… From Across ‘The Line’
The picture above was taken by Lieutenant Allah Noor Afridi as I stood atop an observation bunker overlooking Batalik sector in early May. In the center between the rising ridge lines is the spot where Indus, with all its rage contained into a narrow gushing stream by the towering mountains enters Pakistan. We were a couple of hours hike from the gun position and I was brought here to familiarize myself with the forward posts in our Area of Responsibility (AOR). Lieutenant Afridi in the typical map reading lingo had indicated to me a few landmarks. On the spur in the middle distance rising towards our left there were (if I remember correctly) Suspoon-1 and Suspoon-2, the Indian forward posts. A further leftwards and up (not pictured) was Shangruti the prized top with Pakistan. Having spent a while telescoping our eyes onto the ‘humps and slopes’ we returned to Niazi Gun Postion, located on a relatively flat top near the village named Marol. Under the full view of the onlooking Indian posts Niazi was a suicidal spot to fire from, but then Kargil was still a quarter of a year away. To a present day visitor, the gun position stands abandoned as in the days preceding the ‘Kargil Adventure’ it was moved under cover of the western slopes of village Ganokh.
A Ghumman in Batalik
The area we familiarized ourselves with in the preceding paragraph were the very grounds my friend and course-mate Lieutenant Faisal Zia Ghumman must have walked a few months after me. From here he ventured beyond the Shangruti top into the very heart of Batalik. The sector where the heights were still covered in April snow when Indians got the very first inkling of Pakistani intrusion from the shepherds of Garkund and Kokarthang grazing their stock on these tricky slopes. It was here in Batalik sector, away from the media glare of Tololing and Tiger Hill of Dras that the bloodiest of battles from the Kargil conflict were fought. It was the sector that suffered the heaviest of losses both for the intruders and the counter attackers. It was here somewhere near Munthu Dhalo or Pt. 4812 near Kalubhar where Lieutenant Ghumman might have fought his last battle, breathed his last and for his gallantry was posthumously decorated with Sitara-e-Jurrat.
Accompanying ‘Tiwana’ to Siari
A few days before I stood atop that bunker overlooking Batalik sector, I was at Skardu. A Second Lieutenant fresh from the Academy reporting to the regimental headquarters of Abbasia on to his very first operational posting. Having acclimatized myself to Skardu’s height and weather, which meant a non-stop scaling of Kharpachu knoll for seven consecutive days without a break, I was ready to be ‘dispatched’ to operational area reconnaissance. The first stop was the gun positions at Siari – Frano ahead of Piun. Piun dear reader, that is reached after a day’s stretch on the road passing through Khaplu (my readers would fondly recall it as Khaplu of Allah Rakhi). Getting ready to accompany Major Latif my battery commander as we waited for HMT (Hired Mechanical Transport) were told that “Tiwana” was headed that way and would gladly drive us in a military jeep, Toyota RKR. And then there he was, the first of our Platoon Commanders I saw after wearing the rank. Major Tiwana, with all the grace, respect, fear and hesitation, an inherent mix that we cadets develop towards our Platoon Commanders.
A day long drive to Piun does not have much of a highlight where Majors Latif and Tiwana conversed most of the time and I a much junior officer sat on the back seat planks facing a direction perpendicular to the jeep velocity, which dear reader, is not a very pleasant position to be in long journeys. My fan moment came when the trio after being welcomed at the Headquarters of a Northern Light Infantry Battalion was eating supper in officers mess. Courtesy to the NLI CO, on the dinner table I was crowned ‘The Youngest Officer in Shyok Sector’ (it was my 20th day as a commissioned officer). The NLI regiment’s shield presented as a memento that evening still decorates my collection. The next day the drive was resumed and at the end of our journey at Siari we bid farewell to Major Tiwana who headed to Company Headquarters.
