The Dilemmas of Kargil

Had India and Pakistan not been nuclear powers, Kargil would have played out differently. What are the lessons it holds for the nuclear age?

This is Chapter 6 (‘Kargil: Deterrence Perspectives’) of Lt Gen Prakash Menon’s book, The Strategy Trap: India and Pakistan Under the Nuclear Shadow.

‘Pakistan’s military establishment had entertained ideas of deterring Indian nuclear and conventional capabilities with its nuclear weapons and carrying out a brash, bold strike to liberate Kashmir which would go unchallenged if the Indian leadership was weak and indecisive.’

—The Kargil Committee Report

Kargil is separated from the Kashmir Valley by the great Himalayan range and is accessible through National Highway 1-A (NH-1A) via the Zoji La pass, which is snowbound from December to April. The Line of Control (LC) comes uncomfortably close to NH-1A as it emerges out of Zoji La and dips southwards close to Drass at a height of 5,353 m, from where it runs almost parallel to the NH-1A, till Kargil town. In mid-1999, the LC in proximity to Kargil played host to a limited India–Pakistan conflict.

Pakistan had consistently targeted the road in the Kargil–Drass area by artillery fire, to hinder the movement of convoys proceeding from Zoji La towards Leh. In the 1965 war, major battles were fought with an aim to remove Pakistan’s direct observation over this area. The Pakistani posts at Pt 13,620 (ft) and Black Rock (15,000 ft) were captured, but handed back under the Tashkent Agreement and during the 1971 War, these posts were again recaptured along with the contiguous areas of Tortuk and Chalunka in the adjacent Shyok Valley.

The alignment of the LC in Kargil has never been in dispute and east of Kargil and Batalik, the LC was never physically held in strength though some special patrols operated in these areas even in winter. No major offensive thrust could be launched, because of unfavourable weather conditions and a long and arduous logistic lifeline via the rugged terrain of Gilgit and Skardu. Interdiction of convoys by artillery fire or temporary blockages by infiltrating columns could cause delays but do no more. To capture areas around Drass or Kargil or anywhere near the NH-1A and sustain it logistically was assessed to be beyond Pakistan’s military capability.


Exasperated by the Indian artillery fire and sniping into the Neelam Valley in Kashmir, as well as the Indian actions on the Siachen Glacier, Pakistani military tacticians looked for a site where India could be given a taste of their own medicine. Along most of the LC, the Indians held the dominating heights so only a few places looked suitable. The most obvious site was the Kargil-Drass sector. The knowledge that every winter the military posts in the area were vacant, and the realisation that the crucial NH-1 would be easy to interdict, made it more suitable.

The Pakistan Army’s plan was to occupy the dominating heights in the Kargil-Drass area while Zoji La pass was closed and before the Indian Army reoccupied the positions, using regulars disguised as Kashmiri militants. They assumed that the Indians needed time to assemble their forces, acclimatise their troops, build up their logistics, which would be difficult before the Zoji La pass opened and with the advantage of the commanding heights, better acclimatisation and logistics, the situation would be distinctly in their favour. India would also have to suffer unacceptable casualties in attacking the heights which they calculated, would provide sufficient time for an internationally arranged ceasefire.[1] The initial plan was executed successfully and the un-held heights were occupied by Pakistan army regulars in the guise of militants by April 1999.

It seems that there were some major purchases of winter military equipment by Pakistan and that certain units with the responsibility for the defence of the LC had been reinforced through 1998–99. According to intelligence sources, the number of Mujahideen being trained in north-east Pakistan increased markedly towards the end of 1998. Around forty new camps sprang up in the Neelam Valley, around Muzaffarabad and in the barren hills of Baltistan. When a reporter visited Skardu in April 1999, bearded fighters in combat kit, many speaking Pashto, the language of the North-West Frontier Province and Afghanistan, were very much in evidence in the bazaar.[2]

