The Northern Light Infantry in the Kargil Operations, 1999
v.1.1 August 25, 2002

Ravi Rikhye

Because of the exceptional harsh winter weather conditions in the North Kashmir region, Indian piquets were customarily withdrawn with the onset of winter.  They returned in the late spring.  In 1998 Pakistan infiltrated approximately 1000 troops during the winter and spring of 1998/1999, presenting India with a de facto change in the Line of Control.

India reacted by moving 8 Mountain Division from the Kashmir Valley to Dras, and forced the intruders out after several weeks of heavy fighting in June and July 1999.  Approximately six brigades and 30,000 troops were required to complete the job.

The Northern Light Infantry conducted the infiltration and subsequent fighting.  Initially four battalions – 3, 4, 5, and 6 NLI – were deployed; later, at least three other battalions – 7, 11, and 12 – were engaged.

Because officers from several other regiments were identified – 24 Sind, 13 Azad Kashmir, 1 and 63 Frontier Force, 60 Baluch – there exists a temptation to assume other battalions were involved.  As far as is known, however, these officers probably were on deputation to the NLI.  Regular battalions assigned to Force Command Northern Areas, for example, 69 Baluch at Olithingthang, did not enter the fighting.  Officers from 1 and 3 Special Services Group were also killed; the SSG, however, has at least two companies assigned to FCNA and was an essential part of Pakistani plans.

Two Frontier Scouts battalions (wings in Frontier Corps terminology) – 2 Chitral Scouts and a battalion of the Bajaur Scouts – joined the fighting to reinforce NLI battalions.

One reason Pakistan may have been constrained in escalating the fighting once the Indians began pushing the NLI off the mountain posts was that Pakistan could not shift Kashmir-committed battalions to the north in case the fighting escalated, and outside battalions would have required an extensive period of acclimatization. India could shift six brigades without affecting its Kashmir defenses because these troops were on counterinsurgency duty, and sure enough, the rest of 1999 saw an increase in militant activity.

The NLI suffered very heavy casualties in the fighting: the Indian Army buried 244 killed and Pakistan accepted the bodies of five additional killed.  The Herald, a Pakistani publication, indicates that more than 500 soldiers were killed and buried in the Northern Areas.  It is probable that some additional men were also killed but are buried outside the Northern Areas.  For example, the two Scouts wings belong to the North West Frontier Province, not to the Northern Areas.  This adds up to upwards of 750 men killed.  It appears that 6 NLI suffered particularly heavy losses.

The impact of such a high casualty rate on the tiny communities of the thinly populated Northern Areas must have been disastrous, and the Herald article indicates this was the case.  See .  The fighting was followed by unrest in the Northern Areas.  The Pakistan Government dealt with the unrest by:

The NLI suffered heavier losses than the Indian attackers even though the latter were fighting upmountain because:

The NLI appears to have fought with exceptional bravery, despite lack of support from higher headquarters and grave disquiet among its ranks at Pakistan’s actions.  For example, the Indian Army website listed above has posted pages from the diary of a company commander of 5 NLI.  This company had only 71 men at the start of its operation instead of the 113 authorized, which indicates serious trouble even before the onset of the fighting.  Twenty-five men were evacuated due to sickness, and a number of others asked for permission to leave the service.  The latter were, of course, not allowed to do so.  Though the photographed pages are hard to read, it appears at one stage the company was down to just 37 or 38 men.

Despite these conditions, India took only eight prisoners.  One, having run out of ammunition, resorted to throwing rocks at the attackers.  Some of the prisoners was severely wounded and were possibly left behind by withdrawing troops.  We must, of course, take into account the possibility that the Indians refused to take prisoners, in part because of the earlier torture, mutilation, and execution of four Indian soldiers.  At the same time, we should possibly avoid pinning the blame of the NLI.  For one thing, a Pakistan Army officer saved two of the six men who fell into Pakistani hands.  For another, that the bodies were returned despite their obvious condition may show that someone in authority wanted to do the decent thing even though the Pakistan Army would be blamed. It is possible that the Pakistan Special Services Group, not the NLI or other elements of the Pakistan Army, were responsible.  The SSG routinely executes prisoners after unspeakable treatment.  Its battalion in East Pakistan in 1971 was guilty of the most serious war crimes against civilians; another battalion left ample evidence of its handiwork in the hotly disputed Chaamb sector in the western front. 

The saddest aspect of the Kargil fighting is that the Pakistan Government refused to accept back the bodies of all except 5 killed.  We find incredible and unbelievable that a government can be so devoid of honor as to first tell its soldiers to discard their uniforms, destroy their ID, infiltrate enemy-held terrain, fight without adequate support, refuse to reinforce them, in effect leaving them to be killed, and on top of this, refuse to take the bodies back, all because of a failed fiction that these men were Kashmiri freedom fighters not under its control.  This is not the place to get into a political discussion, but the general reader should know there are no Kashmiri freedom fighters in Ladakh and never will be because the Ladakh Muslims are of the “wrong” sect and completely support India. 

So not only this fiction not particularly intelligent, by requiring its men to fight out of uniform, the Pakistan Government stripped them of the protections of the Geneva Convention.  If India did indeed execute any POWs, it was within its lawful right to do so, as it was dealing with an invasion of its territory by armed civilians.  The Pakistan Government seems to have forgotten that in South Asia, at least, soldiering is an honorable profession.  A government can ask for volunteers who will be expected to fight out of uniform.  It cannot require its soldiers to do so.  This is an absolute abuse of its soldiers, and what makes it worse is that the Northern Areas have no political voice.

We are horrified to learn of even worse happenings from the Herald story.  Bodies of NLI soldiers killed in the fighting were taken back to their villages during the night, usually with just one soldier accompanying the body, and dumped outside their family’s house at all hours.  Sometimes the soldiers were out of uniform. The bodies were not even washed and properly dressed in uniform. The Herald speaks of two cousins who lay in their coffins dressed in tracksuits.  A soldier who served in the same unit as another whose body was returned told the family that at their post only some kilograms of sugar was left by way of food. The dead soldier's father told the Herald that the youngster still had sugar on his mouth.  So now we not only have a violation of military honor, we have a complete disregard for religion and human decency.

A last point.  If callous civilians had treated the military in this manner, perhaps there could be some excuse.  The Kargil intrusion, however, was conceived, planned, and executed in secrecy by the highest echelons of the Pakistan General Staff, including their divisional commander, the Force Commander Northern Areas.   The now-deposed civilian government had little to do with it except to retroactively give its stamp of approval.  The guiding spirit behind the operation was the head of the Pakistan Army himself, now the head of the country. 

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All content © 2003 Ravi Rikhye. Reproduction in any form prohibited without express permission.