In Depth

Kargil War@20: How Kashmir’s four seasoned scribes covered the high-altitude battle

Twenty years ago, on this day, South Asia’s first ‘live’ war officially came to an end in the rugged terrains of Kargil. Coming on the heels of an electronic media boom in the sub-continent, the war was given such detailed media coverage that it went on to influence public opinion in both nations.

As the war broke out and the fighting intensified, Srinagar-based Kashmiri journalists had one of the most exciting, and dangerous, assignments on their hands.

Apart from raining shells, the Kashmiri scribes had to grapple with the mercurial chief minister in office. As one senior editor recalls it, “Farooq Abdullah wore his vintage wit throughout the war. He was playing both arsonist as well as fireman.”

But the challenge was crazier and more conflicting than simply dealing with a ‘playful’ chief of the unified command. Free Press Kashmir got in touch with four seasoned journalists of the Kashmir Valley to understand how challenging it was to cover the first Indo-Pak televised war.

Reporters being briefed about the war in Kargil.

Ahmed Ali Fayyaz: ‘For three days, everyone laughed my story off’

I hastily followed a lead when my sources alerted me about an uncanny incursion in Kargil.

But as a highly-guarded secret, even top defence officials feigned ignorance over it. They were neither confirming, nor denying it. Only Northern Command and 21 Brigade in Kargil were aware about the high-altitude warfare.

Indian Army had launched a counter-offensive without leaking a word about it. Behind the secrecy was the fact that Kargil was a ‘complete intelligence failure’. It had even caught Indian spooks off-guard.

But soon I got a major lead, when I came to know how Army was shifting paratroopers from Kupwara to Kargil. “Nearly 6 sorties have undertaken for Kargil,” the then SSP Kupwara, oblivious of the top secret, told me. Then I again spoke to my sources in Kargil. The war had indeed begun.

However, by May 11, 1999, I was in a fix — weather to publish the story or not. I thought that if I delay it, others might follow it. But I was sure that no one in New Delhi knows about it.

Interestingly, all previous wars including 1965, ’71 had been broken by the Defence Correspondents of PTI and UNI from Delhi.

So it was a big challenge for me. I would’ve lost all my credibility, had the story turned out to be false.

But then, I had done my homework.

Ahmed Ali Fayyaz.

I spoke to my editor, who was on a visit to Denmark. Fortunately, internet was not available then. Otherwise, he would’ve spoken to higher officials, who would’ve naturally denied it, and termed my story as a joke.

So it was my luck, that I asked my sub-editors and two of the editor’s sons who were at that time working with Daily Excelsior, to keep the lead for my scoop. They didn’t ask me what it was about.

I filed my story at about midnight. The story came out on May 12, 1999.

Next day, when I met my colleagues, they dismissed it as a goof-up. They had also spoken to the officials, who hadn’t confirmed it. I asked my colleagues: ‘Have the officials denied it?’ Their answer was: No.

Officials were neither confirming nor denying it. But still, people called it a wrong story.

Then, on the evening of May 14, 1999, I received a call from Major Purushottam, then Public Relations Officer at BB Cant, Srinagar. He wanted to know about the facts in my story, as some people in Delhi were enquiring about it. Then he arranged a copy and faxed it to Delhi.

On May 15, 1999, the story finally appeared in New Delhi-based newspapers. And soon, many reporters claimed to have broken the story.

The war, meanwhile, went on for a month or so. However, I didn’t go to Kargil, as it was the job of the Defence or War Correspondents. I had done my part.

Yusuf Jameel: ‘It was a dangerous assignment’

When Ahmed Ali Fayyaz broke the news, the Army officials categorically denied it, until someone from Delhi confirmed it. I shortly got in touch with my hotelier friend in Kargil who said that it has been happening for days now.

I was soon out on a very difficult, rather a dangerous assignment.

Beyond Sonmarg everything was shut. When we were moving towards Kargil, there was a truck which over took us. It was carrying supplies for the Army. A shell suddenly landed on it and it went up in flames. We were hardly a hundred yards away from it.

