Letter No. A/35501/XM03 dated 31 Mar 1984, and issued by the Indian Army Headquarters listed out what on paper seems pretty prosaic and fundamental objectives – “Tasks in General: Secure the Siachen glacier. Tasks in particular: Secure Bilafond La, Sia La, Siachen, Lolofond and Teram Sehar glacier. Patrol up to Indira Col. Prevent Pakistan sponsored infiltration in the area.” – unless one happens to grasp the geographical dimensions of the places mentioned in the letter.
That is exactly what Nitin Gokhale attempts to do, and comes up triumph. In his supremely well-crafted book “The Siachen Saga”, Mr. Gokhale regales his readers with the exemplary acts of courage and sacrifice executed by the Indian Army on some of the most desolate and inhospitable terrains on Planet Earth. The staid letter issued by the Army HQ signaled the beginning of “Operation Meghdoot”, which is now in its fourth successful decade. The tri colour proudly flutters at a near impossible height of 22,000 ft., maniacally protected and gently nurtured by a band of heroes, whose achievements dwarf most of what any Armed forces have been able to accomplish in a similar landscape.
The Siachen saga, began with a cartographical act of tomfoolery. As Mr. Gokhale illustrates with a mixture of humour and incredulity, a rafting expedition facilitated by Col Narinder ‘Bull’ Kumar, led to one of India’s most famous intrepid military mountaineers obtain possession of “maps that indicated ‘cartographic aggression’ by Pakistan on the Siachen glacier and the quiet alteration to the map of the Karakoram Range of mountains!” The cartographical manipulation smelt of stinking fish especially when the Col observed that the ceasefire line (commonly referred to as the Line of Control or LoC) that ended at map grid reference NJ 9842 now surprisingly had an extension up to the Karakoram Pass (north-east of NJ9842), instead of going northwards along the natural ridgeline. This clearly signaled an intent on the part of Pakistan to covertly occupy the heights of Siachen thereby rendering it an unrivaled advantage over its neighbour across the border.
Subsequent to a few ostensibly innocuous mountaineering missions bearing even more innocuous names such as Ibex I & II, Polar Bear I & II, the Indian Army finally launched Operation Meghdoot, thereby catching their Pakistani counterparts completely and conclusively off guard. As Mr. Gokhale illustrates, the loss of Siachen is a permanent rankle and an eyesore in the annals of Pakistani Military history, and multiple incursions, both suicidal and surreptitious have been attempted by the Pakistani Army at futile attempts of redemption.
The highlight of Mr. Gokhale’ s book is his interaction with the past, and present heroes of Siachen who have commanded posts at unimaginable heights and braved conditions unthinkable. This chronicling lends a degree pf perspective to the reader that is at once, profound, poignant and pertinent. For example, the litany of physical woes that a soldier is forced to endure at such rarefied heights range from the serious to the fatal. The ailments accosting a soldier include acute mountain sickness (AMS), High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPO), High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACO), snow blindness, sunburns, hypothermia, chill blains and frost bite. But as Mr. Gokhale explains, over the years the medical infrastructure, along with the logistical chains has been bolstered in an impeccable fashion. However, as one would fathom from a reading of the book, things were not always on the side of the soldier. Even worse than the vagaries of the weather were an all permeating red tapism.
The nauseating stench of bureaucracy is laid bare in its intransigent detail by Mr. Gokhale. Until the appointment of the irreverent, irascible and dynamic George Fernandes as the Minister of Defense, the troops in Siachen had to bank on the mercies of a stoic bunch of politicians and civil service personnel, who snugly ensconced within the confines of New Delhi, had no grasp whatsoever of the plight of their Army men in the Glacier. A request for the basic mode of transportation such as snow scooters was met with objections ranging from the sublime to the silly. “It first questioned the veracity of the breakdown rates, then the quality of training imparted to users, then the cost-effectiveness of the machines against porters and finally, the need to have them altogether. On one occasion, when a few snow scooters were sanctioned after some years of denial, the troops on the glacier asked that special prayers of thanks be offered to the regimental deity. The story may be apocryphal, but it shows how gallant soldiers are reduced to seeking divine intervention against insensitive official processes.”
