My Kargil testimony, declassified

Shekhar Gupta
Shekhar GuptaSep 01, 2014 | 17:49

My Kargil testimony, declassified

Army pays tribute to Kargil War heroes

We Indians are not unique in loving a good anniversary. We are unique, on the other hand,in how unwilling we are to face any little bit ofthe inconvenient truth that even the finest successes, the most glorious moments, inevitably come laced with. It is because we are not willing to do this that we keep repeating the same errors.

This somewhat convoluted preamble is inspired by our week-long celebration of the 15th anniversary of the war in Kargil. Or, more specifically, our victory at Kargil. I emphasise the word victory, because it is touching how just because we won a long, sharp and yet limited war of highaltitude skirmishes, we have made an annual national spectacle of it, rather than an occasion for a little reflection, introspection.

On what went wrong, why and what can be done, how our national strategic/tactical posture could be strengthened. This larger argument is also instigated by another issue that surfaced in this week of celebrations: of how the Kargil inquiry committee report has yet not been fully made public. In the same discussion, as usual, demands for declassification of the half-century-old Henderson Brooks report have also come up.

No two wars, and accordingly no two inquiry reports about them, can be more different than these two. One was a total debacle, so shattering it ended the Nehru era. The other, eventually, a military success so heady it won the Vajpayee government an enhanced mandate. And yet reports of official inquiries into both have remained classified, one fully and the other mostly. What kind of a country are we that we are shy of facing the truth about our wars, whether we win or lose? Again, go back to our two other major wars, 1965 and 1971, one a stalemate, the other a victory. We still do not have an honest, authorised or official history of either based on reliable, indexed and referenced declassified documentation. I will also tell you in a moment who we last heard complaining about this, because there is a twist there. Remember it's been 43 years since 1971, and next year will be the 50th of 1965. Doesn't all this make us a unique democracy?

Just how unique, I discovered 15 years ago in the aftermath of Kargil. The hyper-patriotic breathlessness of last week's celebrations has persuaded me to talk about something I have kept in my archives all these years. This should now be revealed, and made part of our larger public discourse. Because future victories are guaranteed more by learning from past failures than from merely celebrating our successes.

Contrary to popular perception, democracies are actually much harder states than dictatorships for two reasons. One, because in a democracy the national military effort almost always has popular support and participation. And two, because democracies are led by politicians who are much tougher, unforgiving, devious and take-no-prisoners compared to the finest generals. But democracies must have the moral strength to look within. Which we do not.

After the Kargil campaign ended, the Vajpayee government set up an inquiry committee headed by Dr K. Subrahmanyam, the father of India's strategic thought. It had three other members, a former Lt-General (K.K. Hazari), an editor (B.G. Verghese) and an IFS officer (Satish Chandra). Only the first two were present along with Subrahmanyam on November 24, 1999 when I presented myself at 11.30 a.m. at the National Security Council Secretariat in New Delhi's Lok Nayak Bhawan, as summoned by the committee.

My questioning lasted almost three hours. The questioners were wise, curious and kept me alert. Their interest in me was quite specifically targeted at my interview of Nawaz Sharif which had set up Vajpayee's bus ride to Lahore (Kargil followed soon after), my understanding of the Pakistani, and more specifically Nawaz Sharif 's , mind, my impressions of how we had conducted the war and how the media had covered it.

I came back that late afternoon, feeling enriched by the intellect of my questioners. The only little thing that rankled was when I had said some of my friends in the Army, including several who conducted the war, a couple at brigadier level, felt that the skill level and equipment of the average Pakistani soldier seemed better than that of ours, Subrahmanyam snubbed me promptly. "You should not say this here," he said. When I asked why not since this was meant to be an inquiry on mistakes made as well as lessons learnt for the future, he said, you can tell us all these things informally, but not for the inquiry.

"But why, sir, why not?" I asked, and looked at the other members for support. Subrahmanyam leaned forward, patted me on the shoulder, and said something like, young man, you will grow up. I insisted that whatever I had said must be recorded which, I noticed, was duly done by one of the two OSDs (Dr S.D. Pradhan and PKS Namboodiri) present. I mentioned this conversation at the memorial meeting a couple of days after Subrahmanyam's passing away on February 2, 2011, where his family had so graciously invited me to speak.

The passage of 15 yearsgives me the reason to take this further. Within a fortnight of that deposition, I received a letter marked "secret" and "most immediate", signed by Subrahmanyam in his capacity as the chairman, Kargil Review Committee. Enclosed was a "record" of discussions with me for my approval. I was amazed by how soon this had arrived, knowing how Bharat Sarkar functions, but then we had Subrahmanyam at the other end.

By and large, it was quite accurate and exhaustive- seven typed sheets, nearly 5,000 words, superscribed secret. But on closer reading there was trouble. There was careful editing, rewriting and paraphrasing that so subtly changed the meaning or emphasis. It was so sophisticated and clever, and all with similar implications, that I was left with no doubt that it was deliberate. I sat down with the draft, and corrected in longhand. You see some of those key passages in the second visual accompanying this column. But every page was similarly blue-pencilled, and more or less rewritten. I am appending some of these pages on our website (keeping out just a few parts which should still remain secret).

The committee's larger interest was in protecting the "system". Of the three examples quoted here, one was apparently a minor change in my statement that Sharif said "should" Vajpayee travel to Lahore, he would be given a welcome he wouldn't forget. It was made to read as if he had proposed that Vajpayee come to Lahore. I had told the committee, quite truthfully, that Vajpayee had spoken with me earlier and had said that if I could get Sharif to invite him in an interview, he would say yes. The change was small, but served the purpose of distancing Vajpayee from the decision to go to Lahore.

Several other passages recast whatever I said on the government's communication inadequacies, persistent denials and insistence that there was "no big deal" even after the IAF joined battle, and suffered casualties. The third, of course, was the one that got Subrahmanyam to caution me in the first place. The observation on the soldiers' skill levels and equipment was there, but worded as if the opinion was mine. I edited it again to specify that this was what I had been told by our own officers.

On December 14, 1999, I sent a corrected copy to Subrahmanyam with a polite note. I got no reply. Weeks later, some unknown officer called me to say that generally the committee had decided not to make much use of my testimony. Fifteen years later, I still cannot figure out what it contained for the committee to find it so useless. Maybe it just confirms the pattern, our instinct to cover up, whether in defeat, or victory. And no, I haven't forgotten the twist I had promised to share with you when talking about there being no authentic, official history of the 1965 and 1971 wars. Who did we last hear "officially" complaining about it? The Kargil Review Committee!

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