Somewhere near Siari – Frano is the spot where Shyok enters Pakistan and where there’s a qadeemi qabrastan. From both sides of Shyok stream, the ridge line starts rising again reaching the formidable height index of 18000 ft and beyond. There we had our forward posts named Taimoor, Faryad, Tariq and many others. This theater faced Indian Chorbat La. Pakistani offensive into this challenging terrain had met an initial setback, of which we shall talk in a bit, and this sector was then subjected to medium and field artillery duels in the coming days. It was in one such artillery bombardment towards the mid of July that Major Tiwana embraced shahadat. He was posthumously awarded Tamgha-E-Basalat.
The Fortunate Ones …
… and Others Buried in Snow
Not very far from Y Block in DHA Lahore is a graveyard with neatly laid out grave plots on green grassy patches. Here lies buried my friend and course-mate Lieutenant Faisal Zia Ghumman, Sitara-E-Jurrat, the very first shaheed of 96th PMA Long Course from the Kargil Conflict. Both Lieutenant Ghumman and Major Tiwana’s bodies were recovered and buried in their respective areas with full military honour. Not everyone fighting on the desolate heights of Batalik and Chorbat La and Kargil was that fortunate.
From DHA Graveyard we return to Major Tiwana’s location facing Chorbat La. It was early June when the initial exploits of the battalion were ambushed by Ladakh Scouts. Captain Farhat Haseeb Haider of Talagang while leading a body of 10 Jawans charged on a counter attack and never came back. Colonel Moeen Yusuf Khan, his course-mate tells us that a sepoy, the sole survivor from the raid confirmed Haseeb’s shahadat. The officer was duly rewarded for his bravery but the body of the first Sitara e Jurrat of 89th PMA Long Course could not be recovered.
Just three days before in the same sector, Indians were trying to scale the formidable heights in Turtuk desperate to secure a foothold. A daring dash by a patrol of 11 Rajputana Rifles led by Captain Haneef Uddin was met with stiff resistance. The attack failed with heavy losses with the daring Captain among the casualties. For conspicuous bravery in the face of imminent danger he was awarded Vir Chakra. For some time our both Captains Farhat Haseeb Haider of 7 NLI and Haneef Uddin of 11 RAJRIF shared the same fate, with their bodies lying on the snowy slopes astride Shyok too difficult to be recovered due to treacherous weather conditions and the heavy volume of all arms fire. Captain Haneef’s body was recovered at the end of war and was buried in Delhi with full military honours. Captain Farhat Haseeb Haider lies buried under some unmarked boulder across the divide in a foreign land.
The Formidable Majors of Tololing
Op Vijay, launched by India to reclaim the lost heights in Kargil began with disastrous consequences. By the end of May it had failed to materialize any tangible gains and had added body bags for India in considerable count. It was around mid June that Indian determination to push the impetus of attack supported by some innovative artillery fire power and complete supremacy in air started to bear some fruit. From the stretch of Turtuk and Batalik, we dear reader, now return to more accessible towns of Dras and Kargil and with it come to us two iconic names, Tololing and Tiger Hill, the much showcased prize for India from the Kargil conflict. The conflict here was a televised affair and the battles fought here truly the show battles. A lot many of us would remember the blinding flash and deafening thunder of Bofors and other medium artillery guns pounding the Tololing and Tiger Hill heights in direct firing role. The occupants of the posts on these localities were battered and shattered by the artillery shelling and air bombardment but they stayed put holding onto what they had won till the last of their ammunition and breath. Totally cut off from the replenishment lines, ditched by their army and government they preferred death over disgrace.
