Sunday, 14 August 2016

Ladakh Travelogue Part 2: One Night in Kargil

"When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For their tomorrow, we gave our today"

Epitaph at the Kohima War Cemetery, written by John Maxwell Edmonds

After our fortuitous escape from a riot-torn Srinagar (read more about that here), we crossed most of Sonmarg in the dead of the night, which was a real pity. Sonmarg is an incredibly beautiful place and I could have got some terrific photographs there. Unfortunately, the weather too took a turn for the bad. The sky was overcast, with a constant drizzle, which drove the temperature down. Srinagar had warm and humid. Our heavy jackets were in our suitcases. If it got any colder, we’d be in serious trouble. But thankfully, my windcheater was enough. We were proceeding to the town of Drass, where we would stop for breakfast, followed by a visit to the Drass War Memorial and finally Kargil, where we would stay the night.

Between Sonmarg and Drass
We passed through a check-post into Drass and made a stop in the very small town for breakfast. By now, I had made a momentous discovery. Things like bread and rice, in other words, carbohydrates, were making me feel very bloated. I decided to skip the Maggi and toast that everyone else was having and settled for a two egg omelette, a cup of tea and a very thick and hard local biscuit. As we moved towards the war memorial, the drizzle stopped. Drass and Kargil are names most Indians are familiar with. The border with Pakistan is a very short distance from these towns, and they often make it to the news thanks to skirmishes between India and Pakistan. But Kargil is most well-known for the war that India and Pakistan fought here in 1999. Before I tell you about the war memorial, let me tell you the story of the Kargil war.

Traffic jam at the Drass check-post

Multiple commentators have pointed to the roots of the 1999 Kargil war lying in the Siachen dispute of 15 years earlier. When the 1947 Kashmir war had paused, thanks to Indian supply lines not being able to match the speed of their advance, Pakistan had been left in control of approximately 30% of the former princely state of Jammu & Kashmir. This cease-fire line would come to be known as the Line of Control, or LOC. However, at its northernmost end, the LOC is not clearly defined. That is because, beyond a place called “Point NJ9842”, there lies the bitterly cold and inhospitable Siachen glacier, parts of which are as high as 18,875 feet. In any conflict situation, if you leave a bit of territory vaguely defined, no matter how small or insignificant or inhospitable it is, people will find a reason to fight over it, and India and Pakistan did, in 1984. There were, understandably, no permanent military posts on the glacier back then, but mountaineers would regularly climb the glacier, and they did so from the Pakistani side, with their permission, since access from the Pakistani side was easier.

India was concerned that this would eventually allow Pakistan to say something to the effect of, “look, bro, everyone comes to us for permission, so obviously, the entire glacier is ours”. India had been preparing to occupy Siachen since 1978. Pakistan started making preparations for the same somewhat later but made the utterly stupid mistake of ordering arctic equipment, which their soldiers would need to survive in Siachen, from the same London-based firm from which the Indian army sourced their equipment. Obviously, information leaked to the Indian side, India panicked and airlifted troops to Siachen, establishing their first military post on April 13, 1984. The operation was named Meghdoot, after the 4th century Sanskrit play, by poet Kalidasa. When the Pakistanis got there, they found Indians smiling down at them from all the important heights. Pakistan would launch counter-attacks over the next few years, but each time they were pushed back and lost more territory. All because someone had forgotten to do a background check!

Drass, overcast and cold

But if India could not be dislodged from Siachen by fighting in Siachen, what else could be done? Elements within the Pakistan army came up with a plan. India occupies the heights, and therefore more advantageous positions along the LOC. But these posts are customarily abandoned at the onset of winter because the weather is too harsh for men to stay in and too hard for anyone in their right minds to attempt a crossing. The plan was to sneak men into some of the posts in Kargil just a bit before the ice melted and the Indian army reoccupied them. Kargil was some 10km inside the Indian side of the LOC and overlooked India’s National Highway 1, which links the rest of India with Ladakh and Siachen. If Pakistani troops occupied the heights of Kargil, they could cut off this sole and critical lifeline to the region, and then use this as a bargaining chip to get back Siachen. Pakistan was at the time under the iron fist of military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. General Zia turned down the plan because he had already committed significant troops to the West, to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and could not afford a war on two fronts.

