Saga of Unparalleled Valour

By: Navyanjali Bajaj

The bravery and heroism of the Indian army- their dedication to fight, their strength to protect the most their spirit to march on and never give up, makes them no less than any superhero. There is no better day than the 15th of August to celebrate our real heroes. The army holds a special place of respect in the world military history for its successes and accomplishments and in all our hearts.

With an exceptional battlefield potency worldwide known, the Indian Army launched an even exceptional military operation on the world’s highest point on 13th April, 1984, Operation Meghdoot, as we know it.

6000m above the sea level, in temperatures as low as -50C, at the horrifying cost of human life and environmental terror bombarding our army, Pakistan released operation Ababeel and India launched operation Meghdoot.

"Is this true? Since when has all this been happening and why are we not aware of this?", Colonel Narendra Kumar raised a question. The fact had doomed on him and the post-partition government of India in the most atrocious manner.

Since the last fifteen years, Pakistan had taken unofficial control over the Siachen glacier and we were completely oblivious of it. "When I looked upon the map, I instantly knew there was something off…. I bought the maps from the Germans and went straight away to the DGMO, General Chibber." The problem, for the longest time, had gone unnoticed from the eyes of the officials and cartographers of India. The issue over which the authorities of a newly independent India were worried was not just about Siachen, but a bigger geopolitical agenda of international border.

After the stipulation of the Shimla Agreement to ensure peace at the India-Pakistan border, the Line of Control was established with the northernmost point at NJ 9842. North to this point was the glaciated area which meant that the region from the point to the Karakoram pass was undemarcated. The problem arose primarily because in various international maps, the arbitrary Line of control was extended from the point NJ 9842 to the Karakoram pass eastwards at an angle of 45 for clarity. This resulted in the area of Siachen, a region of major geopolitical importance, under Pakistan’s control. This was not just an inaccurate representation of ground reality, but instead a way of obtaining accession by stealth which is a kind of cartographic aggression.

It is necessary to understand the principle of this agenda that we hope to tackle today, regarding the importance of having control over one of the highest points in the world. What makes Siachen an important military point? Why were two nations fighting over airless wilderness, so high and forbidding that even skilled mountain climbers spoke of it with awe and fear?

Over the years, since the partition, India and Pakistan have fought several wars, however in the wider context, the geographical and topological location of this particular war makes it unusual. Siachen lies at the world’s only nuclear tri-junction, where the overlapping boundaries of three nuclear powers- China, India and Pakistan converge. For India specifically, Saltoro Ridge of Siachen separates Pakistan and China, stopping them from forming a geographically militarised force against India. To keep a watch over the Gilgit and Baltistan regions of POK in the west and the activities of China in the east, the Indian government and the armed forces must keep this region under control.

In 1978, as Indira Gandhi was re-elected in the parliament, India was ready to capture Siachen from its counterpart. Lieutenant General Prem Nath Hoon, remembered in an interview, “Mrs. Indira Gandhi sent me abroad to get all the equipment. It was difficult for me to choose them, as I did not know which troops will be selected and whether these equipment will suit them to survive in the harsh conditions. It was indeed a dicey situation.”

The initial plan was to deploy troops to three passes on the Saltoro Range that controlled access to the Siachen glacier, from north to south- Sia La, Bilafond La and Gyong La. This operation, however, was intended to be just a show of force and not the permanent occupation that it later became. After these positions were secured, the two armies began to compete against each other to gain the higher ground. The belief that if one side did not capture a height then the other would, led to the militarisation of the entire ridgeline.

Consequently, Indian Generals, Air Force Commanders and Higher Officials, along with their troops were being trained for the assault expedition, Operation Meghdoot. On April 13, 1983, as the hearts of the Indian citizens were brimming with joy on Baisakhi, the soldiers were gearing up for one of the harshest military missions in the history of mankind. “My troops consisting of thirty soldiers landed at Bilafond-La and kick-started the mission. We were not sure if the helicopters could land and thus decided to jump on the soft snow. The dedication that the troops showed was everything that I needed in order to push myself to put my own life at risk”, recalled Lt. Gen. S.K. Kulkarni.

