2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: One Side of a Bleeding Fence

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 3. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999

Among some of the friendliest creatures on the Kargil frontier
Among some of the friendliest creatures on the Kargil frontier

Kargil: For most of us, Kargil was the biggest story we had been on. It didn’t take the daily whoops of the youthful Gaurav Sawant of The Indian Express — “Guys, guys I’m so thrilled it’s my thirty-third front page byline in a row, I have never had it so good” — to make us realise this. War hadn’t ever happened between two nuclear powers. And this war had happened to everybody — the army and the media — quite suddenly, without chance for preparation. Initially, and fortuitously for some of us, the army was too busy getting its act together to bother about the media. They tried to impose restrictions for a while but realised they would be better served by organized media exposure. Kargil became the most freely reported war — and the first televised — on the subcontinent.

The ban was lifted as inexplicably as it had been imposed — for a fortnight or so. Suddenly, the army began bringing in busfulls of journalists from Srinagar. Overnight, everything changed. Camera crews were roving where they wouldn’t even allow people with pens and notebooks. The government had realised it had a propaganda war to fight too.

The conducted media parties came and receded like tides. Hotel Saichen would turn into a merry Tower of Babel for two nights a week. The mornings were a cacophony of calls for water and fresh towels from the balconies and exhaust of cars leaving, the evenings a slow crescendo of decibels, rising peg by peg, again from the balconies. Everyone was on the same story but everyone had a different tale to tell. Kargil was a kaleidoscope frontier. People could have sweltered in the heat of Drass and frozen in the winds of Matayen on the same day; some could have seen victory on the march, some terrible losses. By late evening, Hotel Siachen’s balustrades would be dripping over with anecdotes. The night of the ceasefire, a few journalists burst into rapturous celebrations on the balconies, “India zindabad, Jai India,” rose their jubilant cries, “We’ve knocked the bastards off… they won’t dare peep into Kashmir for a while. They were drinking and dancing and hugging each other. “We’ve done it, we’ve done it yet again, taught those fellows a good lesson.” But Kargil, like Kashmir, was too torn a place for celebrations of any kind; celebrations never came without a sense of guilt. People had suffered, lost, died on both sides. From my room on the second floor of Hotel Siachen that night, I saw people dance in joy and people shrink into dark corners. For instance, Ashraf the driver.

Ashraf was the Valley Muslim, a Sunni and a closet Pakistan-sympathiser. He had come to Kargil as AP’s driver from Srinagar and stayed on much longer than he had imagined, not because he wanted to but because his job demanded that. It was never quite clear what he made of the whole war but he made it evident he wasn’t on the sides of the Indians. The night of the India-Pakistan World Cup match, he slunk out of our hotel room the moment it became apparent Pakistan would lose. Ashraf was the child of the Aazadi movement; India was an evil presence in his life. Kargil though wasn’t really something he was involved in. On the night of ceasefire, amid the celebrations on the balconies of Hotel Siachen, he let down his guard a bit. “The Pakistanis are retreating? From Kashmir? Really?” he remarked sardonically when I went down to meet him; it was not something he wanted to believe.

Trust is tough in Kashmir and both sides have good reason not to trust. This is not a black and white story; it is grey and very grim. One late night on a gun position in Drass, when the war was at its peak and rum had again inured us to shellfire and plunged us into the temporary vortex of bluntness, the old debate re-emerged from the confines of politeness. A few army officers began complaining that the media was “not supporting” the war effort, just as they had been complaining that the media had not supported the anti-insurgency drive in Jammu & Kashmir; it had turned “anti-state” by reporting excesses by security forces. One of them referred to a report I had written from the front about the tremendous odds the Indian jawans were up against and said, “Do you that report has hurt the national interest? It has hurt the jawans’ morale?” No jawan on the front was getting to read The Telegraph, or any other newspaper. The only thing the report had probably hurt was the defence establishment because it showed them up as unprepared for the enemy and uncaring for its own soldiers. The officer spoke as if the interests of the defence establishment were the same as the “national interest”, just as governments tend to confuse their interest with the national interest.

We saw only one side of the war and most stories we reported were stories told to us by Indian soldiers. A lot of what the jawans had to say mismatched with what the defence establishment thought. Accounts of how well-entrenched the intruders were, for instance; that was anathema to the government because it was handy proof it had let its guard down. Accounts, also, of how our soldiers treated intruders when they could lay their hands on them. New Delhi made quite a show of mutilation of some of its captured soldiers by Pakistanis but much the same was happening on this side. Troops of the Naga and Jat regiments told us quite plainly they had killed a few intruders they had captured alive in the heights above Drass. “It was rage, just rage,” one Naga soldier said, “They killed many of our mates, we were angry. When we got them, we butchered them.” As and when they brought bodies of intruders back from the heights, the tied them with ropes and dragged them down. “We had enough load to carry as it was, who was going to bother carrying their bodies? Dragging them down was a favour.” There was no sense of guilt or remorse there, just plain retelling; it was as if a fire of emotion had cleansed the act of murder.

Part 1: A Good Soldier on a Bad Night

Part 2: A Sky Stunned by Artillery