TWENTY-ONE years have passed since Capt Karnal Sher Khan laid down his life in the service of his country. On July 7, army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa paid tribute to Capt Karnal and another martyr of the Kargil conflict, Havaldar Lalak Jan, saying in a message that the “nation is proud of its gallant sons for valour and unwavering allegiance to defend the country, regardless of the cost”. Indeed, there can be no greater sacrifice, and there are hundreds of such soldiers, mainly from the Northern Light Infantry, who embraced martyrdom on those icy, inhospitable peaks in India-held Kashmir.
And yet, there is still much we do not know about the individual stories of courage, the desperate fight to the death in the face of dwindling supplies of food and ammunition, with artillery fire from the other side raining down on them. The government and the army have remained tight-lipped about the conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours that set the world on edge, and precipitated the downfall of Pakistan’s civilian government a few months later, and yet another military takeover. Most of what we now know about that seminal event is courtesy journalist Nasim Zehra’s magnum opus From Kargil to Coup. The bare facts are thus: a coterie of four top generals, including then army chief Pervez Musharraf, orchestrated a secret operation that would, they believed, bring India to its knees and compel it to negotiate on the Kashmir issue. It was later criticised as non-inclusive strategising, for it not only bypassed the rest of the military leadership, but reportedly also the civilian government — which would have to bear the brunt of the ensuing censure on the world stage — until the operation was well underway. Moreover, the security establishment maintained all the while it was Kashmiri mujahideen that had occupied the peaks. Only later, when the bodies of the NLI soldiers started arriving home, did the public — and most tragically, the soldiers’ own families — realise the involvement of army regulars.
To worsen matters, the ill-judged operation — which went awry because of the unplanned expansion of the theatre of conflict — dealt a huge blow to the Kashmir cause as it lost Pakistan the support of the international community on the issue. With the intervention of the US president, the country was forced into withdrawing its forces unconditionally. Despite this climbdown, there has been no official word about the misadventure and how it was executed, let alone any accountability for its architects. One wonders if the reticence continues within the National Defence University, where all wars are otherwise dissected as part of the strategic and tactical action course. Surely it is time to air this unfortunate chapter in our history, and learn about the final moments of those who paid the ultimate price for the folly of a few.
Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2020