I spent two and a half years from December 1968 to May 1970 on the Cease Fire Line (CFL) – as the Line of Control (LOC) was known then. The CFL was based on the 1949 Karachi Agreement while the Line of Control on the 1972 Shimla Agreement. The situation along the CFL in my time was dormant and the principle of ‘live and let live’ prevailed. While I did two spells in Jammu and Kashmir in 1975-1977 and 1988-1990, I did not get a chance to serve on the LOC.
By late 1970s, as the Pakistani Army recovered from the debacle of 1971, the situation along the LOC had dramatically altered. There were regular exchanges of small arms fire and occasionally artillery fire with the aim of causing maximum casualties to each other. A new military term – ‘Line of Control Warfare’ – came into being. The defences on both sides were strengthened and heavy direct firing weapons were placed on the posts along the LOC. Old anti-aircraft and artillery guns in direct firing role, and anti-tank missiles were used to destroy defences. This competitive conflict continued for a decade. However, both sides generally followed an unwritten code of not physically violating the LOC.
The situation escalated post-Siachen, in 1984. Attempts were made to capture isolated posts and occupy tactical features not physically held. Even isolated bunkers became bones of contention. With effect from December 1989, a new dimension was added to the competitive conflict along the LOC. The nullahs and forested areas along the LOC became routes for infiltration by terrorists and the LOC itself became the first line of defence against the proxy war.
Our defensive posture and tactics also underwent a change. Not only did we have to continue the competitive firing for moral ascendency, our primary focus had to be on counter infiltration, which was being facilitated by Pakistani firing. This required tiered ambushes in the gaps between the posts. Operations along the LOC became even tougher than actual battle, where a cycle of ‘storm’ and ‘lull’ generally prevails. The troops now had to fight a 24-hour, 365 days’ battle. Trans LOC raids by both sides made the situation even more complex.
In 1981, I was transferred to the Mechanised Infantry and spent the next 18 years in the Mechanised Forces environment, divorced from the exciting life along the LOC. I had a yearning to go back to my roots. I had commanded a Combat Group consisting of one mechanised battalion and two armoured squadrons in Ladakh from 1988 to 1990, with an operational role on and across the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Exciting as it was, as we were the pioneer Combat Group, but it was nothing compared to the ‘war’ going on along the LOC. I had to wait for another 10 years before I got involved with LOC Warfare.
I had commanded an armoured brigade and was Brigadier General Staff of a Corps when in 1999, I approached the Military Secretary’s Branch for ‘active duty’ in an operational area. In January 2000, I was appointed Commander 192 Mountain Brigade and was responsible for Batalik – Yaldor – Chorbat La Sector, six months after the Kargil War.
This Sector was known as the Batalik Sector before the Kargil War and used to be held by only one infantry battalion, which looked after a frontage of 70km along the LOC. However, physically only
approximately 20km stretch extending on either side of the Indus River was held. East of this area, the present day Yaldor Sub Sector was the scene of major Pakistani infiltration that was upto eight to ten km deep and some of the major battles of Kargil War were fought here. Jubar, Point 4812, Point 5203, Munthodalo, Khalubar were the heights where the major battles were fought. We were occupying a frontage of 70km with gaps varying from one to three kilometres, due to nullahs and non-tactical terrain. These were covered by fire and ambushes. We were manning 40-50 posts along the LOC and in depth.
Since bulk of the sector was not held earlier, our main focus was on development of defences, laying minefields and making pony/donkey tracks/roads. Most of the posts were eight to 12 hours (one way) marching distance from the bases located at the road heads. This sector had the most difficult terrain after Siachen Glacier, with heights of the posts varying from 14,000 feet to 18,000 feet, situated on the formidable Ladakh Range and the ridges emanating from it. The fast-flowing Indus River divided the Batalik Sector. By November, the Pakistani Army had recovered from the shock of Kargil defeat and the LOC became active.
On taking over the brigade in January 2000, I made my policy clear. Complete moral ascendency had to be achieved and no quarter was to be given to the enemy. We made a bid for additional heavy weapons and soon managed the allotment of two L 70 anti-aircraft guns, two 75/24 MM mountain guns, six anti-tank recoilless guns and 12 extra machine guns. Most of these weapons were either obsolete or were not fit for their primary role (due to defects) and were allotted without crews. The self-reliant infantry battalions rose to the occasion. We got help from artillery and air defence units to train the jawans to handle the L 70 and 75/24 MM mountain guns. Other additional weapons were infantry weapons and posed little problem.
The next task was to move the heavy weapons to the high posts from the road heads. Over one month, 500 men and animals – that added up to 15,000 men, ponies and small donkeys altogether – were utilised per day to place the weapons and ammunition at selected posts. Simultaneously, weapon emplacements were prepared. We also moved some our 81 mm mortars to the posts for crew-observed, line-of-sight firing. Movement was only at night and was extremely slow. To maintain surprise, the movement was only at night. By first light, the weapons were camouflaged in situation and movement commenced again after last light. The ‘man days’ were put in by both by soldiers and civilian labour, consisting of local Ladakhis/Balti Aryans and Gurkhas, and even Biharis who had reached the sector for better wages. The role of Zanskar ponies – the most surefooted animal in the world – and small donkeys (popularly known as SDs) was notable. While the former is a handsome animal, the latter is exactly the opposite: smaller than normal donkeys, sickly and relatively ugly. At first sight, it appeared that this unique animal of the area will never carry a load as its thin legs barely supported its own weight. Yet, it could carry 40-50 kg weight. More than that, it was shown the general direction and asked to move with a peculiar call by the owners and it never stopped thereafter. We also bent the rules for this herculean task and tripled the daily wages for men, ponies and small donkeys. Consequently, many audit observations had to be answered later.
