By Col RS Sidhu
Romance of a soldier with Siachen Glacier!
‘If I feel God or the hallucinations of thin air, I don’t know,
Is it the Devil’s death trap or God’s generous creation is a dilemma for me,
But the truth that I understand is that my little me is alive and amazed,
As I walk on Hell below and Heaven around me!‘ – Veteran Col RS Sidhu
Launch of the OperationMEGHDOOT‘
Three decades and eight years back, on the Baisakhi of 1984, the Indian Army in a daring military operation landed its troops along the Saltoro ridge at Bilafond La, followed by Sia La, to anticipate the plans of the Pakistani army to occupy the Siachen Glacier. This successful landing, followed by more troops in successive waves of helicopter sorties, marked the start of Operation ‘MEGHDOOT‘ which today has the distinction of being the longest continuous military operation in the history of the Indian Army.
Bounded by the Saltoro Muztagh (mountain) to the west and the Siachen Muztagh to the east is the Siachen Glacier (place of roses) or the Saicher Gharni as it was called in past centuries. Frequently crossed by the Baltis from the Bilafond (butterfly) La (pass) to the west and the Yarkhandis to the east from the Teram (destroyed) Shehr (colony) glacier, it has been a silent witness to the trade in materials, livestock and humans. Discovery of ruins of dwellings and shards of pottery on the plateau of Teram Shehr by the neo-explorers of the 19and and 20and century, lend a certain veracity to these legends.
From below, the Siachen Glacier emanates the Nubra River (flowers and trees) which gave the valley its name. The valley runs along a north-south alignment from Indira (Goddess Laxmi) Pass/Turkistan La, the northernmost points of the Siachen Glacier to the Khardung (Lower Castle) ridge. Khardung Ridge, following an east-west alignment, lies just north of Leh (plateau). In the past, the Nubra Valley also provided a summer passage to Saser (golden land) La, through the Saser Muztagh for trade caravans moving from Leh to Yarkhand and beyond to Kashgar in Central Asia.
India Pakistan Rivalry on the Siachen Glacier
After the 1971 war, the Shimla Indo-Pak Agreement delineated the amended ceasefire line to the point known as NJ 9842, near the Shyok River, ‘…and thence north to the glaciers.’ Taking advantage of this ambiguity, Pakistan promoted numerous foreign expeditions between 1972 and 1983, accompanied by their army liaison officers through Gyong La, Bilafond La and Sia La, with the aim of claiming the region.
In 1984, intelligence reports revealed secret preparations by Pakistan to occupy the Siachen Glacier region. On April 13, 1984, Baisakhi Day, in a preemptive move, the Indian Army preceded D-Day in Pakistan by several days and occupied the key passes of Bilafond La and Sia La on the Saltoro ridge line. Thus began “Operation MEGHDOOT”, the most fearsome and courageous action undertaken by the Indian Army on the highest and coldest battlefield in the world. The Indian Army’s success on the Siachen Glacier owes much to the drive of officers like Colonel Narendra ‘Bull’ Kumar and Capt Tsering Stobdan Kahlon who physically inspected the glacier, the vision of Lt Gen ML Chhibber, the Commander of the Northern Army, and the audacity of Lt Gen (then Capt) Sanjay Kulkarni of 4 Kumaon, the first Indian soldier to land atop Bilafond La by helicopter.
Unable to secure accommodation on the Saltoro Ridge despite successive attempts over the next two decades, the Pakistani military imposed one of the greatest myths on its gullible citizens that they are fighting on the Siachen Glacier. This glacier lies to the east of the Saltoro ridge line held by the Indian Army, preventing their opponents from peeking into the Siachen Glacier.
The alignment separating the armies of the two countries here is called the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) and stretches from NJ 9842 south to northwest of Indira Pass near India-China LAC. Most of the posts in the area are above 18,000 feet and it takes 28 days to trek across the glacier to reach the furthest post. At these heights, the human body struggles to acclimatize and begins to burn out. Acute mountain sickness (severe headache, nausea, shortness of breath, blood pressure abnormalities, severe loose movements), pulmonary edema (water formation in the lungs), cerebral edema (water formation in the region of the brain) , deep vein thrombosis (formation of clots in the veins) are some of the medical conditions that can lead to death if they do not receive urgent medical attention. Medical evacuation is also highly uncertain due to the vagaries of the hostile environment. Following the regulatory acclimatization process plays a vital role in minimizing high altitude related accidents.
Faith on frozen heights
At the snout of this glacier is the shrine of “OP Baba”, the highly revered guardian deity of all troops deployed in the Siachen area. The origins of the ‘OP Baba’ tradition are veiled in the mists of time that shroud the glacier itself. A strong belief prevails that OP Baba was an artillery OP who was killed in action while deployed on the glacier, his body was never found and his immortal soul roams the glacier warning the troops from time to time impending disasters and enemy action. Not a soldier or porter sets foot on the glacier without first paying homage at the shrine and then giving thanks upon disinduction.
In 2003, the late Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam became the first President and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces to visit troops deployed under “Operation Meghdoot”. When he was informed informally of the guardian deity, he paid an unscheduled visit to the shrine to personally pay his respects.
Retreating from the Siachen Glacier A Bad Idea
The ceasefire along the Siachen Glacier was declared by the two countries in 2004, which continues to this day. Periodically there are unconfirmed reports of talks aimed at effecting a mutual withdrawal and demilitarizing the region. The strategic importance of the Siachen Glacier lies in providing depth to Leh from the north, as well as denying and providing critical alternative access to and from Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) and to the plains of Depsang. The region takes on even greater importance with the emergence of a likely joint threat from Pakistan and China. Kargil 1999 and Galwan 2020 are clear evidence of our opponents’ lack of confidence and should rule out any idea of Indian withdrawal from this sensitive and vital area.
(The author is a Sena Medal recipient and commanded the Siachen Glacier Headquarters Base Camp. Can also be viewed at his blogspot www.valleysandvalor.blogspot.com. He is also the author of three books, ‘Success of being mad‘ on entrepreneurship projects by veterans, ‘Elephant on the high Himalayas‘ on the India China discourse, and co-author of ‘Ladakh through the eyes of the whimsical‘ a picture book about a motorcycle odyssey by four veterans to the remote outskirts of the Western Himalayas and Greater Karakoram in Ladakh. The opinions expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproduction of this content without permission is prohibited).