The Drass River

But an idea, especially one conceived in such detail, could never really die. Cut to 1999. Pakistan under the government of Nawaz Sharif was inching closer to cordial relations with India under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but the Pakistan army was having none of it. A secret plan was being formulated by the infamous “Gang of Four”. The four players were Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf, Chief of General Staff Muhammad Aziz Khan, Lieutenant General Mahmud Ahmed, Commander X Corps and Brigadier Javed Hassan, Commander, Northern Light Infantry.Fifteen years ago, Musharraf, then Brigadier General, had fought and lost to the Indian army in Siachen. The Gang of Four decided to use the same old plan, but with slightly more sophisticated logic. The old objection of India crossing the international border was brushed aside. Only a year back both nations had conducted nuclear tests; an all-out war would now lead to “mutually assured destruction”, and if India wanted to bring more troops into the conflict, with NH1 cut off, they would have to come from other parts of J&K, leaving those parts vulnerable to further attacks by Pakistan.

But who would cross the LOC? Regular troops could not be seen doing it, and the mujahideen simply didn’t have the training needed for this. The decision was made to strip regular troops of their uniforms, dress them in Shalwar-Kameez, give them weapons and dry rations and send them up. When the 200 or so troops reached the heights of Kargil in March 1999, they found the coast clear. Not a single Indian anywhere in sight and dozens of empty bunkers! The excited troops radioed back asking for reinforcements. The plan was to occupy about 10 posts. The troops ended up occupying more than 140 posts and 300 square kilometres of Indian territory!

A settlement in Drass

And then, on the fateful morning of 3rd May 1999, a yak got lost in the mountains. The yak belonged to Tashi Namgyal from the Garkhun village in the Batalik sector. Like most people in the area, Tashi raised sheep and yak. Two days ago, together with his friend Morup Tsering, he had gone to their friend Ali Raza Stanba's home in Judi village, just below the Banju heights. They took their herds with them, which they planned to group together and take to the high mountain meadows, a common practice which allowed a couple of men to watch multiple herds simultaneously. In search of his lost yak, Tashi had walked some 5 km along the Jubbar Langpa stream, armed with a pair of binoculars, when something caught his eye. Six armed men, dressed in black shalwar-kameez, digging and arranging stones as if trying to build a shelter. Tashi immediately knew what he was looking at. Intruders!

Three years ago, two men had stuck a gun in Tashi’s ribs as he slept on a meadow and told him they had lost their way and needed directions. The terrified Tashi knew from their accents that they came from the other side of the LOC, but he had failed to report the incident back then. Not this time. He rushed down the mountains and told his story to the local detachment of the 3 Punjab Regiment. The army reacted with scepticism until Tashi led a small party of jawans to the spot so they could see for themselves. But it was only when three army patrols sent out between the 6th and 9th of May were consecutively ambushed that the army got an inkling of the trouble that was brewing.
Approaching Drass town
The ill-fated patrol led by Captain Saurabh Kalia would be ambushed on the 14th. Captain Kalia, along with 5 other sepoys was captured and tortured to death. The ferocity of the fire the patrols faced led to the army suspecting that it was probably Pakistani regulars who were involved. These suspicions were confirmed by a piece of tape that recorded a conversation between General Pervez Musharraf, who was on tour in China, speaking to Chief of General Staff Muhammad Aziz Khan, which India’s intelligence service, the Research & Analysis Wing, aka RAW or R&AW had secured. The RAW chief Arvind Dave mistakenly called up the army chief, General Ved Prakash Malik instead of the Directorate General of Military Intelligence (DGMI)chief Lieutenant-General Ravi K. Sawhney about the recording. This lucky mistake led to the army chief becoming aware of the situation much earlier than if he had been informed through regular channels. This happened on the 26th of May, 1999 and 3 days later, the first reports emerged in the Indian press explicitly mentioning Pakistan army regulars, and not mujahideen for the intrusion. The deception was over.