Mr. Fernandes, popularly known as the “Siachen Minister” for his propensity to visit the Glacier (more than three dozen times), ended the bureaucratic rigmarole using an ingenious method. A method that sent a shiver running down the spine of the concerned irresponsible bureaucrat. Any one engaged or indulging in the act of procrastination would be ‘banished’ to the Glacier for a week!
Mr. Gokhale illustrates the beautiful symmetry and symbiosis between the Army and the Air Force that has allowed India to maintain its unmatched supremacy in the Siachen Glacier since Operation Meghdoot. Assisting the Army in ensuring that there is an unending stream of supplies, is a group of helicopters whose sorties are looked forward to by unbridled delight and glee by the soldiers. To paraphrase Mr. Gokhale,” The mainstay is the single engine Cheetah (successor of the Chetak helicopter), now manufactured at the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) facility in Bangalore. Originally produced in 1962 in France as Aerospatiale SA 319 Alouette III (known in India as Chetak), its upgraded version, the SA 315 B Lama began licensed production at HAL in 1971. This helicopter came to be known as Cheetah which is the mainstay of 114 HU since 1984! Although it has the ability to operate at the extreme flight envelope limit of 23,000 feet routinely, a single engine helicopter is fraught with risk in normal circumstances. In Ladakh and especially on the Siachen Glacier, the risks multiply manifold.” No wonder Leh is deemed to be the “Mecca” of helicopter flying.
Mr. Gokhale also reveals hair raising details of hand to hand combats engaged in by the Indian Army with buccaneering Pakistani invaders and capturing of various isolated posts. He also informs his readers about the convention employed by the Armed Forces in according names to the posts. The posts are named, “mostly after soldiers who ventured into the unknown and established Indian presence. So you have several posts—Ajay, Bhim-Sonam, Amar, to cite just a few—named after daring warriors) into a formidable locality.”
But many of the deeds of gallantry performed astonishingly in such a rarefied atmosphere is more often than not confined and consigned to the folklore of the Armed Forces. This is a travesty of the highest order and one that ought to be remedied post haste. It is here that the stellar efforts of the likes of Mr. Gokale will greatly aid and abet in disseminating these acts of unparalleled bravery into the mainstream. These are acts because of which India finds herself, safe, secure and sound. A classic example is the Param Vir Chakra (the nation’s epochal recognition in bravery) bestowed upon Naib Subedar Bana Singh courtesy a death defying operation termed Operation Rajib in honour of a fallen comrade. “Naib Subedar Bana Singh was awarded the Param Vir Chakra, the highest wartime gallantry medal in India, for conspicuous bravery and leadership under most adverse conditions. “Operation Rajiv” overall, resulted in the award of one MVC (for Subedar Sansar Singh), seven Vir Chakras and one Sena Medal, besides the PVC. The CO and the Commander were awarded UYSMs. 8 JAK LI and 102 Infantry Brigade had reason to be proud; very proud indeed, for their stupendous skill at arms in the toughest high altitude terrain the world has ever known so far.”
“The Siachen Saga” contains many such riveting, reinvigorating and reverberating tales of unselfish courage, uninhibited sacrifice and unparalleled demonstration of responding to calls way beyond one’s duty. This is what makes the Indian Army one of the most vaunted, revered, respected and feared in the world. More than anything else this is what makes a nation of a billion clock an incalculable debt of gratitude towards its brave hearts. A debt that can never ever be repaid.
But for the time being, the least we can do is celebrate with gay abandon the feats of these gladiators of the mountains, acknowledge their achievements and shed a tear of unbridled euphoria. If there is anything whiter than the snow even it is the conscience of these soldiers and if there is anything purer than the air at such dizzying heights, it is the unsullied soul of the man clad in high altitude gear, holding a weapon close to his chest and trying to fight off not just sleep but a temperature that is MINUS 60 DEGREES! Just so that we can sleep undisturbed.
“The Siachen Saga” is Mr. Gokhale’ s monumental and most welcome tribute to the Indian Armed Forces and must be made mandatory reading at all schools and Universities.