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June 1, 1999


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Government's handling of Kargil dismays defence forces

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George Iype in New Delhi

A week has passed since India launched air strikes and ground attacks to flush out Pakistan-backed insurgents from the Kargil sector of Jammu and Kashmir.

Government figures state that 46 Indian soldiers have been killed, more than 200 injured, and two jet fighters and one helicopter have been downed in Operation Vijay. But sources said the unofficial toll is much higher.

The government claims that some 320 infiltrators and 150 Pakistani soldiers have been killed, though the defence ministry itself says the figures are "speculative" as there is no way of verifying them in the tortuous mountain terrain.

As a dialogue with Pakistan to create an early détente on Kargil is all set to begin, confusion, anger and disappointment have set in among thousands of the country's men in uniform stationed on the Line of Control and the military top brass monitoring the operations in New Delhi.

In the past one week, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Defence Minister George Fernandes, other top ministers, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Opposition have been talking at cross purposes on what went wrong in Kargil, on the modus operandi of the mission, and on the future strategy.

Vajpayee says that while he was signing the Lahore Declaration in February, Pakistan was sending intruders deep into the fortified bunkers in the Kargil sector.

But Fernandes believes Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief did not plan the incursion during Vajpayee's bus trip to Lahore.

Vajpayee on May 31: "While I was taking the bus to Lahore and discussing peace there, preparations for the infiltration were already underway."

Accusing Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief of stabbing him in the back, Vajpayee admitted that India had miscalculated in assessing Pakistan's intentions.

But the defence minister reiterated his faith in Sharief by stating that the Pakistani head of government had no idea about the infiltration at the time of the Lahore Declaration.

Fernandes on May 31: "I do not believe Sharief could have been talking peace with us and planning these operations at the same time."

The prime minister's declaration that it is a "war-like situation in Kashmir" has invited criticism from the Opposition.

Vajpayee on May 31: "A war-like situation has evolved in Kashmir. This is a kind of invasion and aggression. It is an attempt to alter the Line of Control and to grab our land."

Fernandes, who initially said on May 27 that "nobody talks about a war-like situation lightly", changed track after Vajpayee's description of the escalating tensions in Kargil.

Fernandes on May 31: "It is a war of sorts. It is a matter of time that we will complete the operations in Kargil."

The main opposition party, the Congress, has taken objection to Vajpayee's admission that it is a "war-like situation".

Congress spokesman K Natwar Singh on June 1: "Vajpayee is contradicting himself by describing the situation in Kargil as war-like. Is it not an attempt to gloss over India's view that the Pakistani government was kept in the dark about the infiltration operations? This could not have happened because the current military chief was handpicked by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief when he chose to dispense with the services of General Jahangir Karamat."

But after a week of combined military operations to evict the insurgents, Fernandes still believes that neither the Pakistani premier nor the country's Inter-Services Intelligence had any role in the invasion.

Fernandes almost daily repeats what he said on May 28: "In this entire episode, the Pakistani Army has hatched a conspiracy to push in the infiltrators into Kashmir. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief and his government did not have any major role. The ISI, which we know initiates such activities, has not played any role."

The BJP, its alliance partners, the Congress and other opposition parties have blasted Fernandes for absolving Sharief and the ISI blame in the infiltration.

BJP spokesman M Venkaiah Naidu on May 30: "We do not agree with the defence minister. The infiltration in Kashmir has entirely been masterminded and implemented by the Sharief government, the ISI and the army."

Vishwa Hindu Parishad vice-president Giriraj Kishore on May 30: "We do not believe in what the defence minister says. I don't believe the Pakistani military can indulge in such an act of sending well-trained infiltrators into Indian territory without the consent of their government."

But the defence minister still refuses to admit that the Indian Army's intelligence wing failed to detect and prevent the Pakistani soldiers and militants from infiltrating into Kashmir.

Fernandes on May 31: "There has been no major failure on the part of intelligence agencies in detecting large-scale incursion in Kargil."

But National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra disagrees with Fernandes and admits that there has been a failure of intelligence.

Mishra on May 31: "The government will enquire into the intelligence failure. We must have a proper inquiry and come to a conclusion where we went wrong and where we have to correct ourselves. We have to learn from this mistake."

As Fernandes came under all-round attack for failure to check the Pakistan infiltration, the defence minister was forced to appear before the BJP national executive meeting on Monday to explain what went wrong and brief it on the strategic operations in the region.

But nervous that the BJP leaders would tear him apart, Fernandes took with him Chief of Army Staff General V P Malik and Lt General N C Vij, director of operations.

Thus, Fernandes, who made headlines in January by dismissing a chief of the Indian Navy, has now created history by compelling the army top brass to brief a political party.

"The biggest problem with Fernandes is that he is and has been acting as a politician and not as the Defence Minister of India," a senior defence ministry official told Rediff On The NeT.

He said Fernandes and the Union Cabinet knew of the unhindered infiltration of Pakistanis from across the Line of Control. "We do not know why the government did not act to check and prevent it in time," he said.

But Fernandes claims that he and the army top brass noticed the infiltration only in the first week of May.

Soon he flew to Srinagar and declared, on May 17: "The Pakistani infiltrators will be flushed out within 48 hours."

But it is 168 hours since Operation Vijay was launched.

Defence ministry officials now admit that the Pakistani infiltration was such an extensively and meticulously planned operation that neither Fernandes nor the Army is certain how many more days it will take to clear them out.

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