Kargil

Kargil

The War Of Our Times

Imagine an image airbrushed. Of warts and scars and pocks and craters, and curses that only war can spell. Then imagine the panoramic image on top. Or look at it, just look at it. When I first came upon this sight in the summer of 1999 — man to mountain — the vista looked nothing like this. It was a setting irredeemably scarred. It was littered with hollow shells and field guns, and blackened by what they emitted — gunpowder, smoke, phosphorescence, panic, disarray, dread, destruction, death. Worse. Irreparable injury. Irreparable loss. The horrific signature of war crawled all across it.

Over the autumn and winter of 1998, the Pakistani military machine had sneaked under lowered, lazy guard, and snatched vantage stations right across the range you see and farther yonder. With armed mercenaries at the front, it had breached Indian sovereignty along more than a hundred kilometres of a frozen desolate frontier, often pushing several kilometres in. They had dug in and established dozens of offensive outposts. They had come to dominate key positions above National Highway 1A, the slender and sole road link India possesses to the strategic Kargil-Ladakh frontier. The audacious adventure became a full-blown intrusion as a result of multiple lapses in intelligence and military preparedness; early alerts had been sounded but they were ignored, even scoffed at.

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2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: An Inch of Metal for Miles of Motherland

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 7 and last. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999

Mushkoh: Soldiers seldom make wars, politicians do; soldiers perish trying to end them.

In the end they just become dead weights loaded on the backs of unknowing mules, their dignity wrapped in tattered blankets. If they are fortunate, these blankets will somewhere have a little badge of honour pinned, an inch of metal for miles of motherland.

With soldiers returning from the recapture of Tiger Hill
With soldiers returning with Pakistani military ware from the recapture of Tiger Hill

Brigade-Major Rajeev Srivastava was in no mood to receive us. We had arrived at his camp deep in Mushkoh valley uninvited and unannounced. He was busy and he could well have sent us back. But he had ushered us into his tent and ordered tea. He was hard at work on an unsteady little desk piled up with files and papers. The tent was steaming like a sauna in mid-afternoon. “How have you managed to come here?” he asked, scribbling on furiously. “My orders are to allow no media personnel here. If they reach here, I have orders to escort them to Sonemarg, right out of the war zone.” Continue reading “Kargil: An Inch of Metal for Miles of Motherland”

2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: A Hotel, A Hospital; A Birth, A Death

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 6. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999

Kargil: “So this is our Hotel Saigon, isn’t it?”

Jaffer, second from left, and Ali, beside him in blue turtleneck, with journalists in my room at Siachen Hotel
Jaffer, second from left, and Ali, beside him in blue turtleneck, with journalists in my room at Hotel Siachen

Jaffer had again promised water but as usual it hadn’t come. I hadn’t bathed in eight days. I was just back from two straight nights in bunkers in Drass and Jaffer had probably taken pity at the horror of my appearance. He had offered two full buckets of it, and hot to boot. But Jaffer’s promises were like birds in the bush. He would make a good politician. He was a scoundrel, but an utterly lovable one. He took my carton of cigarettes away one day saying I smoked too much. “I will ration them for you,” he said. He also smoked them for me. Continue reading “Kargil: A Hotel, A Hospital; A Birth, A Death”

2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: Fire on a Forlorn Frontier with Ishaq and his Ramshackle Jeep

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 5. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999

Humbotingla: First light has just broken and the mountains are ringing with what is now their routine wake-up call: the report of shells being fired and shells landing. From a distant meadow, two Bofors guns are tossing lead into the sky and the counterblast is peppering the surrounding hills, columns of smoke and dustcloud lazily rising in the wispy morning light. This is almost too beautiful to be a war.

Attempting a satphone connection atop Ishaq’s Jeep in the Sindh gorge near Batalik

It was my second day on the front, yet I had seen very little of the war. The road up from Srinagar had been a portentous preview, nothing more. Beyond Sonemarg, National Highway 1 A, the roadlink the intruders were trying to snap to cut Kargil, Leh and Siachen from the rest of India, was a winding ant crawl of troops. Every little clearing beyond Matayen had become a troop bivouac, camouflage netting stretched across tents and ammunition dumps, artillery guns sunk in freshly dug pits, soldiers busy bunkering. Some guns were firing but most were yet to be positioned. Drass was being mercilessly pounded and military convoys were having to race through the devastated town centre. “We are just about settling in,” a field major near Drass had said, “this is going to be a long haul.” The war was on, of course, but even from the shuddering Drass-Kargil frontier, war, as most of us had come to imagine it, seemed a long, long way away. Continue reading “Kargil: Fire on a Forlorn Frontier with Ishaq and his Ramshackle Jeep”

2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: Winter Clues to the Portents of Summer

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 4. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999

Along the high and desolate road to Kargil

Kargil/Srinagar: For a few weeks midsummer, between the melting of snow and the onset of snow Kargil is awash with yellow roses. Kargilis have an odd passion for picking them and sticking them into their mouths. They make a queer comic sight, like overgrown babies suckling on oversize soothers. But faith turns on its own illogic. Kargilis chew on yellow roses in the belief that it is good for the body and the soul and the future. Continue reading “Kargil: Winter Clues to the Portents of Summer”

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. Continue reading “Kargil: One Side of a Bleeding Fence”