13 April 1984 launched India’s longest and unforgiving war ever on the glacial heights of Siachen
In Balti they call it Siachen — the abode of wild roses. It is a strange name for an icy glacier, 19,000 ft above sea level, where not a blade of grass grows. It is stranger still that this silent, ice-shrouded land should become the highest battleground of the world, where guns have roared since April 1984. Even today, though the guns are silent, Indian and Pakistani armies remain locked in eyeball to eyeball confrontation in these forbidding heights.
The roots of the conflict go back to the 1949 Karachi Agreement signed after the ceasefire of the 1947-48 Indo-Pak War. This demarcated the ceasefire line between India and Pakistan at map coordinate NJ9842 at the foot of the Siachen glacier. Beyond this the line ran ‘thence north to the glaciers’. This ambiguous line was interpreted by Pakistan as running Northeast towards the Karakoram Pass, which gave it control over the glaciers. India claimed that from NJ9842 the line ran along the nearest watershed, the Saltoro Ridge, which put Siachen into Indian territory.
Through all of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies this barren, inhospitable region was ignored by both sides. It was only in the late Seventies that Pakistan published maps showing the area as theirs. They also began issuing permits for mountaineering expeditions, often accompanied by a Liaison Officer of the Pakistan Army, de facto claiming the area as their own.
India awoke to this gambit thanks to the efforts of Col Narender ‘Bull’ Kumar, a skilled mountaineer and Commandant of the High Altitude Warfare School. He laid hands on the map which showed the area as Pakistan’s and decided to counter the Pakistan’s moves by launching mountaineering expeditions of his own. After much persuasion, he received permission to lead his own expedition in 1978. The expedition detected a huge amount of debris with Pakistan Army markings, which convinced him that Pakistan was subtly laying claim to the glacier. He decided to counter Pakistani Oropolitics (use of mountaineering expeditions to stake claim) by a series of Indian expeditions and in 1981, led a 70-man team across the glacier which was tailed by a Pakistani helicopter. Both sides were now awakening to the importance of the glacier.
The Indian expeditions had alarmed the Pakistani planners at GHQ, Rawalpindi, who now decided to occupy the glacier by military force. The aim of the operation was to occupy the heights of Saltoro Ridge, and its main passes of Sia La, Bilafond La and Gyong La. Yet, they made a small but significant error. They ordered large quantities of Arctic weather gear from a supplier in London who also supplied the Indian Army and he tipped them off about the large Pakistani order. That set off alarm bells in the Indian Northern Command who now were convinced that Pakistan was planning something in Siachen.
India began procuring its own Arctic equipment to pre-empt Pakistan by occupying Siachen before they did. Intelligence reports stated that they were likely to move in around April 17 and it was decided to move in our own troops by April 13. Though considered an unlucky number, it was Baisakhi, and the Pakistanis would be least expecting activity on this day. Troops from 4 Kumaon and Ladakh Scouts — hardy troops from the mountain regions – were selected for the operation, codenamed Operation Meghdoot, after Sanskrit poet Kalidasa’s famous poem.
Around end-March, Indian soldiers marched out in full battle order through the Zojila Pass towards the base of the glacier. Simultaneously, Mi-17 and Chetak helicopters carried provisions to be deployed along the route and began stocking up the base camps. Four teams were deployed for the task under Brigadier V.N. Channa, who was responsible for the operation. One was to occupy Bilafond La, the other Sia La and the third was to move towards Gyong La, the three passes leading to the glacier from the Pakistani side. Simultaneously, the positions on the high ground of Saltoro Ridge were to be occupied to deny access to the glacier. Once these positions were occupied, it would be virtually impossible for an enemy to evict them from these heights.
The troops marched up to the base camp in secrecy for the next phase of move to the heights. Yet, the Arctic equipment which was essential for survival at these altitudes, and which was being especially procured from across the world for this operation, was delayed. The first sets reached the base camps only around five in the evening on 12 April 1984. In the final briefing before the operation, the troops agreed to move up even if the Arctic gear was not available. Next morning, on April 13, Maj. R.S. Sandhu led his platoon on foot to the heights of Saltoro Ridge, being the first Indian officer to be deployed there. Simultaneously, at 0530h a Cheetah helicopter, piloted by Squadron Leader S.S. Bains, took off from the base camp, carrying Capt. Sanjay Kulkarni and his radio operator and winged its way towards the Bilafond La pass. The helicopter could only carry two persons and in the wind-swept conditions could not land at the snow-covered heights. The Cheetah hovered a few feet from the ground, Capt. Kulkarni and his operator said a small prayer and jumped, their fall cushioned by the soft snow. Seventeen such sorties took place, and by 10, around 30 men, a platoon worth, was on Bilafond La. In a raging blizzard, the Indian tricolour was raised there for the first time.
