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General assessment

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

The story of the 1999 Kargil conflict, told from within a defence establishment steeped in a tradition of opacity, is a path-breaking first in the writing of post-independence Indian military history. After all, the official accounts of the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars have not yet been cleared for release. And most personal accounts of those wars have been either hagiographies of little historical value or self-exculpatory accounts from officers under a cloud.
General V P Malik's account comes from the army chief of that time. It is comprehensive, straight from the shoulder, and interesting to a range of readers, from the serious student of strategy to the amateur buff of matters military. Malik often veers off the Kargil story onto peripheral matters like the history of the LoC and explanations of tactics and operations. It is these distractions, however, that make this book comprehensible to a lay reader, uninitiated in the fine differences between the Line of Control, the Line of Actual Control and the Actual Ground Position Line.
For a reader hoping for a totally frank "bare-all" account of the Kargil conflict, the wait continues. Malik has addressed, head-on, several controversies of the time: Air Force resistance to attacking Pakistani positions early in the war; politicians' attempt to make political capital from the conflict; and the military's resentment at being left out of strategic decision-making and the track-two dialogue with Pakistan. But he has deftly steered clear of the central question of Kargil: why none of the army brass was held responsible for allowing 2,000 Pakistani soldiers to occupy large tracts of Indian territory without firing a shot. Even the one senior officer who was sacked""Kargil brigade commander, Brigadier Surinder Singh""was transferred out, Malik tells us, not for being asleep at the helm, but because he proved unable to recover ground. Malik recounts giving Surinder's boss, Major General V Budhwar, an earful for the poor performance of his command, but never apparently considered removing him from command.
Many experts believe the army hierarchy's reluctance to account for the Kargil intrusions stemmed from fear of how widely the broom may have had to sweep. The complacence of Indian soldiers on the ground surely contributed to the intruders' success. But behind that lack of vigilance was the army's fixation""from army headquarters, down the chain of command to the battalions on the ground""on the fight against militancy in Kashmir, pulling out soldiers from the border and throwing them at jehadis in the valley. General Malik himself recounts how, as insurgency gathered steam after 1991, one brigade after another was moved from Ladakh to Kashmir. But he does not mention a widely reported war-game in Srinagar just months before the intrusions, when the 15 Corps Commander, Lt Gen Kishan Pal, dismissed the possibility of intrusions across the LoC. And the general fails to ask the obvious next question: did this strategic misjudgement of the Pakistani threat percolate down from army headquarters to the men on the ground? Why then were the generals spared?
Making up for that omission are fascinating nuggets, like the captured diary of a Pakistani officer describing General Musharraf's helicopter trip across the LoC to one of the positions above Kargil to distribute sweets to Pakistani infiltrators. The telephone conversations during the war between India's Director General of Military Operations and his increasingly frustrated Pakistani counterpart make riveting reading. Malik also successfully debunks intelligence agency claims that they provided advance warning about infiltration in Kargil, quoting directly from R&AW assessments of that period to illustrate their many contradictions and obfuscations.
As in many other by army generals, there is practically no mention of Kargil's inhabitants. It would seem that the war was fought in an olive-green landscape from which all civilian life had been miraculously extracted. Did the locals play no role worth mentioning? Perhaps a precis of the last 100 pages, in which Malik moves from Kargil to his perceptions of issues like the global security environment, civil-military relations in Pakistan and India's lack of military culture, could have provided space to Kargil's local people.
This handsomely produced volume will certainly be a reference point, not just in discussions on the Kargil conflict, but also in the way the Indian army brass perceives vital issues like nuclear deterrence. General Malik lights up the path for more retired policymakers to bring into the public sphere some of the crucial issues that they dealt with whilst in service.
General V P Malik
Price: Rs 595

First Published: Wed, May 10 2006. 00:00 IST