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Kargil: 13 years after

Author: V P Malik
Publication: The Times of India
Date: July 26, 2012
URL: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/Kargil-13-years-after/articleshow/15145842.cms

How long will the armed forces continue to give so much but receive little from the government?

 The strength of a military force lies in the quality of its human resources, weapons and equipment, and its morale. There is no better time to reiterate this than now, exactly 13 years after the Kargil war.

 Twenty days after taking over as army chief - while addressing the prime minister and his cabinet committee of security colleagues in a Combined Commanders' Conference (October 20, 1997) - i had described the state of the army as "the spirit is strong but the body is weak", and then proceeded to indicate the high deficiencies of arms, ammunition and equipment.

 In March 1999, just before the Kargil war, i wrote to defence minister George Fernandes stating, "The army is finding that major acquisitions get stymied for various reasons and a feeling of cynicism is creeping in. By and large, the prevailing situation is that nothing much can be done about the existing hollowness in the army. By denying essential equipment, the armed forces would gradually lose their combat edge which would show adversely in a future conflict..."

 And then in May 1999, despite the Lahore Agreement, Pakistan surprised us strategically and tactically. Before the melting of the snows, Pakistan army units lodged themselves on several heights in Kargil and Southern Siachen sectors to dominate the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh highway. When the fog of war cleared and the reality emerged that the intruders were not mujahideen but Pakistan army units, the whole nation was shocked.

 During the war, in a media briefing, a journalist asked me how the army was going to fight in the face of its severe weapons and equipment shortages. My spontaneous reply was: "We shall fight with whatever we have." The prime minister asked me whether I should have made such a remark. I explained that my response was to a direct question from a journalist. Any attempt to cover up the true state of affairs would have conveyed an impression to the army rank and file that their chief was indulging in double talk. If that happened, they would lose confidence in me.

 To get away from long faces and depression in New Delhi and to boost my own morale, i went to the Kargil and Siachen front and addressed troops regularly. Interacting with them and seeing their commitment and motivation, i would get reassured.

 The spirit was strong; the morale high. We were confident that we would throw the intruders out from Kargil and Siachen sectors. And if the situation demanded, we could also attack across the border. Looking back, however, i cannot help wondering if the Pakistan army would have dared to attack us in Kargil if we had the required quantity and quality of weapons and equipment. And would we have suffered that many casualties even if they had?

 How has the situation changed today? Let me deal with the weapons and state of equipment first. On March 12, 2012, former chief of army staff V K Singh wrote a letter to the prime minister ruefully informing him that the army's air defence weapon systems were obsolete, the infantry was deficient of crew-served weapons and lacked night fighting capabilities, and its tank fleet was devoid of critical ammunition. He alleged that there was "hollowness in the procedures and processing time for procurements as well as legal impediments by vendors".

 For the military and informed strategic community, there was nothing new in this letter. The surprise was that none of our worthy politicians, bureaucrats or media persons owned up that this was a chronic problem which had dogged the nation for decades. The government had failed to rectify it.

 What about military spirit? In the recent past, we have witnessed an unhealthy row over the age of V K Singh, the alleged bribe to purchase Tatra vehicles from BEML, and the deep-lying suspicion of the military over movement of some units for training near Delhi. The last mentioned incident reflects the lack of trust that continues to bother officials in the government after 65 years of independence and after what the armed forces have contributed to the nation.

 There is deep discontent among the armed forces veterans and widows. They feel cheated over pension disparities and anomalies. As a result, they have been organising rallies, fast-unto-death agitations, and surrender of war and gallantry medals to the president to draw public and political attention. Less visible is the unhappiness among serving soldiers over the automatic promotions and upgradation rules that the civil services have managed to secure for themselves. The general impression is that the political leadership takes little or no interest in the armed forces' welfare.

 A few days ago, the prime minister announced a committee under the cabinet secretary to look into these anomalies and grievances. Against all organisational norms, the committee had only civil secretaries as members and no representation from the military.

 The government may have forgotten the Kargil war, but in military history, it will go down as a saga of unmatched bravery, grit and determination. The army responded with alacrity and with its characteristic steadfastness and perseverance. How will it fight the next one? Not differently. Because the Indian soldier is a remarkable human being: spiritually evolved, mentally stoic and sharp, physically hardy and skilled. And his institution remains proud of its traditions of selflessness, devotion to duty, sacrifice and valour.

- The writer is former chief of army staff
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