An Indian army truck on the Srinagar-Ladakh Road


The Indian ground attack began on 12th June 1999 with 2 Rajputana Rifles launching an assault on the Tololing ridge. Tololing was retaken within a day. The Pakistani troops had by now been pounded relentlessly by India’s Bofors heavy guns and the Indian Air Force. They were running out of ammunition and food and starvation was beginning to set in. Unfortunately, Pakistan had maintained all along that they were not responsible for the invasion and these people were simply jehadis. So they were now in no position to offer supplies or reinforcements. Pakistan had underestimated India’s response. India had, wisely, chosen not to cross the international border or the LOC, but had brought in some 100,000 troops into J&K, along with their heavy guns which Pakistan had conveniently assumed they wouldn’t be able to use at high altitudes.

To add to this, India had cornered Pakistan in the international arena. Indian diplomats had successfully portrayed Pakistan as a rogue state which had engaged in a military misadventure. The pressure of the international community on Pakistan was now intense. So much so, that when a desperate Nawaz Sharif appealed to American President Bill Clinton to intervene, he refused. The Indian army managed to dislodge infiltrators from Tiger Hill and the Dras and Batalik sectors before Pakistan began a withdrawal on the 11th of July. 15 days later, military operations were at an end. For the two months that the war was fought, it dominated the headlines and all news coverage. Never before had Indians seen their army in action. They had read reports, they had heard stories of their valour, but had never seen them in an actual firefight. They had never seen the mighty Bofors fire and then waited 5 seconds for the shell to explode spectacularly on some distant mountain top. But thanks to journalists living day and night with the troops, they did now, and the effect was electrifying. A wave of patriotism swept the country.

A truck carrying goods on the Srinagar-Ladakh Road. This is the lifeline of the area.
The war made a star of journalist Barkha Dutt who reported live from army bunkers as the army took Tiger Hill. It made Captains Saurabh Kalia and Vikram Batra household names. 5 years later, Bollywood director Farhan Akhtar would make a film about a young man who joins the army and comes of age in the Kargil war. Lakshya (target) was not a great financial success, but even today almost every Indian army unit has a man whom the rest affectionately call a “Lakshya casualty” – someone who decided to sign up after watching the film. And what of Tashi Namgyal? A grateful Indian army gave him a cash prize of Rs. 50,000, but in spite of their recommendations, he has received no official citation from the New Delhi government. He still lives in Garkhun village and still tends his flock. Three years after the end of the war, Tashi discovered the body of a Gurkha soldier in the same area where he had once spotted the intruders. The dead Gurkha was still clutching his rifle.


The "Mughal" Drass War Memorial Monument

A howitzer used by the Indian Army
The Drass War Memorial, also known as the Kargil War Memorial or Vijaypath (the path of victory) is located at the foot of the Tololing ridge, and it is the first Indian army war memorial I had ever seen. 26th July, the day hostilities actually ended, is the day that the Indian army marks as Kargil Vijay Diwas, or Kargil Victory Day. We walked in on the 10th of July and found preparations for Vijay Diwas in full swing. Entry to the memorial is free. However, visitors are not allowed to carry bags. I had my camera bag on my shoulder and an armed soldier at the gate initially objected, but ultimately allowed me in. My sister had once told me that thanks to my weight and my extremely fragile looking rimless glasses, most people were unlikely to think of me as a troublemaker. Perhaps that is what worked in my favour? Who knows?