The officers of 2 Rajputana Rifles remember the night of 28/29th June with an innate pride yet in a solemn tone. This was when they won back Three Pimples – Black Rock complex giving them the Tololing Ridge in its entirety. Soon after the Kargil had been won, Major Sandeep Bajaj in a televised talk revisited the night of attack. His eyes locked on to that invisible moment from recent past, his lips went on narrating the bits. After the attack was over as they were combing the captured objective, there in crystal clear night they came across the three Indian dead. The bodies of ‘Archie’ (Major Padmapani Acharya the company commander, Maha Vir Chakr), ‘Anand’ (company commanders rifleman runner) and ‘Vijayant’ (Captain Vijayant Thapar, Vir Chakra) lying close with their faces reflecting the gentle moonlight. And then there were Pakistani dead mentioned by Major Sandeep with compassion but we don’t get any names.
Going by the Pakistani accounts from soldiers who were in that battle, among the Pakistani dead there must have been the lionheart from Astore, Major Abdul Wahab of 6 NLI. The officer had volunteered for posting to war-zone and got posted to 6 NLI in Buniyal sub-sector. Those who fought beside him narrated his tale of valour. Mortally wounded with enemy fire with very little hope of making it alive he pushed the surviving ones to extricate. Instead of becoming a drag to be carried on someone’s shoulder he stayed put. His last image as recalled by his retreating jawans is that of a profusely bleeding Major sahib desperately struggling with his weapon held in a firing position ready to give one last dash onto the assaulting enemy. Major Abdul Wahab was awarded Sitar e Jurrat. The officer’s body along with others who fell on Tololing was never recovered.
Tiger 1 Over, Tiger 2 Over
Karnal Sher and Ammar
My unit officer once posted as observer in a United Nations mission had Indian counterparts in the same contingent. Upon repatriation he shared a story with me. Indian officers while conversing with each other would address the officer ranks with unique call signs. Tiger 1, Tiger 2 and so on. Initially amazed on the practice the officer was to discover later that the unit was 18 Grenadiers the victors of Tiger Hill, the most revered Indian war trophy from the Kargil conflict. Tiger Hill, the high ridge not very far from Tololing. It was here that 8 Sikh initially securing a foothold was almost uprooted by the ferocious counter attack of a handful of 12 NLI soldiers daringly led by Captain Karnal Sher Khan the winner of Nishan e Haider. Such was the ferocity of his attack that 8 Sikh had to be reinforced with another unit 18 Grenadiers. Brigadier M.P.S. Bajwa, the Brigade Commander in his throwback memories of the war recalls that it was the “fierce attack” by two Pakistani officers Captain Khan of 12 NLI and a Major from Special Services Group that had killed two JCOs and 14 soldiers of 8 Sikh at India Gate. It was Sepoy Satpal Singh of 8 Sikhs who shot the ‘man in track suit’, our gallant Captain Sher and when he fell the battle was over. Brigadier Bajwa remembers burying around 30 dead but sending the gallant Captain’s body down from Tiger Hill. The body was returned to Pakistan along with a citation for bravery, but the SSG Captain along with the other dead of 12 NLI met a different fate.
Body of Capt Karnal Sher Khan of 12 NLI , who was awarded Nishan-e-Haider, the highest Military Award of Pakistan .— Brig MPS Bajwa (R) (@BrigMps) July 13, 2021
For the first time in the history of warfare two highest awards , Nishan- e- Haider & PVC ( Gdr Yogendra Yadav) were awarded by same Commander ( Brig MPS Bajwa) pic.twitter.com/pnmV3DurLE
The brave SSG Captain who accompanied Sher in the daring counter attack was Captain Muhammad Ammar Hussain of 1 Commando Battalion. The officer for his valour earned Sitara e Jurrat. A roundabout in Chaklala, Rawalpindi is named after him as Ammar Shaheed Chowk. As per Indian narrative the bodies were buried in situ on the slopes of Tiger Hill where the soldiers fell. 7 of these were however saved for a later burial and moved atop another height nicknamed ‘Gun Hill’ after the heavy pounding it received from the mortar and artillery fire.