What is beyond doubt now, however, is that at some point in the winter of 1997–98, Pakistan’s armed forces and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) deliberately chose not to accept the status quo in Kashmir and opted, instead, for conflict. It is possible that the Nawaz Sharif government might have been kept in the loop then with the caveat that these were war games and contingency plans, but as the pressures of bankruptcy intensified after Pakistan’s nuclear explosions, and Sharif turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout, the army headquarters must have concluded that the civil government could no longer be relied upon. From then on, Kargil seemed purely a military initiative,[3] though General Musharraf has continued to insist that everyone was on board the Kargil operation. The chairman of India’s officially sponsored Kargil Committee Report, K Subrahmanyam, has been quoted as affirming that Sharif was well aware of the planned incursions and had visited forward positions on the Pakistani side days before the Lahore summit.[4] Sharif was deposed by President Musharraf in October 1999 and convicted to a life term. During his deposition at the trial, referring to the fact that his differences with Musharraf dated back to Kargil which was one of the worst crises in the country’s history, the former Prime Minister said, ‘Musharraf was playing hide and seek on this issue not only with me but also with the armed forces. My objection to this conduct became a source of resentment for him…I will not for reasons of national security elaborate any further on this issue, although it is necessary for the people of Pakistan to be informed of about the truth about Kargil.’[5] He later told reporters at Attock: ‘This ill-planned and ill-conceived operation was kept so secret that besides the Prime Minister, the Chiefs of the Navy and Air Force were also kept in the dark.’[6] The Musharraf government spokesman responded to Nawaz Sharif’s statement by stating that Sharif had been briefed at least four times on the military aspects of the Kargil operation.[7]

India’s Reaction

The Indian Army detected the intrusions between 3 and 12 May 1999 and military action to evict the intruders commenced around 26 May. The mission was code named Operation Vijay. The Indian Army reacted much faster than what Pakistan had anticipated and the Indian government authorised force application without violating the LC on 25 May 1999. While the tactical battle was being fought in Kargil, steps were taken at the strategic level to raise the ante for Pakistan and to influence the course of events through reinforcement of the Western Fleet of the Indian Navy from the Eastern Fleet and the forward movements of strategic formations of the Indian Army towards the border in the western and southern theatre. Pakistan, meanwhile, tried to lobby with the international community for a ceasefire, which would leave it with some parts of Indian territory, and, therefore, justify its misadventure. Initially, there was support for a ceasefire but once the Indian military success unfolded, the international community called on Pakistan to withdraw from and respect the sanctity of the LC. India succeeded by July 1999 in forcing Pakistan to withdraw from Indian territory, albeit at the costs of substantial military casualties and intervention by the US.[8]

Pakistan’s Motivations

The Kargil Review Committee Report cites Pakistani writings to reveal the likely motivations for undertaking the Kargil intrusions with the prime politico-strategic motive cited as ‘to internationalise Kashmir as a nuclear flashpoint requiring urgent third-party intervention’.[9] The report further postulates that Pakistan had likely undertaken the Kargil intrusions based on the assumption that their nuclear capability would forestall any major Indian conventional response; it also gambled on the hope that the international community would intervene early thus enabling Pakistan to bargain from a position of strength.

Pakistan’s actions also undermined the sanctity of the LC that has served as a de facto border between the two nations in Kashmir for more than a quarter of a century. Pakistan sent Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz to India in early June 1999 for talks and his principal objective in New Delhi seemed to be to develop the case that talks with India were futile and demand the intervention of the international community so as to compel India to negotiate under pressure. Projecting a failure on the diplomatic front and escalating the conflict in Kashmir were the two elements of Pakistan’s strategy to challenge the very meaning of the LC and seek international intervention.

Stability–Instability Paradox

India weaponised its nuclear capability between 1992 and 1994.[10] The development had been underway since the late 1980s and former Chief of Air Staff told the Kargil Review Committee that he was inducted to work for the nuclear delivery programme sometime in 1986. It is therefore possible that Pakistani threats between 1984 and 1990 were founded on the notion of nuclear asymmetry, a topic that was being widely debated in India during that period.[11]  Ever since the demonstration and declaration of nuclear capability by India and Pakistan in May 1998, the overt situation had changed. Though both sides possessed only rudimentary arsenals, the mere possibility of suffering destruction on a catastrophic scale was considered by Pakistan as sufficient to deter an Indian conventional response to Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir, and more importantly, to call international attention to the image of South Asia being a nuclear flashpoint. However, the thinking in India on conflicts in the nuclear era has been focused on the issue of limited war, which does not quite fit into the Pakistani paradigm of the nuclear umbrella facilitating a proxy war without inviting an Indian response.

