Honour soldiers, but no withdrawal from Siachen

Deployment on the glacier has many stories of such unparalleled bravery and sacrifice.

 |  SITREP  |  6-minute read |   08-02-2016
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The single-engine Cheetah helicopter whined as it struggled to soar above the jagged peaks that jutted out into the sky. The army aviation pilots, though both very young, were experienced fliers at the Siachen glacier.

A year before the Kargil War of 1999, this was my first trip to the Siachen glacier. Armed with special clearances, including weather permitting, and a helicopter ride to the heli-maintained posts on the northern glacier, we took off from the Partapur airfield. This was at a time when there was a war still going on between India and Pakistan at the Siachen glacier.

The stories we heard were fascinating: How the initial operations were mounted to counter Pakistan’s cartographic aggression on the Siachen glacier and how an all volunteer force on the auspicious day of Baisakhi on April 13, 1984 was heli-dropped on The Saltoro ridgeline in a race to the top to beat Pakistan from occupying the Siachen glacier.

When you walk in the high altitude area in minus-30 degrees Celsius temperature wearing high altitude clothing, you sweat a lot. Within seconds, when you sit, the sweat turns to ice and that thin layer of ice can slice off a part of the skin in the armpits or between the toes or thigh joints. And that is the smallest of the problem at the glacier. A bar of chocolate in the freezer turns into stone. Imagine the same bar of chocolate at the Siachen glacier. It is rock hard and impossible to bite into. And that is food on a patrol.

A friend once joked: chocolate bars make great lining of ice bunkers protecting it from enemy artillery. Let me, for a moment, take you to that superhuman operation mounted to take the Quaid post occupied by the Pakistan Army in the northern glacier at an altitude of over 21,500 feet. An operation had failed and nine soldiers who mounted that operation in thick blizzard were martyred in Pakistani firing and shelling.

The operation for the Quaid post was named "Operation Rajeev" after the brave officer who made the supreme sacrifice trying to capture it from the elite Pakistani Special Services Group (SSG) commandos. This operation resulted in Naib Subedar Bana Singh being awarded with the nation’s highest military gallantry award - the Param Vir Chakra.

Through the blizzard the soldiers tried to climb the 90 degree ice wall with the Pakistani soldiers and artillery targeting them. They crossed the mortal remains of their comrades who had fallen in the previous operation. That actually gave them the strength to soldier on against all odds in minus-50 degrees Celsius temperature, rarefied environment and enemy fire.

Naib Subedar Bana Singh, many years later in New Delhi, told me that Guru Gobind Singhji had blessed him for the operation. It was his will that the tricolour was to fly on what was to be called the Bana top. Bana Singh went about his task chanting

  • De Shiva Bar Mohe Ihe
  • Shubh Karman Se kabahu Na Taru
  • Na Daru Ari Soh Jab Jaye Larau
  • Nischay kar Apni Jeet Karun.

He and his boys kept climbing. It was darkness at high noon. The Indian artillery had given them cover but the Pakistani commandos fought almost to the end. When they realised they could not hold the post, four of them, in their desperation, jumped off the post in an attempt to escape. Three other Pakistani soldiers were instantly killed.

History was made: the tricolour was on Bana Top. Under the then Brigadier Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan repeatedly tried to launch a series of counter-attacks to attempt to wash off the biggest blot on his military career: the loss of Quaid post. Pakistan failed each time. The victory at Bana Top was of tremendous advantage to the Indian Army.

Deployment on the glacier has many stories of such unparalleled bravery and sacrifice. India has lost about 1,000 soldiers on the glacier since "Operation Meghdoot" was launched in 1984. The Pakistan Army has lost over 2,000 soldiers in this operation and according to the Indian Army, it is restricted to the western slopes of the Saltoro Ridge.

kalam-55_020816094715.jpg The writer with then president APJ Abdul Kalam and then army chief Gen NC Vij at Siachen in 2004.

Pakistan has been desperate for India to withdraw from the Siachen glacier. It is not just a blot on the Pakistan Army in terms of losing the Quaid post but also a constant reminder of the lie it has told its people about being on the glacier.

In 1989, then prime ministers of Pakistan and India respectively, Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi, came close to withdrawing the armies to their NJ 9842 position. NJ 9842 is a position on the map. The line of control (LoC) is demarcated from the international border ahead of Jammu (near Akhnoor) all along Jammu and Kashmir till Point NJ 9842. The LoC, after the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, was marked till this point. 

Pakistan constantly argues that Siachen is a low-hanging fruit. 1,000 soldiers laid down their lives for India to have the advantage at the glacier. India must remember when Benazir was giving India the peace talk, the Pakistan Army was training terrorists to launch terror attacks in Jammu and Kashmir. In 1990, terrorists armed, trained and launched by Pakistan resorted to genocide in Kashmir throwing out lakhs of Kashmiri Pandits. So much for Pakistan wanting peace with India.

In 2012, I did a cover story on India Today TV along with colleague Shiv Aroor when the then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh was talking about converting Siachen into a mountain of peace. This was at a time when almost four years after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks Pakistan had done little to crack down on India-centric terror. Cosmetic action under international pressure had been taken against Hafiz Saeed and Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists but no efforts had been taken to dismantle the terror infrastructure. India-centric terror continues unabated even today.

In 2015, Pakistan’s advisor on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz gave a new argument: Indian Army's presence on Siachen was bad for environment and water flowing into Pakistan was being polluted. Fortunately at least for now, this has no takers in India.

India has lost ten precious lives in the ice wall collapse in the northern glacier. Some vested interests parroting Pakistan’s line may say this should prompt a withdrawal from the glacier.

But the supreme sacrifice made by our jawans should only strengthen our resolve to stay strong against all odds.

India won the extremely significant Haji Pir pass in every war with Pakistan but lost it on the negotiating table to Pakistan. History should not be allowed to repeat itself in Siachen.


Gaurav C Sawant Gaurav C Sawant @gauravcsawant

Executive Editor, India Today TV. Author Dateline Kargil (Macmillan).

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