“Quartered in snow, silent to remain. When the bugle calls, they shall rise and march again”. A salute of gratitude to all the brave hearts, who have lost their life, fighting at the frontiers of the country. More than 800 lives have been lost guarding the treacherous heights of ‘Siachen Glacier.’ Recently, nine soldiers from the Madras regiment laid down their lives in the glacier. Another soldier, Lance Naik Hanumanthappa, valiantly fought for his life at the ‘Research and Referral (R&R) Army Hospital’, New Delhi. A demilitarized Siachen is being proposed. Can India really roll back her forces?
At 21,000 feet and covered with snow, this is a no nomads land except for a few men in white gear who are seen wielding ‘guns’. Temperature here reaches a freezing -60-degree Celsius during peak winters. A reading of – 20-degree Celsius is a reason to cheer. Wait!!! Do thermometers work here?
Locals refer it to as the ‘land of dead’ and it does have sensible meaning. A grey and white ribbon is a common feature on the gears of the brave men in white uniforms. It denotes their valiant service in ‘Siachen Glacier’ – the most hostile and highest battlefield in the world.
Soldiers from the Indian army, stand guard 24/7 braving the bone chilling blizzards. Their eagle eyes are fixed on the lower heights, where India’s arch-rival – Pakistan holds its position. Chetak and Dhruv ALH helicopters operated by the Army Aviation Wing are the only means of transport. The choppers themselves are pushed to the limit and can land at forward posts for a few minutes. It is said ‘The land is so barren and passes are so high, that only the best of your friends or the fiercest of your enemies, pay you a visit in the mythical Siachen’.
The strategic heights of the Siachen Glacier are spread across the Karakoram ranges in the Himalayan Mountains. The Glacier is bound by the Saltoro ridge to the West and the peaks of the Karakoram ranges to the East. Siachen glacier is a 75-kilometre long river of slow moving ice and is also the second longest glacier. The highest peaks of the Saltoro ridges offer a panoramic view of the glacier.
It all started with Pakistan’s intended ‘Cartographic Aggression’. Around 1970, Pakistan started marking areas around the Siachen Glacier as its own. The ‘US Defense Mapping Agency’ recognized ‘Siachen Glacier’ as a Pakistani territory. India had raised its objection in the matters but little had changed. Pakistan taking a leap, started assisting and permitting Foreign Mountain Expeditions. This raised the eye brows in Delhi, Siachen officially was demarcated and was to be no one’s claim.
A fast flashback to 1949, India and Pakistan signed the Karachi agreement which marked an international border between the neighbours. It was mutually agreed that the land beyond the point – NJ9842 would not be demarcated. The area was inhospitable and not even a single blade of grass grew in the region. The Shimla agreement which was reached after the 1971 war also failed to demarcate the land beyond NJ9842 and it was simply unnecessary.
Various mountaineering expeditions were now being granted permission by the Pakistani’s. Siachen for India was unknown and it was crucial that the glacier was put under reconnaissance.
In 1978, an expedition team form the elite ‘High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS)’ was launched under Colonel Narendra Kumar. The team went in blind to the uncharted territory and conquered peaks which had Pakistani presence. The situation was spinning out of hand and something was brewing up.
In 1984, Indian Intelligence agencies received reports of Pakistan, having ordered thousands of Arctic snow gear from UK. The reports were corroborated, with the sighting of Pakistan’s Special Forces (SSG) in the region by India’s Ladakh regiments. It was now clear that Pakistan would launch a massive military operation to capture the Saltoro heights. India then launched ‘Operation Meghdoot’ to avert a Pakistani invasion.
On 13th April 1984, Indian Army choppers loaded with army soldiers and supplies took-off from Thoise airbase. The troops were dropped off at ‘Bilafond La’. Pakistan held higher ground and in warfare that is a major setback. Helicopters were being fired upon and this threatened to cut off supplies and back-up to the deployed forces.
It was crucial that the Indian Army had to conquer the heights. A crack team from the 8-Jammu & Kashmir, Light Infantry and Kumon regiment was formed. The team was to capture the ‘Quid post’ which was situated at 21,000 feet. Soldiers had to climb 1,500 feet of vertical ice walls. The first team consisted of 13-highly capable men and was led by Second Lieutenant Rajiv Pande and Nb Sub Hemraj. The team would recon and further set-up ropes for the other units. The team set out from the Sonam Post – the staging base for all subsequent operations.
Braving the skin piercing snow-bullets, the team successfully scaled the heights after a 48-hour trek. The ropes were laid out and 500 metres away from the post, Lt. Pande radioed his CO ‘Col. A.P. Rai’ for further orders. He was asked to push right-on towards Quid. As Lt. Pande and his team moved, Pakistani forces opened firing killing eight of the ten soldiers.
India then launched another attack to ‘Quid Post’, under the command of Major Virendra Singh. It consisted of two officers, three JCOs and 57 battle-hard men. The team scaled the heights with the assistance of the ropes laid out by Lt. Pande and his team. The team was midway when they were fired upon. Finally only three brave hearts reached the ‘Quid Post’, one among them was Bana Singh. He would fight valiantly to secure himself a Param Vir Chakra – India’s highest gallantry award.
Nb Sub Bana Singh and his comrades stealthily waded through the waist deep snow. Upon reaching the post, the team flung grenades into the bunkers. Bana valiantly bayoneted several Pakistani soldiers. Maj. Virendra Singh was hit four times in the chest but kept charging against the Pakistani’s. Shortly after, Bana secured the ‘Quid post’ and hoisted the Indian flag. Bana Singh was later awarded the PVC for his conspicuous bravery and leadership under such demanding conditions. The ‘Quid Post’ was later renamed as the ‘Bana Post’.