The origins of the stability–instability paradox lie in the tension that nuclear weapons have generated between political objectives and military force application. Victory through use of nuclear weapons between nuclear-armed adversaries is no longer possible and conventional war possibilities are now endangered due to the fear of escalation into nuclear realm. In the India–Pakistan context, a nascent nuclear arsenal coupled with an ongoing proxy war has presented both countries with a strategic dilemma that reflects the end products produced of the stability–instability paradox.

Pakistan’s strategy has been to utilise the political value of nuclear weapons by using the nuclear situation to paint South Asia as a nuclear flashpoint. At the same time, it feels emboldened that its proxy war will not invite an Indian conventional retaliation due to the presence of nuclear weapons. For the past several decades, Pakistan has been fighting a proxy war with India using militants trained, equipped and operating under their orders with terrorism being their chief instrument and has included a fairly large percentage of Pakistanis. Pakistan’s strategy to wrest Kashmir by force is no longer a possibility especially due to the emergence of the nuclear factor between the two. But they believe, the nuclear factor can facilitate political victory if the nuclear card is used to secure international intervention. How international intervention will facilitate political victory for Pakistan is itself a highly debatable issue and is one more illusion that Pakistan has nursed over the years. The Kargil adventure was also a reflection of this illusion especially when the nuclear capability of both nations was still at a nascent stage.

Pakistan’s Nuclear Capability

Historical evidence of Pakistan’s growing involvement in Jammu and Kashmir suggests that its involvement growth curve trajectory paralleled its nuclear capability[12] which at the time of Kargil consisted of a very limited but unknown number of nuclear warheads. Its delivery capability restricted primarily to a few aircraft (F-16s or Mirages) suitably modified. Though Pakistan had earlier carried out several tests of short-range (Hatf and Shaheen) and medium-range (Ghauri) missiles, none of them were operational at the time of the Kargil war. In summary, Pakistan at the time of the Kargil conflict possessed an opaque and highly limited quantity of un-deployed nuclear weapons and restricted delivery capability. The arsenal by former President Musharraf’s own admission was not operational.[13]It was with a non-existent capability around which Pakistan wove its paradigm of a nuclear umbrella, to prevent escalation as well as leverage the nuclear flashpoint card internationally.

Pakistan’s Beliefs and Nuclear Threats

The roots of the Pakistani belief that nuclear deterrence will prevent India from any major conventional reaction lay in their misperception that they had successfully deterred India through nuclear threats in 1984, 1987 (Brass Tacks) and the 1990 crises.[14]

In 1984, the Pakistani government threatened to retaliate with ‘all the means at its disposal’, though the use of nuclear weapons was neither specifically mentioned nor excluded.[15] This threat, if intended as a nuclear one, was an outright bluff as Pakistan probably achieved nuclear weapons capability only in 1987.[16]

In 1987, during Operation Brass Tacks, when Pakistani and Indian forces faced each other, SK Singh, the Indian Ambassador in Islamabad, was summoned to the Pakistan Foreign Office and Zain Noorani, the Pakistani minister of state for foreign affairs, asked him to convey a message from General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, ‘If India took any action not conducive to its sovereignty and territorial integrity, then Pakistan was capable of inflicting unacceptable damage on it. Pakistan’s action would not be limited to northern India alone but also to facilities outside the north.’ When asked whether this implied an attack on Mumbai, the Pakistani minister replied that it ‘might be so’.[17] A nuclear threat was also publicly conveyed by Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan’s chief nuclear scientist, in an interview published after the end of the military exercise in the British newspaper,  The Observer.

In 1990, when India–Pakistan tensions were high, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Sahibzada Yakub Khan visited India from January 21–23 and met the then external affairs minister, IK Gujral and Prime Minister VP Singh. Gujral in his meeting with the Kargil Review Committee recalled that Yakub Khan was very melodramatic and was reading from a prepared note and used terms (in Urdu) like ‘fire would be spitting from the skies and there would be a holocaust’.[18]

Pakistan’s beliefs of having deterred India had been based on the notion that India was preparing or planning an attack. This was, in fact, not the case and such an option was not available or seriously considered due to the commitment of the Indian Army in Sri Lanka, countering terrorism in Punjab and insurgency in the North East and in Jammu and Kashmir.[19] In psychological terms, Pakistani fear psychosis conjured imaginary fears, which they thought they had successfully countered through nuclear threats and found security in the belief—a belief which has endured and from the Pakistani viewpoint been proven in the 2001–02 crisis and the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008 and continues to be the source of their miscalculation in future crises.

