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Wrong history, wronged officer Tribunal says generals distorted Kargil war account

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By SUJAN DUTTA
  • Published 27.05.10
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New Delhi, May 26: The history of the Kargil war should be rewritten because some generals distorted the records, the Armed Forces Tribunal has ordered in an unparalleled judgment.

The judgment was delivered after the tribunal concluded that Lt Gen. Kishan Pal, a superior of Brigadier Devinder Singh who commanded the Batalik sector, doctored Singh’s “battle performance report” and the “after-action report” that went into the writing of the official history of the war.

The official army history prepared by its military operations directorate is titled Op Vijay — Account of the War in Kargil.

Brigadier Devinder Singh had also predicted the pattern of intrusions by the Pakistan Army and by militants supported by it. He was injured during a battle while personally leading his forces.

Brigadier Devinder Singh was since forced to retire because, he had alleged, his “battle performance report” was fudged by the commander of the 15 corps, Lt Gen. Pal, and he was not considered for promotion to major general. The brigadier is now a senior manager in a private aviation firm. Pal has also retired.

The brigadier lodged a complaint within a year of the war but the tardy processes through which such entreaties are considered has taken nearly 10 years. That too has been possible after defence minister A.K. Antony facilitated the creation of the Armed Forces Tribunal to which thousands of military disputes pending in high courts have been transferred.

The Armed Forces Tribunal judgment made available today could open a can of worms because there are at least three other officers who served in the Kargil war — Brigadier Surinder Singh who was dismissed during the hostilities as the commander of the Kargil-based 121 brigade among them — who complained that their roles were either undermined or that their warnings were not heeded by superior officers.

Eleven years after the war that peaked around this time in 1999, the way it was fought, the lapses that allowed the intrusions into Indian territory and the role of superior officers are still hotly debated in military and strategic communities.

Not surprisingly, while the BJP-led NDA government that was swept to power in October 1999 celebrated the “victory” in the war with much fanfare, subsequent Congress-led UPA governments have kept the ceremonies low-key. Inside and outside the army, some people deeply suspect that a clutch of generals who were close to their political masters allowed the intrusions to snowball into a war and then manufactured a victory that came about with US pressure.

At the height of the war, then defence minister George Fernandes predicted “victory” in 48 hours but the hostilities lasted 80 days and cost the lives of nearly 550 soldiers and young officers. The then director general of military operations, Lt Gen. Nirmal Chandra Vij, who later became army chief and currently heads (with cabinet rank) the National Disaster Management Authority, also went against military protocol to go to the office of the BJP to brief its leadership on the war.

The tribunal judgment notes that the role of Brigadier Devinder Singh, who commanded the 70 infantry brigade in the Batalik sector, was not acknowledged in the 15 corps “after action report” by his reviewing officer, Lt Gen. Pal.

The report was accepted by the “senior reviewing officer” — northern army commander Lt Gen. H.M. Khanna — and forwarded to army headquarters’ military operations directorate.

Before the hostilities peaked, in a wargame in the 15 corps headquarters in Srinagar, Brigadier Devinder Singh, acting as the enemy commander, had forecast the pattern of intrusions along the Kargil front covering the sectors of Batalik, Kargil-Drass and Mushkoh.

Even in the middle of the war, during a visit by the then army chief, Gen. V.P. Malik, the brigadier assessed that the number of intruders in the formidable heights of his sector would be in the region of 600 regulars of the Pakistan Army.

This was contested by Lt Gen. Pal who put the figure at 45 irregulars (militants), a ridiculous number, as was concluded from the recovery of enemy arms and munitions from Jubbar and Khalubar Ridge.

It was probably such an assessment that goaded the government into thinking that the heights could be cleared “in 48 hours”.

Likewise, in the army headquarters military operations directorate’s Op Vijay – Account of the War in Kargil, Vol III, it was noted that the deputy in the 3 infantry division (under the 15 corps), Brigadier Ashok Duggal, “controlled the Stangba-Khalubar Ridge operations”.

But the commander of the division, Maj. Gen. V.S. Budhwar, contradicted this and told the tribunal that Brigadier Devinder Singh was in command and that Brigadier Duggal was temporarily (for 72 hours) moved to the eastern flank of the Batalik sector “to assist and co-ordinate”.

Brigadier Devinder Singh was recommended for a Mahavir Chakra (the second highest award for acts of conspicuous gallantry in the face of the enemy). But after Lt Gen. Pal dealt with his “battle performance report” and approved the “after action reports”, Brigadier Devinder Singh was awarded a Vishisht Seva Medal (for distinguished service of an exceptional order), usually given for peacetime duties.

A brigade usually comprises about three battalions but after Brigadier Devinder Singh and his 70 infantry brigade was moved to the front from counter-insurgency duties in the Kashmir Valley, there was a time when he was commanding as many as 11 battalions, two more than the number usually allotted to a division.

A division is headed by a major general and a corps by a lieutenant general. The commanding officers of the battalions filed affidavits and gave written depositions saying that they were under the command of Brigadier Devinder Singh.

It will be exceptional for the army to now turn the wheel back and restore to Brigadier Devinder Singh his awards and, may be, a promotion. He himself told the tribunal that he wants his military reputation restored because that is what matters most for a professional soldier.

Army headquarters can either accept the tribunal order or challenge it in the Supreme Court. Brigadier Devinder Singh can also go to the apex court if army headquarters does not accept the ruling. All these steps will be in uncharted territory because there is no precedent. But the controversy over the assessments of the Kargil war is set to be stoked again after the tribunal judgment. More so now that the tribunal will also hear the prayers of three more officers – Brigadier Surinder Singh (sacked for allegedly failing to gauge the depth of the intrusions), a battalion commander, Col. Neeraj Mehra, and Major Manish Bhatnagar who was court-martialled and thrown out of service for allegedly fleeing the battlefield during operations in the Siachen sector.