Associated Press has a video where the burial of the seven soldiers in a shallow pit serving as a combined grave was shown to the reporters and televised on the media. A unit Khateeb reading out a silent prayer as the bodies clad in Pakistani flag were lowered into their rocky abode. The flags were removed and we see Indian soldiers covering the bodies of their dead opponents with the excavated scree, as much as it could be excavated on rocky bed of Himalayas. A wooden board affixed as a makeshift headstone bears the inscription ‘PAK – 12 NLI’ on it. The Khateeb then rubs his hands raised in a prayer on his face and chest as if blessing himself with the invisible supplication, an indication that the prayer is now concluded, and the ceremony comes to a close. There won’t be any last post sounded for these brave souls. The very country that sent them into battle never wanted their bodies to be sent back.
Paltan Ki Izzat
19 Frontier Force Regiment
In 2011 the year of my voluntary retirement, yet again posted to Himalayas in the rank of Major, I happened to be part of a Corps Study Panel. The theme was to study and revise the existing motivational model of a Pakistan Army soldier. Our case study involved soldiers from a number of different armies of the world in live combat asking the primary question as to what makes a soldier to fight. The answer was simple, Esprit de Corps. While it’s necessary to have an ideology with a system of belief, what makes a soldier to fight into the very alleys of death is his buddy, his platoon and the honour of his Unit (Paltan ki Izzat).
The commanding officer of 19 Frontier Force, fighting the battle of Kargil went to unprecedented limits to secure his Paltan ki Izzat. His unit fought one of the last battles on Zulu Spur at Tiger Hills. The officer under orders to retreat wasn’t willing to go back without claiming his battalion’s dead. A wireless message was relayed by Commanding Officer of 3/3 Gorkha Rifles (the Indian outfit fighting the 19 Frontier Force) onto the Brigade Commander, Brigadier M.P.S. Bajwa that a Pakistani Commanding Officer wanted to talk to him. The Brigadier recalls the conversation with someone identifying himself as Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa, commanding officer of a battalion once commanded by Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw (the Indian Chief of Army Staff during 1971 War). Our Brigadier vividly remembers the words of Colonel Mustafa
The sanctity of the words between a ‘Pathan and a Sardar’ was kept. Indians made it a formal event and recorded it on videotape. In a botched war effort where the Govt of Pakistan and the Army Commanders had disowned their soldiers fighting on the treacherous Himalayan slopes, this request to videotape the handing over of bodies did not deter CO 19 FF an inch from claiming his battalion’s shaheeds. A video on YouTube shows a Pakistani major with a collection party meeting an Indian officer receiving three bodies draped in Pakistani flag with full military honours, both Indian and Pakistani soldiers offering a joint salute and signing a certificate of handing over of the bodies. Sometimes I wish we had an Army Commander like Colonel Mustafa.
One of the three bodies handed over at the base of Zulu Spur that cold morning of July 29 might have been that of Captain Abdul Malik. The 19FF braveheart from Hyderabad who earned Tamgha e Basalat for his valour. Here our friend Cuirassier with twitter handle @leftofthepincer adds that the three bodies recovered included Lance Havaldar Mubarak Shah, Naik Munir, and Lance Naik Habib-ur-Rehman. Captain Abdul Malik’s body wasn’t among them. 19 Frontier Force were defending the post codenamed “M-6” and they fought well.
A Grandfather’s Request
To wind up this story of ours dear reader, we shall head back to Shyok sector. From the villages of Siari – Frano, my readers would remember where we bid farewell to our Major Tiwana, the ridgeline rising towards north east meets the glaciated ice of Chulung La, one of the southern glaciers of Siachen. Here in a race to reach the top called point 5770 Pakistan outdid India with its soldiers of 3 NLI Battalion under Captain Taimur Malik establishing Bilal Post. Oblivious to the fact Indians in their bid to secure the height gathered a diverse team skilled in High Altitude Warfare led by Major Navdeep Singh Cheema of 27 Rajput. The team under complete secrecy and artillery silence resorted to scaling the top from the most difficult almost vertical approach completely hidden from view. They did achieve surprise for when they reached the top the soldiers of Bilal Post were caught unaware and all perished to the daring assault by Indians. The post re-crowned Navdeep Top now lies with India.
