THE KARGIL WAR
effectively reversed all the gains from Vajpayee’s Lahore bus diplomacy. And committed though he was to the idea of an enduring peace with Pakistan, he did not baulk at the prospect of a war when Pakistan unpredictably revealed its aggressive intent to occupy Indian territory
Pakistan’s Kargil intrusion in May 1999, so soon after prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Lahore and the signing of the Lahore Declaration, came as a big surprise to everyone, no one more so than Vajpayee himself. Even as he led us during the war, Vajpayee kept trying to understand Nawaz Sharif’s and Pakistan’s motive. As late as May 17, 1999, he sent his interlocutor R.K. Mishra to Islamabad to complain to Sharif about the infiltration; Mishra even accused him of knowing about the Kargil plan when signing the Lahore Declaration.
After my briefing and by the launch of the triservice-led Operation Vijay on May 23, 1999, he was convinced of Pakistan’s perfidy. He declared “the new situation was not infiltration but a move to occupy Indian territory. All steps will be taken to clear the Kargil area”. He also rang up Sharif and told him that “we will not allow any intrusion... we shall clear our territory by force”.
In the first week of June, Vajpayee made a public statement (for the second time) that India will not cross the international border or the LoC; a term of reference given to us. This statement implied a foreclosure of our military strategy. I raised this issue and requested that the PM not make this statement in public. I said that directions stipulated by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) were being followed. However, in the event that we are unable to throw out the intruders, the military would have no alternative except to cross the LoC. If we came with such a request, what will be your answer, I asked. Vajpayee did not respond then. But in the evening, his national security advisor Brajesh Mishra arranged an interview with a TV channel. In it, he stated, “Not crossing the border and the LoC holds good today. But we do not know what may happen tomorrow.”
July 8, 1999, was an eventful day. The prime minister called me to his residence. He told me that Pakistan had agreed to withdraw its forces to their side of the LoC and wanted to know my reaction. My immediate reaction was that this cannot be accepted. I told Vajpayee that the armed forces had suffered many casualties. Now that events had swung in our favour, why should we let the enemy escape?
A few hours later, there was another call asking me to visit his residence. This time he asked me how much time we would take to clear the rest of the Pakistani intrusion. I said it may take two to three weeks. He then mentioned that we had suffered heavy casualties, should we suffer more? I told him we were fighting a war initiated by someone else. Our effort always was and would be to minimise the damage but some more casualties could not be ruled out. In any case, I had to consult my COSC (Chiefs of Staff Committee) colleagues on the issue. Before I left the PM’s residence, Vajpayee also told me that, as per constitutional requirement, the country had to go through parliamentary elections and that time was running out.
Meanwhile, I called my colleagues in the COSC, the Vice Chief of Army Staff and Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) for an urgent meeting. We discussed the various implications while the DGMO spoke to the Northern Army Commander on the phone. Several questions were raised: should we accept the withdrawal of the Pakistani forces? If so, what would be its political and military implications? How would the Pakistani forces conduct themselves during the withdrawal? What contingencies could we face during this period and how should we prepare ourselves to meet them?
By now, there was a perceptible shift in the political situation. If we carried on, we could lose the international and domestic support we had been able to muster. Also, there was little chance now of our being permitted to cross the LoC. In a war, when a given political aim has been achieved, it makes little sense to continue with it. However, we did have serious doubts on whether the Pakistani army would withdraw. They simply could not be trusted. After lengthy discussions, we agreed that we could accept a phased withdrawal of the Pakistani forces, as per timings and priorities given by us.
When I was called to the prime minister’s residence—for the third time—that evening, I conveyed our recommendation and conditions to him. He accepted them in full.
Standing tall Vajpayee with his defence minister George Fernandes (1), Gen. V.P. Malik (2), then J&K governor G.C. Saxena (3), Farooq Abdullah (4) and soldiers at an Indian army position in Kargil