By end-February, we had everything in place. In the interim period, I had physically walked to most of the posts and showed my presence in full regalia to the Pakistani posts, as part of the moral ascendency. We also placed loudspeakers on all posts, to blare patriotic and Hindi/Punjabi film and pop songs. To our amusement, the Pakistani troops would request for special numbers of choice from posts that were in shouting distance.
But this bonhomie was short lived as we had decided that the issue of moral ascendency had to be settled once and for all.
It was a bright sunny day after a week of bad weather and Pakistani troops were busy sunning themselves. On a code word, all hell broke loose. We engaged all posts, but the ones which were dominated by us received special attention. Surprise was total and the enemy troops were caught unawares in the open. In the critical first two minutes, substantial casualties were caused before the troops scurried for cover of the bunkers. We then focussed on the bunkers, which, compared to ours, were in a poor state. The heavier L 70 Air defence gun, which fires 330 rounds per minute, and 75/24 mountain gun wreaked havoc. The training and effort put in to haul them to the posts had paid dividends.
Our fury lasted two hours and in the ensuing lull, white flags came up on some posts for collecting casualties. We had destroyed 35 Bunkers and approximately 25 – 30 enemy were killed and wounded. Complete moral ascendency had been achieved and was maintained aggressively thereafter.
There is a misinformed perception that our rules of engagement are strict and rigidly-controlled by higher headquarters, with troops having no freedom of action to fire on the LOC as opposed to the adversary. Nothing could be further away from the truth. There is a popular saying that those who seek orders get orders; and those who seize the initiative, run away with the orders. No rule or regulation takes away the right of a commander to act as per the operational situation, for safety of his troops and for mission accomplishment within the overall intent of the higher commanders. My constant guiding principle was: “Inaction is the most serious crime against the spirit of the Indian Army”.
This column will not be complete without an anecdote. At the end of the Kargil War, fighting units had left behind 25 – 30 tons of surplus ammunition. As per rules, since the ammunition was no longer in sealed boxes, it was to be back-loaded to Ammunition Depots for destruction. I intervened to stop the back-loading and we put the ammunition to good use on the LOC. It was reported to me that in the ammunition dump, there were 20 Flame Throwers which were imported post haste for the Kargil War. Most readers would have seen the classic flame thrower in war movies, on the back of German soldier. It consisted of inflammable liquid and gas under pressure, in a container with a tube and nozzle. It could shoot a tongue of flame upto a distance of 30 to 40 feet. The flame thrower was one of the most dreaded weapons of World War II. However, what we had was a one-time use incendiary rocket of Russian origin, which is fired from a discardable tube and has a range of 1000 meters. I directed that these be put to use on the LOC. To my chagrin, I found that none of the units had used this weapon. The reason was not hard to find out. During the war, one of the units had an accident due to mishandling the flame thrower resulting in three casualties. This gave birth to a myth of it being a dangerous and unreliable weapon. Keen to break this unsoldierly belief, I directed one of the units to test it. After a few days the Commanding Officer (CO) sheepishly requested that his unit be taken off the task as there was no operating manual for the weapon and given the weapons’ dubious reputation, he did not want to take a risk, especially since the unit had suffered heavy casualties during the war. I refrained from using the prerogative of command to enforce the order and tasked another unit for the same task. After two days the second CO also came up with the same excuse. This time I was firm and told him that if he did not test the weapon, then I personally would test it.
The weapon was tested by fixing it with sand bags and pulling the trigger with a string from a safe distance. Within minutes, I got a “eureka” report singing praises of the weapon. Another firing was conducted physically by the crew and the weapon was proven. I asked the CO as to from where he got the operating manual. He replied that he still did not have one, but they had learnt to operate the weapon by hit and trial. So far, I had not seen the weapon. I asked for one of the discardable tube to be sent to me. What I saw was straight out of “Psychology of Military Incompetence.” The firing instructions were printed on the discardable tube!
The balance of the weapons was put to effective use on the LOC. The troops discovered that handling this weapon was as safe as handling their own rifles. I mounted the discarded tube on a stand and placed it outside my office. While interviewing Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) and Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs), I would narrate the story to drive home the point about importance of detail for grass root soldiering.
My adventures with the flame thrower continued in later service too. As an Army Commander in 2007, I had a situation in which 700 tons of ammunition blew up in an Ammunition Depot. Yes, due to mishandling of the same “dangerous and unreliable” flame thrower and that too by an expert. But that is another story.
During a recent visit to Kargil, I narrated this episode to a group of senior officers, which included the present Commander of 192 Mountain Brigade. He thanked me for the “lesson in ‘detail'” and mentioned that the discarded tube was still in front of his office, but he could never fathom the reason as to why it was there!