Indian soldiers in Drass have by now got used to interruptions in radio messages. These are frequency intercepts by the Pakistani Army. They cut in with sophisticated electronic jammers to blank out radio sets. Sometimes, mujahideen and Pakistani soldiers shout curses and war cries.
At 4.10 a.m. on June 13, there was no such problem when Colonel M.B. Ravindranath, commanding officer of the 2 Rajputana Rifles, radioed the commander of the 8 Mountain Division Major-General Mohinder Puri, camping some 20 km away.
It was a simple, terse message: "Sir, I'm on Tololing Top."
Minutes earlier, his troops had recaptured the key ridge in the Drass Sector after a fierce, night-long hand-to-hand battle. One officer, two JCOs and seven jawans lay dead before him on a moonscape of tortured rock that often tilted at 80 degrees, where cover is a prayer and ammunition a combination of bayonet, bare hands and bravery.
Later that day, Ravindranath would weep in his tent as he counted the price of gaining a height that has probably changed the course of the Kargil war. This is the place that claimed Major Rajesh Adhikari, Captain Vivek Gupta and Lt-Colonel G. Viswanathan, the place that has accounted for more than half the dead in this war.
In return, the heights above Drass valley are free from intruders and a critical section of the 510-km long Srinagar-Kargil-Leh highway is safe. "Tololing being bang on the road, it choked our throats," says a field commander. "That pressure is now off." The victory earned Ravindranath and his men a rare, direct "well-done" from army chief V.P. Malik. With good reason: once Tololing was taken, it took just six days for Indian troops to notch up a string of successes by evicting well-entrenched intruders on four nearby outposts with names that have become the talking point of cocktail circuits and village gatherings - Point 4590, Rocky Knob, Hump and Point 5140. It could lead to the recapture of a similarly strategic height of Tiger Hill.
The month-long battle is already being likened to the epic battle for the Haji Pir pass in the 1965 war.
It was 32 days of hell.
THE GHOSTS OF WAR
"It's a suicidal mission"
The ferocity of the Tololing battle is a surefire indicator of how army commanders grossly miscalculated the strength and sustaining power of the intruders. A few days after the intrusion was detected in the Drass sector on May 14, the 18 Grenadier battalion was taken off counter-insurgency operations in the valley and ordered to evict the intruders.
At one of the initial briefings, the commander of the Kargil-based 121 Brigade had dryly told the Grenadiers' commanding officer that there were no more than 8-10 infiltrators on the heights. "Just go up," he ordered with casual bravado. "And bring them down by their neck."
It will probably go down as the mishit of the war.
Three battalions from Naga, Garhwal and Grenadier regiments tried to make their way up to Tololing from two sides but made little headway in the face of saturation fire. When the Grenadiers began operations on May 22, they were bloodied so badly that commanders in the valley below realised what they were up against. With virtually no cover and intruders entrenched all across the ridges in bunkers fortified with iron girders and corrugated sheets, an advance was stopped even as it began. Things were so bad that two platoons of another Grenadier division was stuck for 16 days on a ridge below Tololing, pinned down by gunfire and artillery barrage pin-pointed by watchers on the heights.
Movement was only possible during bad weather or on moonless nights. When the wind screamed along with gunfire and temperature hovered between -5 and -11 degrees centigrade. From the base, it would take at least 11 hours for a fit, acclimatised soldier to climb the 16,000 ft to the top.
But crawling up, inch by inch, along the steep, smooth incline in the face of blanket firing by the intruders made the troops' task highly risky. "It was almost a suicidal mission," recalls a major. Barely acclimatised, a five-metre trudge would leave soldiers, weighed down by guns, equipment packs and ammunition weighing 25 kg or more, panting for breath. "Every gram of the weight you carry is extra load," says Captain Ajit Singh of the 16 Grenadiers who was part of the initial assault. "And you have to choose between your ration and ammunition." A 2-kg food pack or 100 bullets. Ajit, like many of his colleagues, chose bullets. For three days, he says, he survived on cigarettes.
The trade-off didn't work this time.
A day later, a company of Grenadiers led by Major Adhikari attempted a berserk assault. They were stopped just 15 m short of the ridge and all hell broke loose. Adhikari and two others died in hand-to-hand combat, intruders poured fire and pushed them back 30 m, then more, then some more, a retreat that forced 23 year-old Captain Sachin Nimbalkar and his men to perch behind a large rock fronting a tiny ledge on a sheer cliff-face for three days. 15,000 ft up. No grenades left to lob. Nowhere to go.
Then came a bizarre experience for Nimbalkar, who led a group of commandos called Ghatak (Deadly). Through a crack in a rock, he could see eye to eye and even talk to the enemy. "Come up sir, we have no weapons and you can take your officer's body," Nimbalkar recalls one of the intruders taunting him to recover Adhikari's body. Nimbalkar cracked then. "I have come to collect your body as well," he shouted back in impotent rage.
Days later, the intruders' post would be annihilated, Adhikari's body removed, Nimbalkar's rage assuaged. Days later.
