Indian Army at Siachen In Jammu and Kashmir in 2001

by Lt Gen (Retd) Sanjay Kulkarni

In 1977, after I was commissioned into the Kumaon Regiment, I had to spend a few months at the Regimental Centre at Ranikhet to get to understand the troops that we were to serve and to undergo a pre-course training before heading for the Young Officers’ Course. In the lap of the snow-capped Himalayas, the beautiful view of Nanda Devi (7,816 metres) every morning, along with that of Trishul peak, was mesmerising. The young officers were told that Colonel N Kumar, popularly called ‘Bull’, had taken to mountaineering inspired by the panoramic view of the snow-covered peaks of the Central Himalayas from the Officers’ Mess.

As luck would have it, immediately after the Young Officers’ Course, I was detailed to attend the Mountain Warfare Course at Gulmarg, where Col Kumar was the commandant. It was then for the first time that we heard of an expedition to Siachen Glacier while we were climbing the Stok Kangri in Leh. In 1983 I got a chance to be part of a long-range patrol to Siachen which took me to Bilafond La – in Ladakhi, la means a pass – where we discovered some soda wrappers lying around with Japanese marking. 

It later came to light that Pakistan was sponsoring some international expeditions to Siachen via Bilafond La in its attempt to lay claim to Siachen as part of its cartographic aggression. Pakistan was busy sponsoring foreign expeditions to Siachen, something that ‘Bull’ brought to the notice of the Army headquarters. 

American maps also showed Point NJ 9842 joining Karakoram Pass and not as agreed upon as “thence joining northwards”, that is along Saltoro ridge in the general direction of K2, the world’s second highest peak, as part of the Karachi Agreement 1949, signed by Lt Gen Shrinagesh, Maj Gen Thimayya and Brig Manekshaw – all three of whom went on to become the Chief of the Army Staff. The first two belonged to 4 Kumaon, the battalion I was commissioned into.

On August 21, 1983, Pakistan for the first time formally claimed that the terminal point of the line of control at NJ 9842 terminated at Karakoram Pass. Pakistan had in 1963 ceded Shaksgam Valley (5,163 sq km) adjoining east of Siachen, to China, which is west of the Karakoram Pass and bounded by K2 peak to the south. Incidentally, in February this year, China reportedly completed construction of 70 km of metalled road in Shaksgam Valley.

After we had de-inducted our troops in 1983, it was reported that a Pakistan SSG (Special Service Group) team had crossed into Siachen. Unable to sustain the harshness of the terrain, the Pakistani team de-inducted, and it was then crucial who would induct first in 1984 and occupy the crucial passes of Bilafond La and Sia La.

Pervez Musharraf, in his book ‘In the Line of Fire’, later admitted that Pakistan’s proposed induction on May 1, 1984 was a mistake and that India’s decision to occupy Saltoro passes on April 13 was the “key decision”. Having failed to dislodge the Indian Army from Saltoro ridge and the humiliation suffered by Musharraf as commander of SSG in his defeat after defeat to gain control of Siachen led to his planning, as Chief of the Army Staff, in 1999, the “Kargil conflict”.

To occupy and overcome the harsh terrain conditions, it was important that we use our experience of operating on glacier to our advantage. All the troops earmarked for ‘Operation Meghdoot’ were fully acclimatised to operate at 20,000 feet, and had mastered the art of ice craft and walking on the glacier. ‘Pet mein roti, haath mein soti aur chaal chhoti (Eat well, walk with a stick and take small steps)’ – this is the golden principle taught for operating at high altitudes, and all troops are constantly reminded not to be a “Gama in the land of Lama”. Buddy system was strictly enforced and identification of symptoms of high altitude diseases such as HAPO (high altitude pulmonary oedema), frost bite, chilblains, snow blindness, insomnia and lack of appetite was taught. Firing of weapons at that altitude, crevasse crossing drills, avalanche rescue, walking while tied to a rope, making selfcontained logistic loads and how to preserve self and equipment were constantly stressed. 

On April 12, a little before last light, the imported equipment for which Lt Gen PN Hoon, then corps commander, had gone shopping to Europe finally arrived in 

helicopters and was distributed to the Bilafond La and Sia La platoon. The day was clear and recce of the glacier revealed no movement whatsoever. On April 13, at 5.30 am, Cheetah helicopters all set to take me and my radio operator in one helicopter and lance naik Ramesh and LNk Prakash in the other, flew to heli land us on the glacier. Maj RS Sandhu, Vir Chakra (VrC) awardee company commander, along with the sector commander Brig VN Channa, blessed us on the occasion of Baisakhi, and the occupation of Siachen commenced. 

However, on approaching Bilafond La, the pilot, Wing Commander Sandhu, VrC told me to jump. He said he would not touch down as he was not sure of the surface condition, whether it was hard or soft or whether there was a crevasse below, as it was totally white. I requested him that since I had a 15-kg atta bag, we could throw that down to check the snow condition. He agreed and the throwing of the bag revealed that it was sufficiently hard and that we could jump from the helicopter. After doing so quickly we got down to creating a makeshift helipad for other helicopters to land. Soon my radio operator complained of high altitude sickness and was evacuated in the subsequent sortie – the first HAPO casualty had occurred. But within a few hours the platoon, with one person less, closed in on Bilafond La. 

The weather suddenly turned extremely hostile and the induction of troops at Sia La was postponed. We had strict directions not to open the radio set – in any case the only radio operator we had had been evacuated. The weather continued to remain extremely hostile and till April 16 it was total white-out, which made movement towards Bilafond La difficult. And to our bad luck, LNk Ramesh, who was with me in 1983 and who had volunteered to be with me in the first sortie, unfortunately became the first fatal weather casualty of Operation Meghdoot. 

Contrary to directions we had no option but to open the radio set and convey to the base that we had a fatal casualty who needed evacuation. Shortly after we switched on the radio set we spotted a Pakistani Bell helicopter hovering over Bilafond La. But seeing us perched at the glacier, the Pakistanis immediately withdrew the helicopter.

The Tricolour was hoisted at Bilafond La. Sia La came under India’s occupation on April 17, and Gyong La by May 23 that year. Pakistan is nowhere close to the 76-km long Siachen Glacier and we continue to dominate the Saltoro ridge line, where great courage and fortitude is the norm. Siachen Badge of Honour remains the most cherished possession of an Indian soldier.