THE Kargil conflict was raging and I was sitting in the office when the switchboard put a call through. The call was to dramatically alter my perception of that Himalayan conflagration.
After all it was following a long internal debate that the BBC coined the phrase 'Pakistan-backed forces' for the combatants. These armed men had occupied the commanding heights, enabling them to sever the strategically important Srinagar-Leh Highway as it now lay within their range of fire.
Tension was mounting as Delhi was insisting that those occupying the heights on its side of the Line of Control were infiltrating Pakistan Army regulars. Pakistan was sticking to its guns that it was Kashmiri guerrillas fighting to free their land.
Therefore, the BBC had to evolve the terminology which enabled it to refer to the conflict in a neutral manner. This was warranted anyway as the harsh terrain and the dizzying altitude meant the theatre of the conflict was inaccessible to journalists.
All we could do was to report the conflict based on the claims and counter-claims of the two parties involved. Every effort was made to diligently and clearly attribute the claims to the side making them.
Tension was mounting. The situation wasn't helped at all by the fact that it had hardly been a year since India had carried out nuclear tests, forcing tit-for-tat nuclear explosions by Pakistan. There were fears of a possible nuclear clash. It was around this time that I received the call.
After identifying himself, the frantic caller told me he was calling from Sharjah airport, was en route to Pakistan and needed the help of BBC Urdu Service which, he had been told, had carried the news of his brother's death in Kargil.
Within minutes, I was on the line to our Srinagar correspondent Altaf Hussain who told me the Indian army had brought some bodies from Kargil to Srinagar and showed them to the media.
The Indians wanted to reinforce their claim that it was not Kashmiri militants but Pakistan regulars fighting in Kargil to retain control of the heights they had stealthily captured in early spring after their adversaries had vacated these ahead of the last harsh winter.
Altaf described the young officer and said he'd been identified by a signed letter in his pocket ostensibly written by his sister. I called back the Sharjah mobile and gave all the details including the letter's contents and the sender's name.
The person at the other end went quiet but quickly recovered his composure to say: “That is most certainly my younger brother, Captain Karnal Sher Khan. My sister did tell me about the letter and no one else would have known her name.
“I will forever be grateful to you for letting us know. Our own government tells us nothing. In fact, they haven't told us anything for several months since he first went away on this long assignment. He was last posted to the NLI (Northern Light Infantry).
“We have a right to know. Don't get me wrong we are several brothers and each one of us will gladly give his life for Pakistan. But why doesn't our government own its shaheeds ? They may not be proud of our brother's sacrifice but we are. He beat us to it.”
Wouldn't you be lost for words? I didn't quite know how to react, what to say. In a sense, it was a relief when the call ended. This one call had confirmed to me that regulars were engaged in Kargil.
When the fallen soldier's brother complained of being kept in the dark I obviously put it down to operational reasons. It was to emerge later that even the air force and naval chiefs were not told.
The then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, also says he didn't approve the operation nor was he informed. This claim is refuted by Gen Musharraf who along with a handful of his trusted generals had himself planned it and gave it the go-ahead.
The operation first hailed by some Pakistani defence analysts as “tactically brilliant”, soon turned out to be a strategic nightmare as the planners had no exit strategy especially since the scenario they had predicated it on was all wrong.
The Indians refused to talk and despite taking a heavy loss of life (said to be 3:1) responded robustly, bringing in heavy artillery and slowly retaking some of their lost positions after cutting the supply lines, where any existed.
For its part, the international community felt Pakistan hadn't acted as a “responsible” nuclear power should and called on it to withdraw its forces. Even China reportedly remained adamant that Islamabad was in the wrong and should pull out.
This isolation spelt disaster for the military planners who wanted to take the Indians “by the scruff of their neck” and, at the very least, secure their pullout from the Siachen Glacier.Fearful of what a spiral would mean, the US became proactive. Sharif was asked to fly to Washington. President Clinton met him on a national holiday and issued a call to 'restore the Line of Control'. Pakistan was offered nothing in return.
Sharif's July intervention may have prevented a full-blown war, even a nuclear exchange, but it was to irreparably damage his relations with his out-of-line army chief. By September, the prime minister's brother Shahbaz was in the US successfully soliciting a statement against a military takeover.
When Capt Karnal Sher Khan's body was being returned to Pakistan, even the Indians talked of his valour; of how the young officer on a mission impossible did the honourable thing: fight to the very end. Finally, Pakistan also extended recognition: it awarded him the Nishan-i-Haider.
But those who had sent this valiant young man and hundreds of others like him to die in a pointless conflict, shamed the nation and overthrew an elected government have not been held to account. Our khaki-colour-blind accountability process remains unmoved to this day.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
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