‘Operation Meghdoot’ is still on with forces standing guard at inhumane conditions. A mutually agreed ceasefire was ordered in 2003. By then, India had gained control of all strategic heights in the entire glacier. Pakistan was driven down to the wastelands and today is in no position to mount a frontal attack on the glacier. Significant bravest souls have made the ultimate sacrifice while securing these heights.
The strategic significance of heights conquered in the Siachen is immense. Posts like Sonam and Bana provide a panoramic view of the glacier. Situated at over 18,000 feet, these posts have gained India prime height significance. Any future conflicts in the region is bound to outwit Pakistani’s from the glacier all at once.
Rays of hope shine bright over Siachen
Since 1984, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) – India’s premier Defense R&D authority – has been relentlessly working in bettering the conditions at Siachen. DRDO’s, ‘Defence Institute of High Altitude Research’ (DIHAR), located in Leh has revolutionised the life at Siachen. The laboratories work in this regard, has enabled soldiers fight their worst enemies – the crevasses, winds, avalanches and the weather.
India spends around INR-6 crore per day to keep her forces in the best shape. DRDO’s, Defense Food and Research Laboratory (DFRL), has developed food that can keep the forces going for days. A frozen food packet stuffed with ‘Masala rice’, when exposed to air using oxygen heats up to +60-degree and provides the soldiers with staple food. The forward posts use kerosene stoves for fires. India has laid down a dedicated pipeline to deliver the glacier’s ‘Golden Fuel – Kerosene’ all year long.
ADE – Pune, has also been working towards making the ammunitions work at better efficiency rate. Soldiers now heat the weapons on stoves to prevent them from getting locked up. INSAS and other rifles have been specially re-designed to meet the operational needs of Siachen. A special weapon system for the glacier is in the making. Besides, DRDO has developed some of the best arctic gears and high-altitude uniforms. India now produces world-class snow tents; rather the world standard is being set in Siachen.
By 2016, 850+ soldiers have lost their lives serving at Siachen including the operational causality. The casualty rate in 2013 stood at 12 and reduced to 10 in 2014, it further plummeted to 06 lives in 2015. Given the strategic importance, the operational cost or the casualties will go unaccounted for. It’s in the best lines of national security, that these things are written off.
Pakistan on its side has lost 250 soldiers while serving in the Siachen. The casualty rates cannot be compared on the same scale. India conquers extremely high peaks and passes; Pakistan is in the area around the glacier only. Pakistan is fast losing its hold over these bases.
Initially during the conflict, India lost one soldier every alternate day while Pakistan lost one soldier every fourth day. However, the tables have reversed. India has successfully brought down the causality rates to single digits in the past few years. Sustained work by multiple agencies has paid-off.
India’s, ‘High Altitude Warfare School’, is accorded as the best in the world and hosts forces from around the world. Each soldier before scaling glacial heights is put through a rigorous acclimatization cycle. The soldier trains for a month and half before the deployment. Each deployment is scheduled to last just over 3 months. Newer and better equipment is being developed to better the life at Siachen.
Demilitarized Siachen – How far can India trust a regime like Pakistan?
As fresh reports of the loss of a life at glacier reaches the nation, equal number of reports to demilitarize Siachen floods the media. A lobby consisting of a select few former diplomats and servicemen have been working stealthily. Demilitarization is an extremely complex process to start with. India and Pakistan will have to sit at the tables and draft out an agreement that is mutually agreed upon. Forces will be pulled out all for once. India is ready but is Pakistan really reliable?
India and Pakistan have fought four full fledged wars till date. Posts along the Line of Control (LOC) report cease-fire violation almost every week. Guns have just not fallen silent. ‘Peace talks’ have failed to answer any of the concerns. Cross border terrorism is another huge risk India is battling.
Down to the line, Pakistan gains tremendous ground – economically, politically and on the military front if Siachen is demilitarized. Bilateral core working groups have been formed for the process but there’s little hope and belief. A hidden element that is pushing for the process is China. Pakistan had illegally turned over a major part of ‘Saksgam valley’ to China. If at all, the LOC is extended from NJ9842 after an agreement, the ‘Chinese-occupied Kashmir region’ will have to be returned to India. This brings China directly to the negotiating tables.
Pakistan also demands that a status-quo be applied in ‘Siachen glacier’. This demands India to pull back her forces. In the absence of our army, Pakistan can redeploy its forces to the glacier. Off-course, Pakistan will guarantee not to deploy its force. But the ghost of Kargil is known to be still lurking in the power corridors of Delhi and is said to haunt officials at regular intervals.
India to conquer the regions above NJ9842 has shed blood. Countless lives were lost in the campaign. Life at the glacier is getting better as the years role by. Why should India role out her forces for the loss Pakistan suffers? We have paid enough to mount and sustain ‘Operation Meghdoot’. Officers and Jawans left their families behind and stood guard, even as a ‘not-so friendly’ Pakistan trained its gun on them. It was a bloody campaign for India, but things have changed and we control all the strategic heights.
Any diplomatic or political decisions, to demilitarize Siachen would have widespread ripple effect on Indian Army’s morale. Siachen has become a war of pride and grit for both armies. India has outwitted Pakistan in every square inch of the glacier. India holds position of all the three strategic passes of the Karakoram Range – namely ‘Bilafond La, Sia La and Gyong La’ passes.
A decision now to abandon these posts would prove to be immature. Successive COAS and senior Army Staff have rejected this move. Enough lives and cost has been added to the equation of war and this alone nullifies an immature peace process. The nation, as well as its diplomatic circle has to understand that whatever we gained was through bloodshed. Our soldiers bled and froze to capture and man the heights, it is upon us to make sure that they don’t have to repeat it all again. If the need arises, if the bugles are played, they shall rise and undoubtedly step forward, they do it for their nation after all… nothing else.