2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: The Good Soldier on a Bad Night

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 1. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999.

Under bombardment in the battle for Mount Tololing in Drass with AP photographer Saurabh Das, on belly and Gaurav Sawant, then of The Indian Express (right).
Under bombardment in the battle for Mount Tololing in Drass with AP photographer Saurabh Das, on belly, and Gaurav Sawant, then of The Indian Express (right).

Drass: “Two hundred artillery guns firing across the mountain all night. Will that make a good story for you?”

This officer shall remain unnamed in the story for reasons that have to do with the strange workings of the defence establishment — the games they can play with good officers and the petty wars they can unleash. But if this man wasn’t a good soldier, true to his calling and country, the Indian Army probably doesn’t have any. He, more than anyone else, introduced some of us to the face of the war and  to the life of the man who wages it: the footsoldier. He showed us how spectacular and how sorry war could be, how exciting and spectacular and frightening, how necessary and how utterly futile.

He commanded an artillery unit that shuttled about Drass during the two months of conflict. He wore a colonel’s rank on his shoulders but he had the heart of a jawan. And he had a mind of his own, which is not always a good thing to have. The Indian army was still struggling for a foothold in the mountains when we first met him. We had stopped by his gun area on a rocky hillside near Drass one afternoon and by the time we left half an hour later, he had extended us an invitation to visit again. “If you want to see the war, come and  see it with the soldiers.”

It was at his unit that we heard the first horror stories of initial attempts to recapture the heights — stories of boulders being rolled down on hapless Naga soldiers trying to make blind runs up the mountains by night, stories of assault parties being exterminated in ambushes because they had no idea where the enemy lay, stories of jawans arriving from the plains and being sent up heights above eighteen thousand feet in nothing but canvas shoes and cotton jackets. It was at his unit that we got accounts, first hand, of the unpreparedness of the army — of there not being enough guns and men to fight off the intrusions, of there not being enough for the soldiers to eat. The first parties moved up without rations. They rubbed snow for water and lived on nothing. When the food did arrive, it was useless. “They sent us puris and subzi. At those heights puris and subzi freeze to stone, you can’t eat any of it,” a young officer who had miraculously returned from a reconnaissance mission up an intruder-ridden peak told us. He had survived on cigarettes and chocolate in his pup tent. “But my poor jawans had virtually nothing to eat, they were eating snow and they were in the open.”

Partly because they were so strained and stretched in the early days, and partly because of unstated policy, a few officers spoke to journalists. We would set out early from Hotel Siachen on journeys without maps, hoping to run into something. If we got an officer to tell us even a bit of how the battle was going or saw live crossfire, we considered ourselves fortunate. For the most part, the jawans sustained journalism as they sustained the front, quite freely sharing their experiences and apprehensions.

“What drives you?” I once asked a Rajputana Rifles soldier back from the battle for Peak 5140 in Drass, “What makes you go on even though you know you may die the next moment?” He looked at me a bit incredulously and said, “Orders. If we don’t follow orders, what will our families eat?” I wondered about big words like patriotism and bravery and the soldier said, “I don’t know about that. Perhaps sometimes when your fellow soldiers die, there is too much anger. It is then a blinding madness, you don’t think about death, you just go on.”

There were ways of making things easier for the soldier but the government was not prepared. It was not prepared, for instance, to open another front and engage Pakistani attention elsewhere. It was not prepared to let the troops cross the Line of Control (LoC) and operate from behind enemy lines. “The enemy is tearing every norm to shreds, he is free to violate everything, including our borders, but not us. If we are fighting a war let us fight a war. Why aren’t we calling this a war? This is a war. We have been invaded, our soldiers are dying, let us fight it like a war. But our government wants to stick to strange rules. You cannot fight a bully if you want the good boy prize. Kargil had made the colonel very angry.

And that was also the sentiment of the soldier across the frontier. He couldn’t be bothered about the subtle diplomatic games New Delhi was playing in world capitals. He was in trench and he wanted to fight back with his arms free. “Let the diplomats pussyfoot, but let soldiers fight like soldiers.” Similar murmur rose when, weeks later, a ceasefire was suddenly called and the intruders allowed safe passage. “If we did have to let them walk back in peace, why have so many of our soldiers killed,” a jawan from the Jat regiment would say in Kaksar, midway between Kargil and Drass. “Now was the time to have taught them a lesson so they would think many times before repeating this. We have let them go scot free, they will needle us again.”

It was from the colonel’s unit too that we witnessed the first Indian success of the war: the taking of Tololing. Two nights before the assault, the colonel had winked and said, “Come the day after, you’ll probably see what you’ve never seen before.”

It was the night of smoke on earth and fire in the sky. Twenty-five artillery units pounded snow-streaked Tololing, from three directions: Kaksar, Drass and Matayen. Twenty-thousand artillery shells or more were fired that night and by morning, Tololing had been pulverised into submission. The firing began as dusk dissipated into darkness. The first to go were the Bofors guns, coughing TNT from positions all across NH1A. Then came a barrage of medium range fire from 130 mm and 105 mm guns. The shells vaulting into the sky and then plummeting over Tololing and beyond. It was a cosmic strobe show, the skies flashing and booming with gunfire. And then, as the darkness thickened, Russian-built multi-barrel rocket launchers exhaled fire, like dragons spitting.

We drove to another gun area in the colonel’s jonga. The vicinity was shaking with the report of heavy guns. Sound blasts rippled through the jonga and its undercarriage rattled as if it were about to be torn asunder. The guns were shrouded in dust and fumes and the gunners scurried about, sinister shadows in the gathering pall, feeding the guns and firing. Later we climbed into a stationary truck which was the field operations room. We heard infantry parties closing in on Tololing directing artillery fire and reporting progress on the radio. “We’ll get them tonight,” said the officer in charge, “this kind of massed artillery is too much for them to sustain.”

We went to sleep awhile in an empty tent on the hillside— it fluttered like a paper ball in the gale all night, perilously close to being blown away — and when we woke up, the unit was already celebrating. “We got them, we got them, we knocked the fellows of Tololing,” cried the officer from the operations room truck. His eyes were bloodshot and bleary from nightlong action but a smile was spreading on his face.

The morning air was thick with pungent gun smoke and the hillside was littered with the debris of a harsh night: scattered brass gunshells, fatigued, soot-ridden gunners sprawled in their pits, the earth under the guns lacerated with tyre treads. “Even this looks like a battleground,” the colonel said, “imagine what it must like where our fire landed.”

After Tololing, the Indian military campaign went hill-hopping in Drass, one peak after another until Tiger Hill was taken three weeks later. Drass would become a daily beat — it offered the best spectator sets on the war for the heights. From the centre of the shelled out, abandoned hamlet you had a Panavision view of the embattled peaks: Tiger Hill to the extreme left, still streaked with snow in midsummer, then Peak 5140, a lofty grey mountain with broad flanks, and, to the extreme right, Tololing, a craggy peak with down to earth contours, the kind schoolchildren sketch in their drawing books.

On a good day, Drass was barely three hours from Kargil. The winding up-and-down ride to Chhenigund, and then the race through Kaksar-Kharbu belt, which was within sight of Pakistani gun positions and which popped with shellfire like a popcorn bowl. The road was a thin strip that rose and dipped along the Drass nullah; if you were hit, you either got plastered to the hillside or were washed away in the current. Beyond Kharbu, the road opened into lovely country, dappled with meadows and gullies overrun by yellow roses. A little short of Drass ran the Bimbet nullah, a cold, crystal seductress of a stream in which I would promise myself a bath every time we crossed it.

Part 2: A Sky Stunned by Artillery

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