"Sir, we will meet you a Tololing"
On the night of June 2, the Grenadiers led their fourth bloody assault against the intruders before the army brass decided enough was enough. The Indian Army was losing men; the expected "softening" of enemy positions by blasting them with artillery and mortar fire appeared only to harden the resolve of the well-fortified, do-or-die mujahideen and Pakistani regulars. Every move against Tololing was being met with deadly covering cross-fire from adjacent heights where the intruders were entrenched. It was enough to make the army set recapturing Tololing as the current priority in the Kargil war.
For the next nine days, the army bolstered its artillery firepower by bringing in more than eight batteries (each has six Bofors howitzers and medium-sized guns). Fresh assault plans and logistics were worked out. The 18 Grenadiers were asked to hold on to three positions on different ridge lines they had retreated to, and provide a "fire base" to soldiers of a battalion of the relatively fresh 2nd Rajputana Rifles regiment now assigned the task of capturing the Tololing Top. The assault was to be launched from the firm foothold that the Grenadiers had established on slopes of three ridges about 300 m below the enemy's positions.
Meanwhile, the hard lessons learnt by the Grenadiers were being absorbed by the "Rajputana Rifles". For a week before the final assault on June 12, the battalion conducted mock operations on a nearby ridge similar to Tololing. They chalked out their assault strategies on a sand and stone model they had designed after reconnaissance of the Tololing heights from different directions.
The weapons and ammunition was test fired, an exercise that eliminated a defective lot of hand grenades the soldiers were issued with. (Army sources later clarified that this can happen sometimes when munitions are stored for long periods). Heavy ammunition was physically carried up the slopes below Tololing by even the washermen, cobblers and barbers of the battalion -- it takes four people to support one soldier in this battlefield. "We were primed for the attack," says Lt Parveen Tomar, 23, commissioned just five months ago, known as the baby of the battalion.
Tomar was in determined company. This was a team of about 90 volunteers hand-picked by Colonel Ravindranath. Among them were some of the battalions sportsmen, mostly athletes. Recalls Ravindranath: "They told me, 'We want to prove that we are not good just in peace time but also in war.'" On June 11, letters were written and left behind with friends to post in case some didn't return.
By 8 p.m. on June 12, the Rajputana Rifles assault team was ready behind big boulders just 300 m short of their target. Shortly before the charge, Ravindranath gave a final pep talk to his men. "I have given you what you wanted. Now, you have to give me what I want." The men were so charged that a JCO Bhanwer Singh interjected to say, "Sir, come to the Tololing Top in the morning. We will meet you there."
"It was like Diwali"
A frontal attack was the only option. But unlike earlier attempts, this one was well prepared. For more than four hours before the attack, as many as 120 artillery guns pounded the Tololing ridges incessantly, firing at least 10,000 shells -- 50,000 kg of TNT, enough to pulverise most of New Delhi -- at the intruders' fortified positions to soften them up. "It was like a Diwali we had never seen before," recalls a Rajputana Rifles officer. One ridge line near Tololing Top was so heavily bombarded it was christened "Barbaad Bunker" by the troops.
Meanwhile, there was another kind of preparation. As the teams, designated "Abhimanyu", "Bheem" and "Arjun" after characters from the Mahabharata, were climbing up, Lt. Vijayant, another Rajputana officer, was playing songs from the Hindi movie Border on his Walkman to pep up his platoon.
As soon as the artillery fire died down, the assault team charged quickly. One went straight up. Another went around a lower ridge to cut off the enemy's retreat. A platoon of Grenadiers had meanwhile positioned itself to provide covering fire and prevent intruders on nearby ridges from coming to the aid of their shell-shocked confederates on Tololing.
Indian troops used the craters made by the shelling for cover as they inched up the slopes one hand-hold at a time, digging in bayonets for leverage, firing as they climbed. By midnight, it was still progressing slowly, as Pakistani machine gunfire streamed incessantly.
That's when a reserve platoon led by Major Gupta attacked from the rear and closed in on the Top. In the hand-to-hand battle with intruders, Gupta and six others were killed. Bhanwer Singh, the eager JCO who had extended the invitation to Colonel Ravindranath, was among the dead. But the Top belonged once again to India.
Once Tololing fell, the enemy's resistance on other nearby ridges faded. By June 13 morning, the Rajputana Rifles had recaptured "Barbaad Bunker" about 100 m south west of Tololing and Point 4590. By June 14, the Hump was taken by the Grenadiers. In the next three days, all points in nearby ridges were back in Indian hands.
The war zone was littered with bodies -- among them 50 intruders and Pakistan army regulars from the Northern Light Infantry -- and war's little ironies.
Dug in for a long war, the dead and escaping intruders had left behind ghee, tinned pineapple, butter packed in a military farm, and plenty of honey. Soldiers of the ration-starved Rajputana Rifles assault team used the ghee to keep themselves warm during the night when temperatures dipped to -10 degrees centigrade. Next morning, breakfast consisted of chunks of butter dipped in honey. "We really enjoyed that," says Major Sandeep Bajaj.
War's little irony.