India–Pakistan Situations: Competing Bluffs

The India–Pakistan nuclear threats are fundamentally unbelievable because of the possibility of mutual destruction. So, when Pakistan promotes the notion that its nuclear capability will be used early in a conventional conflict, what it logically means is that, at that point, Pakistan has decided to commit suicide. It is an obvious military bluff meant for political effect.

India, on the other hand, threatens nuclear retaliation only to the use of nuclear weapons, which it describes as ‘massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage’ and postulates the feasibility of limited conventional war. Limited war objectives are inherently discordant with large penalties and to risk it all for modest objectives appears senseless, especially if the penalty is not credible; risk-taking by one side will likely prompt risk-taking by the other. Neither adversary, as Robert Jervis has written, ‘can confidently move from one area of significant concern to the other without great risk of incurring very high costs—if not immediately, but as a result of a chain of actions that cannot be entirely foreseen or controlled’.[20]

The critique of massive retaliation by Henry Kissinger and other Cold War deterrence strategists still rings true, ‘Given the power of modern weapons, a nation that relies on all-out war as its chief deterrent imposes a fearful psychological handicap on itself. The most agonising decision a statesman can face is whether or not to unleash an all-out war; short of a direct attack threatening the national existence, all pressures will make for hesitation, short of a direct attack threatening the national existence.’[21]

Pakistan’s reliance on threats based on escalation to the nuclear realm to deter India’s application of conventional force is, therefore, considered by India, to be a bluff that should be called whenever required. Importantly, the point to note is that such dilemmas do not apply to a NFU power like India.

Lessons for Deterrence 

Nuclear Factor

In any future war situation, Pakistan will flash its nuclear card as early as possible in order to invite international intervention and neutralise India’s conventional edge. India’s reaction would depend on the stakes involved. The nuclear card, though fundamentally incredible, can carry political utility and have strategic effect. Here the engagement takes place between the minds of the opposing leaderships. Therefore, even if nuclear weapons are not actually used, the outcome of the political crisis or even the political effects of limited military engagements are influenced by the nuclear factor. Bruce Reidel, who was a special assistant to American President Bill Clinton, has written that he was present when the President informed Sharif that the Pakistani Army had mobilised its nuclear-tipped missiles.[22] India’s foreign minister at the time of the Kargil crisis, Jaswant Singh, confirms that, ‘India had some information regarding some deflective activity in Pakistan’s Tilla ranges near Jhelum, indicating that it could be operationalising its nuclear missiles. This was treated by India as a mere gambit. A nuclear angle to this conflict simply did not exist.’[23] Singh, however, elucidates that any decision other than the one to keep the conflict geographically confined in spatial terms and not cross the LC though ‘tactically disadvantageous, would have been a strategic error of incalculable dimensions, principally because of the nuclear status of both India and Pakistan, which for the world was the primary worry. We had assessed this carefully and were clear that there was to be no internationalising of the issue; we wanted no repeats of Tashkent; we undertook, therefore, diplomatic manoeuvres to ensure that the matter did not go before the Security Council.’[24]General VP Malik, India’s Army Chief during the Kargil war, also confirms that the ‘nuclear weapons factor played on the minds of the political decision makers’ and confirms that the nuclear issue was not discussed in the CCS, the highest political decision-making mechanism, though it was discussed between General Malik and the National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra a couple of times.[25]

There is, therefore, sufficient grounds to believe that even though nuclear weapons were never physically used in the Kargil crisis, the political shadows cast by the nuclear factor influenced Pakistan’s planning, India’s reaction and its eventual conclusion through the diplomatic intervention of the US, which also points in the direction of the need for international support for waging wars.