The faux cemetery
Indian Army buglers prepare
 The memorial is a large garden with a central path. Through the gate and immediately to the left or West, is a MiG-21M aircraft. The MiG-21M was one of the aircraft types used by the Indian Air Force in Operation Safed Sagar (white sea) to support ground troops in Kargil. Behind it is a faux cemetery. Obviously, Indian troops would mostly be Hindu, and therefore a soldier’s remains would be cremated. The faux cemetery takes the appearance of a Christian War Cemetery, such as the one seen in Bhawanipore Cemetery in Calcutta (Kolkata). On the tombstones are the names of fallen soldiers, but there are no bodies under them. Behind it is a sculpture of four Indian soldiers with the Indian tri-colour, which reminded me of “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima”, an iconic photograph of WWII, taken by Joe Rosenthal and later turned into a sculpture by Felix de Weldon which may still be seen at the Marine Corps War Memorial, near the Arlington National Cemetery near Washington D.C. At the northern end of the path, on a raised platform is the memorial monument which has a distinctly Mughal appearance. In front of it is the Amar Jawan Jyoti, the eternal flame, in honour of fallen soldiers. Behind it, on a raised platform, buglers were practising for the ceremony on the 26th. A giant brass plaque behind the monument is inscribed with the names of those who fell in the 1999 war. Surrounded by mountains, uniformed men all around me, and then the sound of the bugle, words cannot describe what it felt like to be standing there at that moment.

Sculpture behind the faux cemetery
MiG-21M, nicknamed "Balalaika"
 To the East or right of the platform, there is a “Hut of Remembrance”. Within it is the Manoj Pandey Gallery, named after Captain Manoj Pandey of 11 Gurkha Rifles, who was killed on 3rd July 1999, during the assault on Jubar Top in the Batalik sector. The gallery contains photographs, maps and models pertaining to the Kargil War, and, quite unexpectedly, a photograph of a Pakistani soldier, Captain Karnal Sher Khan. So impressed was the Indian army with Khan’s valour that they recommended he be given recognition. Pakistan awarded him the Nishan-E-Haider, their highest military gallantry award.

The view from the memorial platform
Brass plaque with names of fallen soldiers
As we walked out, I noticed Prasenjit and Sreyashi had become quite overcome with emotion. Prasenjit rarely betrays emotion, and even on this occasion, he had managed to appear composed. But his eyes were red. I could tell he had been crying. As for myself, I have been documenting monuments for a long enough time to know that if I do not manage to keep my emotions in check, I won’t be able to do my job. But then I think about my classmate. The little boy I used to know was now an officer, serving on the frontier. I imagine him in the thick of battle, dying so far away from home and family, I imagine his lifeless body in the dark hold of a C-130, I imagine his child growing up without a father and it becomes too much to bear. We proceed quietly to the car and drive off into the mountains, lost in thought.


Kargil town from above
A street in Kargil
 As we travel further North, I notice the scene outside my window slowly changing. The cloud cover disappears and the entire landscape becomes bathed in bright sunlight. The ground becomes rockier, and the temperature rises. When we started out it was cold and wet. Now it was hot and dry. The road twists and turns, following the Drass and Shingo rivers till we make a sharp turn South at Khrool and begin following the Suru river. We are stopped just outside the town where our papers are checked. Apparently one cannot just drive into Kargil with any car. All kinds of permissions are needed. But our papers are in order, and our driver Stanzin is a regular on this route, so the stop is a short one. As we pull into Kargil town, the first thing that catches my eye is an ice cream parlour. For most Indians the word that would immediately come to mind if one mentions Kargil, is war. This serves as a reminder that this is also a “normal” town, with “normal” people, who like having ice cream. When we enter out hotel, the Zojila Residency, another shock awaits me. I had not expected such a fancy hotel in such an area. To top it all, our room had a fabulous view of the Suru river and large windows with no bars! We unpack, wash, have our lunch in the ground floor restaurant and sleep for a bit before heading out for some local sightseeing.

