‘The fact is that India had been caught napping’
A Soldier’s Diary: Kargil, The Inside Story by Harinder Baweja; Roli Books; Rs 395
With less than 48 hours to go for the 19th anniversary of Kargil Vijay Diwas (July 26), www.lifeandmore.in founder-editor Rajkumari Sharma Tankha talks to Harinder Baweja, editor at The Hindustan Times, on her book, A Soldier’s Diary: Kargil, The Inside Story which has been republished recently. The senior journalist says India still has not focussed on the many lessons it ought to have learnt during the 60-day war…
How and when did you plan to pen this book?
I spent two months in Kargil, covering the war for India Today magazine where I worked then. After returning to Delhi, I realised, I had come back very disturbed. We had all covered the war from the road-head but the actual battles were taking place on the heights. One evening, I was standing by a road head with an army unit that was waiting for bodies of its men to come back. Once they arrived, I could see members of that unit desperately trying to identify their own men. Many bodies were unrecognisable and had to be identified through their unique numbers. The questions kept popping in my head: what was happening on the heights? What were the soldiers enduring? I had to find the answers and so decided to go back to Kargil. The war was over and the units had time to share their stories. That is when the book took shape.
The book was first released in 2000 and has now been republished again. Why?
The book deserves to stay on the shelf for several reasons. It remains part of military history and its chapters give you the inside story of what really happened in Kargil. A new introduction in the republished book examines the critical question of what lessons we learnt from Kargil. It is nineteen long years since the short but sharp war in the frozen mountain heights, but India still hasn’t focussed on the many lessons it ought to have learnt.
Did being a journalist help you get easy access to confidential information?
I was covering the Kashmir insurgency for India Today magazine since 1990. Many of the army battalions that were pushed into battle in Kargil were drawn from the Kashmir Valley. I knew many of them and that helped because I already had their trust and confidence. A journalist is as good as his or her sources!
Do you think a better handling of the Kargil issue could have saved many lives? Who, in your opinion, was responsible for the mishandling?
The book explains the confusion that prevailed for the first many weeks of the war. Senior commanders thought ‘some rats’ have come in and were sure they’d be able to throw them out in 48 hours. The then Defence Minister George Fernandes too promised the same. The fact is that India had been caught napping. Pakistani regulars had occupied the heights and built concrete structures even before the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee undertook the famous bus journey to Lahore. The senior brass was clearly responsible for the mishandling.
How was the experience of reporting a war? Did you feel scared while in Drass? Was going there to cover war a heart’s decision or the one taken by head?
I have stomped through various conflict zones. I cut my teeth in Punjab during the years of militancy and then made at least two trips to Kashmir every month. Going to Kargil was a natural progression. The adrenaline flowed on a daily basis. The heart thumped on several occasions as artillery shells fell at close distance. The Pakistani regulars were dominating the heights and shelling the road constantly. To be honest, it is surprising that the media did not suffer many casualties
Why did you write it in a diary format? Any specific reason?
For me, Kargil was about the soldiers. It was not about the media. Enough of my colleagues came back and wrote books from a journalistic perspective. After spending weeks with different battalions, I could only have written a soldiers diary. It was their story to tell and I have tried to tell it through them.
How do you manage time to write amid the busy schedule of an active journalist? How many hours do you devote to writing?
Writing a book is an extremely difficult task. Before I started writing, I had to make sure I had enough to reveal. Content is of absolute importance. The access I got to confidential files — in which the true story of Kargil actually lies — gave me the confidence to sit down and write. At a personal level, it was also very cathartic. I came back from Kargil, where I had seen injured and dead soldiers, and had trouble sleeping. The question of what actually happened on the heights, haunted me for a long time. Once I had the answers, I knew I had a book. I then took three months leave to write the book. I had to discipline myself to write at least 2,000 words a day.
These days, the market is deluged with authors of all ages. How easy or difficult is it to achieve success amid so much competition?
My book was probably the last book on Kargil to hit the book shelves. I wasn’t very bothered about competition or success. Content was my main concern. I think it clicked because of the format and the fact that it was written in the soldier’s first person.
Did you ever struggle with a writer’s block?
There are bad days but being disciplined helps! I had friends around to motivate me.
Do you keep a diary?
I don’t keep a daily diary.
What/ who inspires you to write? Do you have a secret trick, or a book/ author that helps?
Best piece of advice you’ve ever got?
‘You know you can do it’
Which books are you reading at present?
I am currently reading, Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. It is a gripping account of a young girl who when denied education, leaves her family to get a PhD from Cambridge University.
Who are your favourite authors?
I don’t have fixed authors!