International Support

India’s decision not to violate the LC was a decision largely aimed to garner international support in the crisis. This was in recognition of the belief that international support was a strategic requirement in waging modern wars as there are limits to national sovereignty in undertaking military operations, even in its own defence.[26]They not only add a new perspective to the nature of future wars and forces required, but that international support and cooperation, form essential ingredients to waging conflicts successfully.

Escalation Control

The Kargil war is considered illustrative of a conflict in which escalation was successfully controlled. The peculiarities of the Kargil war are, however, noteworthy. Pakistan sought to disguise aggression through a façade of Mujhahideen having carried out the operation.[27] India reacted by announcing its policy of not crossing the LC, simultaneously signalled its resolve to escalate by the forward movement of its strategic formations, and movement of naval ships. The Kargil Review Committee Report concludes that these moves deterred Pakistan from escalating the conflict.[28] But this conclusion is founded on the assumption that Pakistan intended to escalate the conflict and was prevented from doing so. Whereas from all accounts of Pakistani objectives and the intercept of the telephone conversation between Musharraf and Muhammad Arif, the Chief of General Staff, suggest that Pakistan had no intention to escalate and had asked their air and ground people to stay back[29] and the Pakistan Air Force did not react to the use of air power within Indian territory, though the Indian Air Force Chief had initially expressed the view that the use of air power would escalate the conflict.[30] The Pakistani Navy also kept well away from Indian naval deployments. What the Indian moves probably achieved, as the Kargil Review Committee Report states, is that it sent a clear message that all intruders will be evicted at any cost. For India, the stakes were high enough to escalate, if necessary. Deter, it probably did not, because the Pakistani game plan was to use the clandestine nature of the intrusion to prevent escalation.

Nuclear Linkage

During the Kargil conflict, nuclear signalling by Pakistan was restrained. This appears to have been due to Indian military action being politically limited to its own side of the LC. The Kargil Review Committee Report reveals that Pakistan conveyed some veiled nuclear signals to India during the conflict. On 30 May 1999, soon after India employed air power in the Kargil conflict, the Pakistan foreign secretary, Shamshad Ahmad told The News International and Daily Jang newspapers: ‘We will not hesitate to use any weapon in our arsenal to defend our territorial integrity,’ given the overt nuclearisation of Pakistan in May 1998, this threat had obvious connotations.[31] The statement was denied the same night by the Pakistan foreign spokesman by saying that the foreign secretary had been completely misquoted and his comments reported out of context. The nuclear threat, however, made international headlines and may have served, albeit marginally, the Pakistani purpose of linking the war to the nuclear issue. The important nuclear lesson of Kargil was that such linkages would be easier in future conflicts.

Political Caution

While India’s political decision not to cross the LC was conveyed unequivocally, it’s rationale for not crossing the LC has been interpreted differently. The official Indian view is that it was aimed to discredit Pakistan, bolster India’s image as a responsible nuclear power and garner international support. Pakistan, on the other hand, believed that India’s decision reflected the impact of nuclear deterrence and bolstered their image of India as a ‘soft state’. One could postulate that things would have been different if nuclear weapons were non-existent, a view that is buttressed by the historical fact that India reacted differently in 1965. But the more important point to note is the fact that the boundaries of the conflict were circumscribed politically, communicated to the adversary and respected by both sides—a reflection of a cooperative endeavour. It would, however, be imprudent to expect such cooperation during future conflicts.

Crystallisation of Belief Systems

Pakistan believed that nuclear weapons had constrained Indian response options, and therefore, they can successfully use nuclear deterrence to support aggression and a proxy war. They felt that the threshold of conflicts could be raised and had successfully taken greater risks. Indians believed that a limited war against Pakistan could be fought and won despite the presence of nuclear weapons. This clash of belief systems represented the potential for a future war. Both sides imbued deterrence with different potentialities. These beliefs sustained and laid the foundations of a potentially dangerous situation and the eruption of the India–Pakistan crisis of 2002 tested these belief systems.


Also check out: ‘India in the Nuclear Age’, episode 80 of The Seen and the Unseen, in which Lt Gen Menon is interviewed by Amit Varma about his book.

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[1]The Kargil Review Committee Report, ‘From Surprise to Reckoning’, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2000, p-229.

