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June 25, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend General Ashok K Mehta

The Battle of Tololing Ridge

The Indian army has seized lodgments on equivalent heights as the intruders in both Drass and Batalik. But the battle for each post will be fought separately and resolutely.

The capture of Tololing heights on June 21 culminating in the battle for Point 5140 is just the beginning of the long haul. Its capitulation has taken three weeks of gallant fighting and nearly 100 casualties. The elimination of this segment of the intrusion removes in part, the observed domination and interdiction of the Leh highway. Tiger Hill, the key to rolling back the most dangerous of the four pockets of intrusion, is still holding out. It will be the next target in Drass.

The enemy can still observe some movement on the road from Kaksar and Tiger Hill which means artillery fire can be brought on the road as targets are already registered. No direct observation is required for this. But the Tololing thorn has been taken out for a relatively low price when compared with similar battles at OP Hill in Rajouri sector in 1965 or eviction of other intrusions across the LoC. The reason is now there is no pressure of time on troops. Neither the government nor the Chief of Army Staff has imposed on field commanders, any time stipulation for the eviction of intrusions and restoration of the LoC.

The battle of Tololing ridge is a classic re-enactment of first securing a toe-hold on the ridge before attempting the pinnacle. The toe-hold becomes a foothold, gets firmed in and creeps towards Point 5140. This initial operation of seizing a lodgment is known as the firm base for the main assault. This task was achieved by the 13 J&K Rifles.

The enemy immediately brought down salvo after salvo of mortar and artillery fire as the Tololing ridge had been registered earlier as a SOS target. Had the enemy not been forced to withdraw from the ridge but completely surrounded, the defender would have asked for Red-over-Red-over-Red fire on its own position. Whether in or out of the ridge, Tololing had to be plastered. That is one reason why 13 J&K Rifles suffered heavy casualties taking Tololing.

Point 5140 on the other hand, was captured with relatively few casualties. It was attacked from three directions: along Tololing ridge and from the north and west of it along extremely difficult and precipitous approaches. These attacks were launched by night allowing maximum time to posture the assault with stealth and cunning. Because troops were so close to the objective, and it was dark, neither air strikes nor mortar and artillery fire could be employed. It was a bayonet assault, from one rock face to another, one ledge to the other, scampering to the top. When the enemy realised it was being encircled by two other battalions -- 18 Garhwal Rifles and 1 Naga -- discretion became the better part of valour.

In the rarified atmosphere and minus 10 degree centigrade, wind speeds of 30 to 40 kms and a wind-chill factor, the Naga-Garhwali and Kashmiri soldiers would have required the skills of Santosh Yadav and Tenzing Norgay to rappel to the top. And once on top, to stay there. When tired and breathless soldiers reach the objective this phase of battle is the most crucial. Most battles have been lost before they are won, by the immediate counterattack of the enemy.

Sometimes, the enemy employees a ruse: deliberately vacating the top. Instead, they form up on the reverse slopes to pounce on the unsuspecting attacker the moment he reaches the top. The Tololing battle has shown the experience, wisdom and valour of Indian soldiers.

Once our troops are also on equivalent heights, they have a distinct advantage. Further, soldiers can be recycled easily with fresh ones, something the enemy cannot easily do. In Siachen where 15 soldiers are occupying a post, another 25 are held in reserve below the post. Bana top, the highest 21,000 feet post in Siachen which India wrested from Pakistan in 1987, can take a maximum of 9 soldiers. For the last 12 years, Pakistan has launched dozens of assaults but failed to recapture Bana. The sheer difficulty of scaling the post makes the attempt a non-starter. The only hope of capturing these posts is if sentries there are asleep.

No wonder Benazir Bhutto used to first bait General Zia ul Haq and later Nawaz Sharief for losing Siachen and taunt them with the gift of burqas.

The Batalik intrusions though contained, are dangerous because these can turn the southern flank of Siachen through Turtuk. Tiger Hill and Batalik heights are next to come under the hammer. There is absolutely no need to press the stopwatch button. After the diplomatic beating of Pakistan in Cologne, time is on India's side in Kargil.

There is no question of Siachenisation of these intrusions which are across the LoC. Siachen on the other hand, is a compact defensive layout but in no man's land. The cost for Pakistan maintaining these posts in penny pockets between Indian defences in Kargil will be horrendous if feasible during winter. Once intrusions are vacated India can close the gaps at a much smaller cost as the army used to in the past.

It is important the army is not hassled on the issue of when this war will end or when the LoC will be resolved. It is necessary not to impose any constraints of time when the soldiers are operating, especially under conditions of maximum restraint.

General Ashok K Mehta

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