This battle will probably
alter the course of the war.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.