Panoramic view of the Suru River from Zojila Residency
Sunset in Kargil
The hotel manager arranges a car for us that will take us into the mountains around Kargil. Our driver is the very chatty and forever smiling Sadiq Ali. Sadiq tells us stories not only about the war of 1999 but also the one of 1965 as our car rises slowly up improbable roads into the mountains. The setting sun casts long shadows, creating images almost like a kaleidoscope. We travel up to a point from where we can look down into a valley with what appears to be a small village. The village is abandoned, Sadiq tells us. It was a Pakistani village before 1965 when the Indian army pushed Pakistan back. The area witnessed such heavy shelling that all the villagers fled. The village is now referred to as “Barbaad Gaon”, ruined village. As we descend from the mountains, the sun is almost at the horizon. The mountains turn red, the skies turn purple, and the clouds turn a fiery orange. We proceed towards the ingeniously named temple of Baba Plateaunath.

Up in the mountains around Kargil
Idol of Baba Plateaunath
The legend about Baba Plateaunath is that he was a madman who lived all alone in a hut on the plateau. But when war came around and Pakistan shelled the area, whatever shells landed near his hut failed to explode. When one of those shells was dumped in the river, however, it blew up. This convinced everyone that the man was a true Godman. Today, a temple stands where his hut once stood, with an ante-room dedicated to him. Strange or even funny though the name may sound, such temples are common in such areas. When people are in inhospitable, hostile regions, faith is the only thing that keeps them going. I personally could have used a drink after all the getting and going all day, but unfortunately, alcohol was nowhere to be found. I was informed that since the majority of people in the area were Muslim, who thought of alcohol as “haram”, there were no shops selling it openly. I could find booze on the black market if I looked really hard, but I settled for a soft drink and dinner. This is one thing that sets J&K apart from Sikkim. Sikkim is, what we like to call, “chilled out”.

Temple of Baba Plateaunath

On our way back to the hotel I had asked Sadiq if he had been around during the Kargil War. Sadiq told me he had been in town the day three Pakistani shells landed in the main market. What happened after that, I asked him. “It was just red with blood everywhere, and all I could see were severed hands and feet from bodies that had been blown up. People were scrambling to escape by any means possible”. A horrifying image, without a doubt, but it was another conversation I had that day, which haunts me even more. As we walked out of the Drass War Memorial, I looked up and saw the word “Tololing” written in giant letters on the mountain behind it. I could recall the name at once but still, couldn’t believe where I was standing. I asked Prasenjit, “It says Tololing on that mountain. Does that mean there was fighting here? Here, where we are standing now”? “Look behind you”, Prasenjit pointed. “See that road we took to get here? That’s NH1. That’s the road they wanted to cut off”. It reminded me of something I had read a very long time ago.

At the end of WWII, General Charles De Gaulle, the leader of the French people, toured the shattered city of Stalingrad. It was here that the USSR had halted the unstoppable advance of Hitler’s war machine. But it had come at a great cost. The city was a heap of ruins and countless human lives had been lost. When a reporter asked De Gaulle for his opinion, he said “formidable people”. “Ah, yes, the Russians”, nodded the journalist. “No, no”, De Gaulle interrupted. “I do not speak of the Russians. I speak of the Germans...tout de même, avoir poussé jusque la” – That they should have come so far…

- By Deepanjan Ghosh

( be continued...)


  • I am grateful to the officers and men of the Indian Army for their cooperation.
  • Tour planning and bookings by Pathikrit Travels. Contact them at
  • Transport handled by Mountain Trails Adventures & Expeditions. Check out their website


Misra, Ashutosh – India-Pakistan: Coming to Terms
Chari, P.R. - Perception, Politics and Security in South Asia: The Compound Crisis of 1990
Malik, Ved Prakash, General – Kargil: From Surprise to Victory
Bhattacharya, Samir, Brigadier – Nothing But!
Swami, Praveen - Unknown heroes of Batalik, Frontline, July 1999
Sethi, Najam – Apas Ki Baat, GEO News, 14th May 2012
Craig, William - Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad
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