Book review: ‘From Kargil to the coup: Events that shook Pakistan.’
The question is not just Kargil, but why Pakistan repeatedly allows this to happen.
India’s response in the aftermath of the Kargil war was to formulate the Kargil Review Committee, an investigative body under late K Subramaniam whose report is widely available. Pakistan, on the other hand, made no such effort. Soon after Kargil, the country descended into a different spiral. When General Musharraf took over the country in October 1999, the natural assumption was that Kargil had been the tipping point, but once again, there was not enough investigation into the matter to actually connect any dots.
The closest thing to an investigation was Shireen Mazari’s 2003 book ‘The Kargil Conflict, 1999: Separating Fact from Fiction,’ and this too was little more than a document for and by military apologists, and since then there has been one thing after the other which has kept Kargil at the peripheries of national concerns.
In the nearly two decades since the debacle that was Kargil, nobody has actually looked into what prompted the actions of the military top brass, or even the civilian leadership, and to what end such disastrous decisions were taken which led to the deaths of many fine soldiers and officers.
Only now has an authentic work on the Kargil war presented itself in the shape of Nasim Zehra’s recently published ‘From Kargil to the coup: Events that shook Pakistan.’
The book, which the casual observer might say comes a tad bit late given it has been almost twenty years, is an in-depth dissection of events that took place between 1998 and 2003. In fact, such casual observations have resulted in whispers about the timing of the book. The book, according to these claims, is a systemic attempt to introduce new avenues of criticism against a military establishment which is increasingly facing, for the first time, real and persistent challenges. The fact that it comes on the heels of Gen Asad Durrani’s collaboration with former RAW chief A S Dulat has also not done Zehra’s book any favours in this regard.
What these critics do not realise, however, is that the book in question has been in the works since nearly as far back as the Kargil war itself. A project that Zehra started almost 14 years ago, her 562 page magnum opus has only now come to fruition – any timing a coincidence she insists. But even if the timing is not a coincidence, one wonders why there should be such great uproar at important research being published at critical times, which is perhaps the best time to be publishing such things. In fact, with the current national scenario, the book is perhaps more on time now than it would have been back in 2003 or 2004.
Even more importantly it says much about the defenders of the armed forces, who even before the book was out feared the content that an individual assessment into the Kargil conflict would constitute.
But even with all this, Nasim Zehra seems to be going the extra mile in trying to alleviate any controversy surrounding her work.
“Yes, this book is about civil-military relations, but it is in its essence about policy and decision making” she said herself at the book’s Lahore launch.
Surrounded even by her colleagues and well wishers, she seemed to constantly need to explain her intentions and qualifications, repeatedly mentioning that she had a ringside seat to these events and has written the book after significant academic rigour.
“It is worth writing how the Pakistan-India relationship has developed in these years, and I wanted to write it because I had a ringside seat to these events – from meeting with the prime minister to the army chief and Tariq Fatemi – all of this unfolded before my eyes like a dream, or more like a nightmare I should say.”
The book itself is dull – or at least the narrative style is – the contents are far from it and are the stuff thrillers are made of. But despite the seeming difficulty of maintaining objectivity it in a topic as contentious as Kargil, Zehra has managed to steer clear of seeming even slightly partial towards one side of the argument. And whether for lack of ability or reasons of objectivity, she has somehow even stayed away from the deliciously present option of dramatising the events within the book. And while this may make the book a rather difficult read, it establishes its credentials. And after such stringent attention to detail that the writer has put in, the seemingly negative portrayal of any elements is a simple result of their actions at the time.
A thoroughly detailed account of the conflict, the book does delve into the past and in some detail. From the inception of Pakistan to the mobolisation of the Pasthuns in the early days of the Kashmir conflict – Zehra has dotted her i’s, crossed her t’s, and then done it all over again. Lack of rigour is something that she should never be accused of, but the point the book truly kicks off is where she details the unfortunate events from planning to execution. The book presents a rare insider view of how everything went down and takes into account all possible vantage points.
At a glance, it is a compilations of bad decisions. Bad decisions by the military, by Generals, by officers, by diplomats and by the civil government. One after the other, a terrible decision unfolds even as the helpless reader screams wanting to somehow change it all. It is a saddening sense of Deja vu even regarding that last few years that one feels, and as Professor Ayesha Jalal said about the book “The question is not just Kargil, but why Pakistan repeatedly allows this to happen. ” But there are more nuances to it than that, especially when Zehra brings in the human factor, including things like personal insecurities and the desire to seem heroic in some of the figures the book discusses.
But again, what the book lacks in the oomph that could very easily have been there, it makes up for in credibility. The almost drab tone displays a certain level of caution, indicating that Zehra is aware that there is and will be controversy surrounding the topic. Again, she has repeatedly explained that the book is a recollection of facts. In fact, when one of the speakers at the Lahore launch of the book said that it was Kargil was the reason behind the coup of October 99, Zehra was quick to explain that this was the guest’s analysis and not at all what she had written in her book.
One understands her desire to be careful, especially in an increasingly dangerous world where columnists go missing and the media is censored. And if the truth is to come out, no matter what the time, certain sacrifices have to be made – even if it makes things stylistically unpleasant. But for what it is, Nasim Zehra’s book is finally a public account of the Kargil war. It is important information in uncertain times, and a brave result for something that is the work of decades.
Zehra’s book has proven to be a conclusion to Kargil for Pakistan, and is a work of enough depth to say that it is conclusive. Closure, however, will be hard to come by and there are bitter realities within the pages. These the nation still has to deal with, and the litany of bad decisions that it encompasses will haunt us for the years to come, and has raised some serious new questions at a crucial moment in history. Intentional or not, the book right now seems by no means late, but has arrived at precisely the right time.