Justice for a Kargil hero

Brig Devinder Singh foresaw that Pakistan could launch major intrusions along the LoC in Kargil sector.
The ghosts of Kargil keep coming back to haunt the army. However, a recent judgment of the main bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal (ATF), New Delhi, is likely to be received well as a valiant soldier’s honour has been redeemed.

Brigadier Devinder Singh, brigade commander in the Batalik sub-sector of Kargil during Pakistan’s infamous intrusions in 1999, had been wronged by his superior officer and has received justice after 11 long years. Accepting his contention that the ‘after action report’ of 15 Corps, a key war report, was fudged to downgrade his operational performance, the ATF has directed that the official war records be corrected. The tribunal has also directed that the annual confidential reports of the officer reviewed by Lt Gen Kishan Pal, the corps commander, be expunged from the record.

During a 15 Corps war game some months before the Kargil conflict, Devinder Singh had been asked to ‘act’ as the enemy commander and make an assessment of Pakistan’s capabilities and intentions. He had correctly anticipated that the Pakistanis could attempt to launch major intrusions into the undefended areas along the LoC in the Kargil sector. The overall intention would be to take revenge for India’s 1984 occupation of the Saltoro Ridgeline west of the Siachen glacier. However, Pal rubbished his plan and refused to consider the possibility of intrusions.

The truth

70 Infantry Bde, commanded by Devinder Singh, was rushed to the Batalik sub-sector of Kargil district when reports of Pakistani intrusions were first received in early May 1999. During a visit to the conflict zone, Gen V P Malik, the then COAS, asked  Kishan Pal for his assessment of the situation. Pal is reported to have answered that 70 Infantry Bde faced only about 45 militants. Devinder, the commander on the spot, replied that there were approximately 600 regular Pakistani soldiers holding the heights and that they were well entrenched. Maj Gen V S Budhwar, the GOC, 3 Infantry Division, Devinder’s immediate superior, had estimated that there were about 400 men occupying the heights.

Kishan Pal must have been severely annoyed at being contradicted by a subordinate in front of the army chief. Perhaps his insecurity led him to believe that a professional disagreement was a personal insult. Perhaps he had panicked at the extent of Pakistan’s intrusions and did not want to accept the truth. Even in the Kargil and Dras sub-sectors he had assessed that there were only a handful of militants. His amazingly wrong assessment had led to the then defence minister George Fernandes, telling parliament that the intruders would be thrown out in 48 hours.

Kishan Pal continued to stand by his assessment and ordered the brigade commanders to launch additional battalions quickly into assault to throw out the intruders, who it was later proved were actually regular soldiers of the Pakistan army’s Northern Light Infantry.

His lack of tactical and operational acumen and undue pressure on his subordinates to act quickly — disregarding professionally established benchmarks for preparation for attack in high-altitude mountains — resulted in some infantry battalions being hurled into battle unprepared for the opposition that awaited them. This led to many avoidable casualties in the early stages of the campaign. Pal alone must be held accountable for this lapse.

According to ‘Kargil 1999: Blood guts and firepower,’ a book published by Army HQ, Devinder’s brigade faced the toughest challenges and achieved the finest victories. Devinder made extremely successful operational plans, led from the front and worked tirelessly to motivate his troops. Under his dynamic leadership his battalions lived up to the army’s ethos of sacrifice and glory in the field of battle. In short, he was a very successful war-time leader.

He also proved himself to be a ramrod straight soldier. He first lodged a non-statutory complaint to seek redressal of his grievances and then a statutory complaint to the government of India. Some of the remarks of the corps commander were ordered to be expunged by appropriate authorities, but he was not given full redressal. Only then did he seek the intervention of the courts. Even then, he did not go to the media and shunned undue publicity.

Personal vindictiveness led Kishan Pal to deny Devinder the Maha Vir Chakra for which he had been recommended by the GOC, 3 Infantry Division. He also gave Devinder a poor ACR and had the after action report falsified to justify his actions. The Armed Forces Tribunal has now set the record straight and Brig Devinder Singh’s honour has been redeemed in full measure.

(The writer is director, centre for land warfare studies, New Delhi)