Mumbai/ Nagpur: A secret letter sent by former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to US President Bill Clinton at the height of the Kargil war in 1999 made it clear that if Pakistani infiltrators did not withdraw from Indian territory, “one way or the other we will get them out.” Though India’s options were never spelt out in the missive, in an interview to NDTV’s Consulting Editor, Barkha Dutt just two months before he died, the former National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra revealed that “Crossing the Line of Control was not ruled out, nor was the use of nuclear weapons.”
Mishra who handed over Vajpayee’s letter to a top US official in Geneva, said had the Americans asked him a direct question, “I would not have expanded on what I meant.” These dramatic details are disclosed in Barkha Dutt’s just released book, This Unquiet Land – Stories from India’s Fault Lines. The book also reveals that the Army had prepared a ‘Six Day War’ plan to cross the boundary separating India from Pakistan, in less than a week, if needed.
These are exclusive extracts from the book:
In May and June, as the war showed no signs of letting up, the Indian military leadership began to draw up secret contingency plans to expand the theatre of the war beyond Jammu and Kashmir. In other words, India’s retaliation for the intrusions would most likely not be along the LoC – which had never been officially accepted as permanent by either country – but along the actual, undisputed international border. The states of Punjab and Rajasthan were to be readied as launch pads for a counter-attack. In the army’s assessment, if the Kargil peaks were not entirely back in Indian control before the monsoon’s torrents drenched the northern plains, any counterattack would have to wait till after the rains.
In preparation for the worst-case scenario, the army had already fleshed out a ‘Six Day War’ plan, deploying troops so that the boundary separating India from Pakistan could be crossed in less than a week, if needed. Upset with Vajpayee’s public announcement that India had no intention of entering Pakistani territory, General Malik met the prime minister and explained that such absolutisms unfairly restricted the strategic manoeuvrability available to his troops. The army chief was blunt: ‘If we can’t undo this in Kargil, I will have to attack somewhere else,’ he told Vajpayee, making it clear that a new war front could soon be opened in another part of the subcontinent-one that, by definition, involved crossing over. Seeing the need for a more nuanced articulation of the Indian position, that same evening, Brajesh Mishra went on television to say that the approach of confining operations to the Indian side of the LoC held good only for the present. In the meantime, General Malik quietly moved an army brigade from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the western border and the Navy’s Eastern Fleet was moved from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea.
Even as all these developments took place behind closed doors, India’s main effort took place on two fronts – the war on the ground, and a delicately nuanced diplomatic initiative to try and get the Americans to intervene. Pakistan was trying hard to present the dispute around Jammu and Kashmir as a potential nuclear flashpoint so there would be aggressive international mediation. India wanted America to help contain the conflict, but on terms that would be set by India. Washington could not drive hard bargains, especially not on Kashmir. The India-Pakistan equation was still a hyphenated one for the US and India was apprehensive that the classic ambivalence practised by America in all its dealings with countries in the Indian subcontinent would yet again dominate the proceedings.
So when Bill Clinton phoned Vajpayee in June 1999, three weeks into the war, and promised that he was working on Pakistan to pull back its soldiers from Indian territory, a sceptical Indian Prime Minister – a man who knew how to make masterful use of silence – did not respond. Later, Clinton would say of him, ‘that guy’s from Missouri big time’, after the American state known for the disbelieving demeanour it preferred to adopt when confronted with a tricky situation.
Two days after Clinton’s call, Vajpayee sent Mishra, in his capacity as national security adviser, to Geneva, where the American president was to address a meeting of the ILO. From there, Clinton was headed to a meeting of the Group of Eight (G-8) countries in Cologne on 19 June. India clearly wanted intercession from this gathering of the world’s most powerful nations. In Geneva, Mishra handed over a secret missive from Vajpayee to Sandy Berger and Karl Inderfurth, both high-ranking officials in the US government. To this day, the contents of the letter have never been released. But Mishra told me that the kicker in the letter addressed to Clinton was the paragraph that warned, ‘One way or the other, we will get them out’. ‘They were taken aback,’ Mishra said. ‘Inderfurth pointed to that particular paragraph immediately.’ The letter never spelt out what option India was considering. However, the subtext that all bets were now off the table was clear to the Americans. ‘Crossing the LoC was not ruled out, nor was the use of nuclear weapons,’ Mishra revealed to me, adding that had the American asked him a direct question ‘I would not have expanded on what I meant’. Mishra believed that without this letter, Clinton would not have got actively involved. The G-8 countries did not just jointly ask Pakistan to pull its men back behind the LoC; two days later, Clinton sent Anthony Zinni – the commander-in-chief of the US Central Command – to Pakistan. There, Zinni did some plain speaking with Pervez Musharraf. His message was unvarnished – Pakistan’s position was untenable and the country stood isolated internationally.
When Musharraf pressed for US mediation on Kashmir, Zinni was terse and dismissive. ‘My mandate is Kargil, not Kashmir,’ the US general said. ‘If you don’t pull back, you’re going to bring war and nuclear annihilation down on your own country.’ By now, there was enough evidence to show that, contrary to Pakistan’s claims, the armed intruders were not Kashmiri militants, but mainly soldiers of the Pakistan Army’s Northern Light Infantry. But Pakistan needed a face-saver, a respectable way to extricate itself from the military mess, and Zinni had none to offer. He returned to Washington without a breakthrough.
For the rest of June, both the war and the diplomatic offensive eddied back and forth. On the ground, the momentum was shifting in India’s direction. Just as Indian troops were preparing to take back Tiger Hill, Pakistan’s beleaguered prime minister was on the hotline to Washington. On 2 July, Nawaz Sharif pleaded with Bill Clinton for his personal intervention. Twenty-four hours later, at fifteen minutes past five, even as fireballs formed luminous red clouds over Tiger Hill, Sharif was packing his bags to leave for America.