Yet, the first day was a forerunner of things to come. In just three hours, the radio operator contracted pulmonary oedema, and had to be evacuated. By noon the weather packed up as well, making any operations towards Sia La and the other heights impossible. In heights of over 19,000 ft, another soldier, Lance Naik Ramesh Singh fell to the dreaded high-altitude illness and passed away on 16 April. Although radio transmission was strictly forbidden, Capt. Kulkarni made a single transmission to his HQ informing them of his situation. That transmission was picked up by the Pakistani and now they were alerted. In spite of the terrible weather, they too began moving troops of their elite Special Services Group and Northern Light Infantry on foot towards the glacier.
After three days, the weather cleared and on April 17 the Indian Air Force (IAF) launched 32 sorties to drop Major Bahuguna and his platoon of Ladakh Scouts in the vicinity of the next objective, Sia La Pass. The platoon walked five kilometres in knee-high snow and secured the pass by mid-day. Indian troops also occupied important heights around Saltoro Ridge and the glacier was securely in Indian hands.
The Pakistanis had been beaten in their plans to occupy the glacier by three days. They now launched their own operation, codenamed Operation Ababeel, to evict the Indians. SSG commandoes reached Bilafond La on April 23, after a three-day trek on the snow and around 4 in the evening the first attack came in. A burst of fire killed the Indian sentry at the Observation Post and the silent peaks reverberated with the sounds of gunfire. Yet the Indians were on high ground and held the advantage. For the Pakistanis, movement in the knee-deep snow was slow and tortuous and their attack was repulsed with 26 Pakistani soldiers getting killed in the first assault. Another attack came the next day and then again on April 27, both of which were similarly repulsed. Other attacks followed in May and June, on each of the newly-established Indian posts but to no avail. The Indian positions were being gradually reinforced day by day and at these altitudes recapturing a high ground was virtually impossible. Pakistani attacks, though courageous, were simply beaten back.
Over the next few months, both sides built up their forces. With the passes in Indian control, the Pakistanis tried to seize the adjoining heights. Both sides set about occupying posts to dominate the other — a strategy that continued throughout the war. In July 1984, Pakistani NSG commandos seized a high feature overlooking the Bilafond La pass in a daring helicopter borne assault and occupied it. This feature renamed Quaid Post, dominated Indian positions for over three years, till it was recaptured in July 1987 by Naib Subedar Bana Singh and renamed Bana Post.
The Pakistani Army did not give up its attempts to recapture Siachen. A series of attacks and counterattacks on each other’s positions continued for over a decade, with major Pakistani offensives launched in 1987, 1989, 1992, 1995 which were repulsed with heavy casualties. In 1999, Pakistan Army chief General Musharaf launched the Kargil War, hoping to cut off the supply line to Siachen and force India to vacate their positions. He himself was a Brigade Commander there and the failures suffered there would have rankled. The Kargil operation too failed.
Both sides have around 3,000 troops in 150-200 small posts in the crucial heights and the line held by both sides has become the Actual Ground Positions Line (AGPL). The Indians hold on to the 76 km long glacier and occupy most of the heights and passes around it. Even though the guns have been silent since November 2003 after a ceasefire, appalling weather conditions and the treacherous terrain claim casualties on both sides. In 2012, an avalanche hit the Pakistani Gayari base killing 126 soldiers. Ten Indian soldiers were recently buried alive in a similar landslide in 2016. Over 2,000 casualties have taken place on either side. The cost of just maintaining a presence there is around USD300 million a year for India and around USD200 million for Pakistan. They have the logistical advantage of being located at the western base of the glacier which can be accessed by roads. Indian posts, even today, largely rely on helicopters for sustenance.
So, is it worth holding on to these inhospitable heights? Yes, it is. Vacating the hard-earned positions at Siachen will simply allow Pakistan to move in and then regaining them will be impossible. Siachen will also prevent a Chinese-Pakistani nexus in the area. And it already holds an important position in the psyche of both nations. For a permanent solution to Siachen, clearly marked and delineated boundaries along the AGPL with iron-clad guarantees would be required, something difficult in the environment of distrust. But till the solution is found, the Indian soldier holds vigil in those forbidding heights, suffering hardships that would have broken most armies. And all we can do is raise a prayer and a salute for him.
(The writer is a military historian and author of four books. This article is extracted from his latest book, ‘India’s Battlefields from Kurukshetra to Balakot’)