and Leh,” said an officer. The army’s assessments, on the other hand, were just the reverse despite being aware of Pakistani designs regarding Highway 1A. “The problem was in the higher direction of war,” said one senior officer. Tragically, he added, it was underscored by an error of professional judgement by 3rd Infantry Division, whose commanders remained unaware of the extent and seriousness of the intrusion for almost three weeks after they were discovered.
The northern army commander Lt Gen H.M. Khanna, 15 Corps’ Lt General Krishen Pal and Maj Gen Budhwar continued to insist the intrusion was a “localized” affair, firm in their belief that just a handful of Taliban militants trying to infiltrate the Valley were holed up in the hills and waiting to be evicted. Some battalion commanders who hesitated to commit their troops to the heavily-manned ridges and who had already come under heavy fire, were accused by the Corps and Division commander of cowardice.
There were also reportedly heated exchanges between some of the senior officers over committing units to what were virtually suicide missions, which led to heightened unpleasantness. “The responsibility of the higher command is not to lead men into battle but to make accurate assessments and to act on them professionally,” said a senior army officer. The bravery of the jawans and young officers bailed out their senior commanders’ collective incompetence, said the same officer.
According to senior officers, one reason for the overall laxity of 3rd Infantry Division was that over the past decade it had degenerated into a “holiday command”. There was superficial peace with the Chinese and the LoC had long been deemed “sacred” after the 1972 Shimla Agreement, leading to increasingly reduced force levels and surveillance.
The only hazard till the intrusions were uncovered was the weather. (But the army’s amazing bandobast, that seems to operate under the most adverse circumstances, had overcome even that long ago, especially for the senior commanders. Senior 3rd Infantry Division officers were flying from Kargil to Leh during the early days of the conflict to oversee the beautification programme their commander had earlier initiated and to populate the fledgling zoo he had started by catching local specimens!)
Besides, Gen Budhwar’s approval for promotion to Major General was rejected by the government around June 1997, but was mysteriously approved four months later at the cost of other officers cleared by the authorities. Army sources said he had served alongside northern army commander Lt Gen H.M. Khanna and the army chief General Malik.
General Pal, who told the Unified Headquarters meeting at Srinagar two weeks after the Pakistani intrusions were discovered that that there was “no concentration of troops” across the LoC locally, replaced Lt Gen Ravi Sawhney, the DGMI whose dismal handling of military intelligence in events leading up to the invasion in Kargil has been widely criticized.
Several senior officers were surprised at General Pal’s appointment as DGMI: they said the DGMI’s post had acquired even greater importance after the Kargil war and given Gen Pal’s reaction to the Kargil intrusion, he was perhaps not the best man for the job. But official sources said he was close to Gen Malik, who was responsible for the reshuffle. Gen Pal’s track record on the Kargil war is self-explanatory. According to the minutes of the Unified Headquarters meeting in Srinagar on May 19, some eleven days after the first Indian army patrol was ambushed by the Pakistani soldiers along the LoC, Gen Pal declared that the “situation was local and would be defeated locally”. He also added that Indian army convoys were moving unhindered in the area, when in actual fact they were under scathing Pakistani artillery fire and little or no civilian traffic was venturing along Highway 1A between Srinagar and Kargil.
In an interview with Frontline around the same time, Gen Pal declared that any suggestions about the army having underestimated the situation in Kargil were incorrect. He also told the fortnightly that the Kargil war reflected generalship “unparalleled in the history of warfare”, a factor which without doubt has qualified him for the post of DGMI!
The Directorate of Military Intelligence is responsible for gathering and collating intelligence, particularly with regard to activity along India’s borders and assessing enemy intentions. Senior officers said Gen Pal’s grossly flawed assessments and failure to correctly assess the military situation in Kargil led to complacency amongst the senior commanders. This in turn led to northern army commander Lt Gen H.M. Khanna’s lop-sided and inaccurate briefing of Defence Minister George Fernandes, causing him to declare that the “handful” of Pakistani infiltrators would be “flushed out within 48 hours”.
This casual approach to what many officials refer to as the “fourth war with Pakistan” is epitomized in General Malik leaving on a ten-day trip to Eastern Europe soon after the first Indian army patrol was ambushed by the Pakistani intruders close to the LoC. He returned only on 20 May when the battle was far advanced and Indian casualties swiftly mounting. In a feeble justification of his East European trip, General Malik said that if the head of a million-strong army stopped going abroad whenever a patrol goes missing along a volatile border or an ammunition dump in the same region is targeted by enemy artillery, he would not “even be able to go to the toilet”. Taking his cue from General Malik, Lt Gen Khanna, who was directly in charge of conducting the battle, left on a vacation to Pune for four days in mid-May!
Official sources said Brigadier Singh would continue to be “jerked” around until end-September, when Gen Malik would retire and a fresh set of officers assume command. There are, however, varying opinions at Army Headquarters on ways to deal with Brigadier Surinder Singh. Some favour a discreet, somewhat cautious approach, fearing that the former Kargil brigade commander is bound to move a civil court in case the army prevails in its clumsy endeavours and launches court-martial proceedings against him.
Brigadier Singh’s appeal was dismissed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court last August on grounds of the issue being “sensitive”, involving, as it did, national security issues. But to the army’s chagrin, the court declared that Brigadier Singh was not barred from approaching it later. “This is what the army fears and what may ultimately prove to be Brigadier Singh’s insurance policy,” officers said. Legal experts said Brigadier Singh could prove a “massive problem” and embarrassment for the army if pushed far enough to approach a civil court. This is what the army was desperate to avoid at all costs for fear of raking up sensitive issues, such as Gen Malik’s trip to Eastern Europe and Lt Gen Khanna’s sojourn in Pune.
The army’s internal investigation into the Kargil conflict, headed by Lt Gen A.R.K Reddy, Chief of Staff, Northern Command, has also come under criticism within the force. Senior officers said it was ironic that an officer from the same command that headed the manoeuvers was conducting the inquiry into the handling and execution of ‘Operation Vijay’. “For a Northern Command officer to sit in judgement on how his commander conducted the campaign militates against objectivity,” said an officer. It was nothing but a sham investigation, a mere formality being completed, he added.
Officers dissatisfied with the subjectivity of the inquiry felt that the army’s internal investigation into such a major operation should have taken its cue from the one conducted by Lt Gen Henderson Brooks into the disastrous Sino-Indian border war of 1962. Gen Brooks was unconnected with the 1962 fiasco and was a disinterested, objective party to the inquiry. His report, however, has never been made public, on the convenient argument that it would lower service morale.
The Indian army could also take lessons in fixing accountability from the Israelis, who conducted an inquiry into their being surprised by the Syrians and Egyptians during the Yom Kippur war in 1973 (which the Israelis convincingly won). The four-member inquiry commission into the Yom Kippur fiasco, headed by Dr Shimon Agranat, president of Israel’s Supreme Court, recommended the removal of Lt Gen David Elazar, the Chief of Defence Staff, for “partially mobilizing” Israel’s reserves on 1 October, 1973, a day before the Egyptians launched their ostensible military exercise which led ultimately to war.
The Agranat Commission also recommended the removal of Maj Gen Zeria, Israel’s Director General of Military Intelligence, and his Principal Assistant, for failing to provide sufficient warning of the impending attack. “They failed by providing the Israeli defence forces with totally insufficient warning,” states the report. It was only at about 4.30 a.m. that the DMI, on the strength of fresh intelligence, notified everyone that the enemy would open war at 18:00 hours on both fronts.
This article was first published in June 2000
Featured image courtesy (from the archives): Prashant Panjiar/ Outlook