[2]Burke, Jason, ‘Kargil War: Pakistan—In the Land of the Enemy’, India Today, 12 July 1999, p-20.

[3]Jha, Prem Shankar, ‘The Mind of the Pakistan Army’, The Times of India, 16 June 1999.

[4]K Subrahmanyam, quoted at the release ceremony of the Kargil Committee Report, The Times of India, 25 February 2000.

[5]Baruah, Amit, ‘Whose Kargil Version to Believe’, The Hindu, 14 June 2000, p-14.


[7]Daily Jang, Lahore, 15 March 2000.

[8]Dixit, JN, ‘Pakistan Machinations in Kargil’, Hindustan Times, 7 July 1998. Dixit states the major reason for the US mediation was the fact that the conflict could escalate into the nuclear realm.

[9], From Surprise to Reckoning: The Kargil Review Committee Report, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2000, p-89.

[10]Ibid, p-205.

[11]Sundarji, K, Blind Men of Hindoostan, UBS Publishers Distributors, New Delhi, 1993. In a mix of fact and fiction, Sundarji demonstrated the folly of nuclear asymmetry in the India–Pakistan context. See also, ‘Effects of Nuclear Asymmetry on Conventional Deterrence’, Combat Papers, No.1, The College of Combat, Mhow, 21 May 1981. In contrast, the present debate is focused on the application of conventional power in a situation of nuclear parity.

[12]The correspondence of the acquisition of nuclear capability and the prosecution of war is illustrated in Jasjit Singh, ‘Kargil 1999: Pakistan’s Fourth War of Kashmir’, Strategic Analysis, Vol-13, No. 5, IDSA, August 99, p-691.

[13]Musharraf, Pervez, In the Line of Fire, Simon & Schuster, UK, 2006, p-97–98.

[14]Shahi, Agha; Khan, Zulfiqar Ali and Sattar, Abdul, ‘Securing Nuclear Peace’, The International News, 5 October 1999.


[16]The Kargil Review Committee Report, op cit, p-191. The report quotes General Zia and an Indian Intelligence report of March 1988 that estimates that Pakistan was in possession of at least three nuclear devices of 15–20 kt yields.

[17]Ibid, p-191.

[18]Ibid, note 17, p-79.

[19]The Kargil Committee Report, ibid, p-76 and note 44, p-80.

[20]Jervis, Robert, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution, Cornell University Press, New York, 1989, p-32.

[21]Kissinger, Henry, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, Harper, New York, 1957, p-133.

[22]Reidel, Bruce, ‘American Diplomacy and the 1999 Kargil Summit at Blair House’, Policy Paper, Centre for Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania, 2002.

[23]Singh, Jaswant, India at Risk, Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2013, p-203.

[24]Ibid, p-203.

[25]Malik, Gen VP, India’s Military Conflicts and Diplomacy, Harper Collins, India, 2013, p-127.

[26]Raghavan, VR, ‘Strategic Pointers from Kargil’, The Hindu, 27 June 2002. See also Singh, Jaswant, op cit p-203.

[27]The Kargil Review Committee Report, op cit, p-97.

[28]Ibid, p-105.

[29]Transcript of telephone conversation, The Hindu, 11 June 1999–‘Now the air people and the ground people will stay back and the situation will be OK.’See also, full transcript, Singh, Jaswant, op cit, pp-190–97.

[30]Kargil Report, op cit, p-232.

[31]Baruah, Amit, ‘We Will Not Hesitate to Use Any Weapon in Our Arsenal to Defend our Territorial Integrity.’ The Hindu, 31 May(AQ: year is missing).

About the author

Lt Gen Prakash Menon

Lt. Gen. (Retd) Prakash Menon is the Director of the Strategic Studies Programme at The Takshashila Institution. He was the Major General General Staff of the army’s Northern Command responsible for operations in J&K and the Commandant of the National Defence College, New Delhi. After his retirement in 2011, he continued in government as the Military Advisor and Secretary to Government of India and from 2015 as Officer on Special Duty in the National Security Council Secretariat.He has a PhD from Madras University for his thesis “Limited War and Nuclear Deterrence in the Indo-Pak context”. He was appointed by the Union Cabinet as a member of an expert group for the creation of the Indian National Defence University.