On the same day, at 7 am, our national flag was hoisted at the first point of the ridge marking the beginning of the operation and the challenges that the Indian Army was yet to face.

It is undeniable biology that a human can tolerate temperature only up to a certain extent. Being at a height of around 6000m above the sea level comes with its own difficulties and thereby as we see it, the temperature of the Siachen region adds another dynamic to this entire conflict. The climate of this area turns out to be the third enemy in the dispute, as two didn’t seem enough. The soldiers of both the armies suffered from High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, frostbites, hypothermia, lung failure and amnesia, the deathlike diseases that came along their duty. However, it is to be noted that in this scenario, India had an upper hand over POK due to the experience in the extreme conditions of Antarctica Research Station in Dakshin Gangotri.

Another result of the Siachen war was the coining of the term ‘Siachen Syndrome’, which is described as the progressive change in personality at such extreme altitudes.

Both armies lost a large number of their soldiers due to environmental casualties, which rose dramatically with every passing year. The environmental conditions, however, could not stop the mission.

Following the confiscation of Bilafond La, Major Bahuguna won Sia La on April 17, 1983, and it was expected that D. K. Khanna would seize Gyong La in the first week of June. Amongst all these successes, the course of action changed; the Indian troops were now on the radar of Pakistani officials. The Indian army had expected this but the timing was against them. Operation Ababeel- a militarized mission to remove the Indian forces from Siachen was launched instantly.

“We were hit by a deadly attack on 23rd June, between 4:30 to 5 am by the enemies. Pakistani firing was intense and it was devastating to see the conditions in which we were fighting”, was another statement given by Lt. Gen. S.K. Kulkarni. This started a series of attacks and defence from both sides on the Siachen glacier which were continuously won by the Indian army because of the intense training and determination.

Parallel to these fights, D. K. Khanna had also won over Gyong La, leading to the complete control of Siachen Glacier by the Indian Army!

As the rest of the nation shaped the society of a free India through the Industrial Revolution, Dalit rights, free speech and democratic election, our army had secured the highest battle point of the world. This operation was variously consequential.

The most important outcome, according to military history analysts, was Operation Rajiv on 26 June 1987. The Indian Army launched this operation to secure the area of Quaid under Major Varinder Singh and later, under Naib Subendar Bana Singh.

The second outcome was the Kargil War of 1999 under Operation Vijay that resulted in the victory of the Indian Army. It is believed that the War of 1999 happened because the Pakistani forces launched ‘Operation Badr’ to meddle with the Indian forces in Siachen.

Other than the military aspect of the entire conflict, there lies an economic and social perspective too.

Considering that the two countries were newly structured, it would not be wrong to say that this conflict was an economical burden on both.

The Indian forces, till today, spend over billions of dollars to maintain the troops in the high altitude war zone. Both sides did not release the number of casualties caused due to the environment, but it is believed to be around 4000.

For POK, this cold war costs $200 to $300 million at present. The monetary aspect of the war presents a different viewpoint to the disagreement of the Siachen region as it has no economic value and continues to be barren. It forces us to think about the two nations fighting over a land where natural conditions are deadlier for soldiers than enemy action.

Thus, the war has now been termed as ‘banal politics.’

In his book ‘Beyond NJ 9842: the Siachen Saga’, Nitin A. Gokhale talks about the individual experience of every soldier involved in this mission and honors them collectively for their sacrifices for our country.

At present, The Siachen Peace Park is an idea about creating a transboundary peace park, especially to restore the environmental integrity of the area which had been severely degraded by the amount of garbage and military supplies created. From the Indian side, there are no signs that it intends to move away from the glacier, as our soldiers faced the brunt of the physical environment and fought bravely.

As a whole, the conflict of Operation Meghdoot is a saga of unparalleled valor in the face of the belligerent enemy, arduous terrain and challenging climatic conditions and we salute our Indian armed officers for their courage and fearlessness against the harshest war.

Jai Hind.