There’s more to our story. General Ved Parakash Malik the then Indian Army Chief recalls that when the dust from the battle of Kargil started to settle down he received a request through Defence Attaché’s office in London. The grandfather of our young Captain Taimur Malik who had fought in the 1948 war on Kashmir had requested to return the body of his grandson for reburial in Pakistan.
After capture of Pt 5770. Pak Army Capt Taimur Malik of SSG was killed. Taimur’s grandfather approached our DA in London. Requested return of grandson’s body & his request be conveyed to me. Got young Taimur’s & other bodies exhumed. Returned them to Pakistan with military honour— Ved Malik (@Vedmalik1) June 26, 2019
Lieutenant General Konsam Himalay Singh who back then commanded 27 Rajputs that was phenomenal in capturing point 5770 (now Navdeep Top) recalls that it was after a month of the Kargil conflict that he was asked to exhume the body of Captain Taimur Malik of 3 NLI. The officer insisted that he will have the bodies exhumed only if Pakistani Govt. agrees to own all four (the captain and three soldiers) of their bodies. It was honoured and the bodies of point 5770 martyrs were handed over with full military honour. Our young Captain Taimur Malik having been buried in the foreign land for a while now rests in eternal peace in his native village in Pakistani Administered Kashmir.
Kargil conflict shrouded in denial and mystery from one side and televised and much celebrated by the other made an objective analysis and assessment a challenging affair. In the initial phase when the defenders were well trenched-in and secure on the formidable heights gave the attackers a bloody nose. As the Indians counted the body bags the diplomatic front accelerated their pace and the military commanders started to look for innovations. After that it was no going back for India and a fight for survival for Pakistanis with their depleted supply lines. To make the matters worst in branding them Mujahideen they were the disowned fighters whose injured, albeit very few would be treated in Indian military hospitals as Prisoners of War and whose war dead would be denied the dignity due to a martyr.
After my first posting as a Second Lieutenant I was to return to Himalayas a few years later as a young Captain. While serving on a forward post, I was with Northern Light Infantry troops who were the veterans of Kargil conflict. They had stories to tell and I was an eager audience. There in the Himalayan stretch, just a field artillery shell’s throw away from Tololing when the breeze swayed, it crossed that imaginary dotted line imprinted on military maps and reached the fighters now buried in a foreign land. The heights of Batra Top, Tiger Hill, India Gate, Three Pimples, Tololing and further towards Batalik those of Kalubhar, Munthu Dhalo, and all the way to Navdeep Top on the shoulder of Chulung La stand tall like sacred cathedrals. They saw the best of fighting and their formidable slopes now hold our best of the fighters in their eternal sleep.
This post was written as a young officer’s memoir whose tenure of posting in Himalayas as a Second Lieutenant preceded Kargil conflict by the count of a few months and later as a young Captain succeeded it by a couple of years. It was written primarily to pay tribute to those known to me and to extend it to few other bravehearts who fought gallantly from both the sides. There were many and a lot more stories need to be told, for which I will try to make an effort in future. It also acknowledged the soldierly and professional conduct from the adversary in honouring our war dead, returning the bodies where requested and recommending an officer for his bravery through a hand written citation.
This article received a huge response both in terms of visits and comments which I had never expected. The words left here by war veterans, senior armed forces officers and members of civil society are dearly received and greatly treasured. The comments panel has words from big names whose writings on military history and battle actions I have idolized and cherished. Thank you Sirs for you made my day! In the coming days I will try to reply to a few comments as best as I could, but I want to thank you all from the core of my heart for your time and words. I have tried to be objective and impartial while approving the comments, but for the select few if they don’t find their words here perhaps the content and context were either irrelevant or too much for my lenient being to approve for which I apologize.