So you can imagine what the situation was like. We didn’t know what would happen the next moment. It was so unpredictable.

Yusuf Jameel.

The next few days were very difficult. The hotel where we stayed didn’t even have water.

Moreover, there was a lot of troop movement amid the earth-shaking shelling from both sides. We had to take a lot of precautions.

I had learnt certain things during our war correspondents’ course, some 14 years before the Kargil War. The training came handy for me during the War.

Covering a war was exciting, but communication was a big problem. Sending over our stories was a real task. Means of communication were very poor. There were no mobile phones available at that time. So the hotel owner, who was a friend of mine, allowed me to use his landline phone for dictating my story to my colleagues in Delhi.

But things were a little better for journalists who had come from Delhi. They had better facilities in terms of communication and on rare occasions they were also allowed to use the army’s communication system.

Altaf Hussain: ‘I saw a professional belongingness during the war’

I remember the road to Kargil looked like the Line of Control. Indian artillery guns were deployed at many points along the road and they were in action as I drove.

As we were speaking to a fleeing family, we could hear the Pakistani shells overhead. We saw Indian helicopters bringing the wounded soldiers to an army transit camp at Matayan.

The route had been closed for civilian traffic for more than two weeks. Half a dozen taxis carrying journalists were the only vehicles allowed on the highway.

We were asked to keep a distance of at least one kilometre between our cars to avoid high casualties in case a shell hits the road.

When I was returning from Kargil, I remember how a number of tourists from several Indian states were sipping drinks outside a cafe at Sonamarg, unaware of what was happening just 40 kilometres away on the other side of the Zojila pass.

Altaf Hussain.

Later when I wrote a firsthand war account for the BBC, I got a call from the Defence PRO who said that such pieces can ‘expose our strategic points’.

But personally, I didn’t feel any threat while covering the war. Threat in journalism and that too in Kashmir is not new. So, Kargil was another assignment for us. However, it wasn’t a cakewalk—but then nothing is a cakewalk in Kashmir.

Throughout the war, the urge to break news at times proved costly.

Once the air strikes started, there used to be a regular update: Fresh air strikes today. On the eighth day, there were no strikes. But strikes were reported from New Delhi. Even BBC reported it.

I had not filed my copy from the ground, as I had information that due to troop movement, India has suspended air strikes for the day. However, due to ‘table reporting’, people got it wrong. On the face of it, it was not a blunder. But during war, anything can escalate things.

Amid unthawed warfare, I once went to Badami Bagh Cantonment, to report on the two bodies of Pakistani soldiers. We keep hearing reports about army mutilating the bodies of their rivals. However, that time, I saw a sense of ‘professional belongingness’.

Despite being archrivals and at war, the soldiers gave a sense that they’re from the ‘same community’. The fallen Pakistani soldiers were being treated as ‘fellow soldiers’.

This was something which got etched into my memory.

Sheikh Mushtaq: ‘Sending our stories was also a war’

Amid earth-shaking shells exploding around us, there was no internet, no place to stay, and hardly anything to eat. That’s how we were covering the Kargil War.

It was a frightening and a dangerous assignment for us, where communication was the biggest hurdle.

Working for international organizations did have some perks. At Reuters, we had satellite phones. However, they too stopped working after a few days. Then filing a story became another war for us.

Sheikh Mushtaq (right) with photojournalist Fayaz Kabli during the Kargil war. (Photo credit: Kabli’s Facebook page)

During reporting, the angle of the story would be different in the morning. And by evening, with the launch of air strikes, everything would change. Due to lack of communication, it was an ardent task to update your copy.

Kargil War, in a word, was one of the toughest assignments of my life. Apart from threat to one’s life, which we used to face almost every day in Kashmir, the lack of basic facilities like communication, accommodation and food, made it much more difficult.

But what we did in Kargil seems kind of unthinkable today.


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