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Commander ordered capture of Point 5353 in Kargil war

By Praveen Swami

NEW DELHI, JUNE 29 . Indian soldiers had attempted to capture Point 5353, a strategically-important peak in the Dras sector, in the first days of the Kargil war. New evidence that such an assault took place blows apart contradictory claims by the former Defence Minister, George Fernandes, and top military officials that the feature does not lie on the Indian side of the Line of Control.

An investigation by The Hindu has gained access to orders issued to Major Navneet Mehra of the 16 Grenadiers Regiment, ordering him to lead an assault on Point 5353, so named for its altitude in metres. It is the highest feature in the Dras sector, and allows the Pakistani troops to observe National Highway 1A, as well as an alternative Dras-Kargil route that is now under construction.

Major Mehra's men were asked to evict the Pakistani intruders on Point 5353 by 6 a.m. on May 18, 1999. The officer's plan was to set up three fire bases along the base of the peak to support the infantry assault by two groups.

Although backed by some artillery, both groups faced a difficult climb, under direct fire from both the Pakistani positions on Point 5353 and Point 5165.

However, Major Mehra's despatches note, his commanding officer, Col. Pushpinder Oberoi, gave specific orders "to go for it at any cost." Col. Oberoi's troops failed to execute his instructions. Ill-equipped for the extreme cold, and not properly acclimatised to the altitude, the troops withdrew after suffering 13 casualties. The attack was finally called off at 3 a.m. on May 19, 1999.

After news broke that the Pakistani troops occupied Point 5353, the Indian Army denied that the peak had ever been held by India, or, indeed, was on its side of the LoC. A press release issued on August 11, 2000, asserted that the "point was never under our control either before or after Operation Vijay in Kargil." Mr. Fernandes seemed to disagree. Asked about the status of Point 5353 at a subsequent press conference, he insisted that "every inch of the land is under our control."

Mr. Fernandes' subsequent statements added to the confusion. Speaking to an audience in Mumbai, he said "Point 5353 is the point over which the LoC goes. Fact is, our troops had never occupied that."

However, on January 1, 2001, the Press Information Bureau issued a photograph of Mr. Fernandes standing on what it claimed was Point 5353. Later, the PIB was forced to sack a junior staffer for "an administrative error."

War-time media reports, based on Army briefings, suggest that further efforts to take the peak were made from July 21, 1999, well after the fighting had officially ended. While these efforts were unsuccessful, the available evidence suggests that then-56 Brigade Commander Amar Aul responded by occupying two heights on the Pakistani side of the LoC, 4875 and 4251.

sSubsequently, the local commanders hammered out a deal, where both agreed to leave points 5353, 5240, 4251 and 4875 unoccupied.

Towards October-end, for reasons still not clear, the 16 Grenadiers were ordered to take Point 5240 and the 1-3 Gurkha Rifles Point 5353. While the 16 Grenadiers' attack proceeded as planned, despite bad weather, the 1-3 Gurkha Rifles, for reasons still not clear, never made their way up to Point 5353. When the Pakistani troops detected the Indian presence on 5240, they promptly reoccupied Point 5353.

Interestingly, however, the 16 Grenadiers' records on the Point 5353 assault refer to Point 5353 as "a minor objective." So too, do entries in Col. Oberoi's confidential service records. This assessment was vindicated during the artillery clashes in 2001-2002, when the Pakistani observation posts on Point 5353 were unable to bring accurate fire to bear on either the highway or nearby Indian positions. The Indian troops were able to tie down the Pakistani position with accurate fire, rendering it near-impossible for its superior altitude to be used to good effect.

Correction

The height of Tiger Hill is 4,660 metres (i.e., Point 4660), not 4,165 metres as reported in these columns on Tuesday.

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