A whirlwind is raised as a Cheetah helicopter takes off above the mountains from the helipad at Leh in Ladakh, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The deafening noise from the helicopters and airplanes never cease at this airbase.
As a result of heavy snowfall every winter, the two main roads over Zojila one from Manali and other through Srinagar/Zojila became impassable, and Leh is cut –off from the rest of the world for six months in a year.
Ladakh, which literally means “many passes”, becomes impassable during winter. However, in the most hostile environs, our helicopters must take off and land with supplies from the Leh airbase. These helicopters mean survival for the Indian Jawans. Our Air Force maintains the supplies to one of the most inhospitable war zones and the highest battleground in the world at 18,000 feet. India and Pakistan have been shelling each other every day for the past twenty years. Supplies are maintained almost entirely by an Airfleet of IL-76, AN -32 Aircraft, MI-17 and Cheetah helicopters for our brave troops serving on the Glacier.
An Officer sent twice to serve at Siachen said, that they lived cooped up behind a gun at their posts for almost four months continuously. The only form of movement is when they have to go and pick up their supplies after the air droppings.
Tinned food and chocolates are available in plenty but there is a loss in appetite.
Siachen is also the world’s highest avalanche prone area, where more lives are lost due to snow blizzards and accidents than bullets. It is connected by the world’s highest all-weather Khardungla Pass at 18,300 feet. It is the second coldest habitation in the world. Blizzards are a regular feature at 160 Km per hour. Temperatures average minus 30 degrees Celsius throughout the year.
While tourists need to acclimatize themselves by staying indoors for two days when they arrive in Leh, the Jawans returning from Siachen do not need to do this!
On Siachen Glacier, letters are delivered by military airmail and it is one of the programs that the Indian Army has implemented to ensure that the morale of the Jawans remain high, and they do not feel home-sick. Often, the wives of Senior Officers at home also write letters to the Jawans and send goodies on festivals.
Many politicians and columnists in India know nothing about Siachen. They have not even visited the Base camp. Yet, they write long comments on the security implications of Siachen… how surveillance of Aksai Chin (area illegally occupied by China) can be carried out from Siachen!!!
Very few today know the original plan and why the Indian Army was sent to Siachen in the first place. During the first few years, the Jawans volunteered to serve at Siachen, but now nobody does so. The Jawans until 1997 were sent to the Glacier when there were no monetary incentives given to them for serving at these giddy heights. The enhanced allowance later given was less than Rs.3,000 per month. Now this amount has been considerably increased. It is still not enough compensation for the high – altitude diseases that the Jawans suffer on their return. They get no awards for the affliction they suffer.
Even few people know who planned the operation for Siachen. They only ask this question, “Why have they done this to us”?
Over Rs 6 crores are spent per day on logistics for keeping the Indian Army alive on the Glacier. The money comes from the direct and indirect taxes paid by the people of the country. The question is, for how long can Pakistan and India afford to spend so much on Siachen?
Since the 1980’s I have consistently been presenting papers and writing letters to various Prime Ministers on security interests of India. Politicians in India, with a few exceptions, generally do not like to take advice from experts and professionals. Recommendations are usually ignored. Who was the brain behind Operation Meghdoot, the plan which put the Indian Army atop Siachen?
The present impasse happened because the operation was never fully implemented. A probe into the botched “Operation Meghdoot” is definitely required.
It is under such circumstances that there is today a big debate in the Country, whether it is wise for India to be spending Rs. 6 crores per day to keep Jawans positioned at these heights. The money could be better utilized to build Schools, Hospitals and carry out welfare activities for the Jawans or may be even higher pay scales for the Armed Forces.
With increasing Public opinion on the issue, India and Pakistan had to sit down for talks in 1985. In order that the talks proceeded smoothly Pak and India were ordered to cease firing at each other at least during the days of the talks. Pakistan Army however, continued shelling on the Indian side. Either the Pakistani Government did not issue any instructions to their military or the Pakistani military functioned unmindful of their Government decisions!!!
No solution seems in sight yet. Some years ago, there were reports in the media of the Indian government’s plans of reduction of troops in Siachen, possibly with the idea of eventual removal. Not everybody agrees with this.
I blame the Indian Government for having messed up on Siachen. I hold then Prime Minister Narsimha Rao responsible for Kashmir slipping out of India’s hands. As the Prime Minister he did not even visit Siachen once. On an Independence Day speech from the Ramparts of Red Fort to the Nation on August 15, he blamed Pakistan for the kidnapping of foreign tourists, while his Pakistani counterpart, Ms. Benazir Bhutto, in her speech was talking of her visit to Siachen, the difficult conditions the Pakistani soldiers living there and how she could even hear the echoes of the holy Koran at such an altitude.
Back home the Government does not have a Kashmir policy. This can be gauged by the Governments response to a clash between India and Pakistan just after the burning of the holy shrine at Charar-e-Sharief in Kashmir. A report of the clash at Siachen, where the Indian Army is said to have secured its biggest kill since, the last war between the two Countries, was suppressed on orders from the highest quarters.
This is what happened. On the night of May 16-17, 1995, nearly 200 Pakistan’s Northen Light Infantry (NLI) men backed by rangers approached Tyakshi post (on the southern fringes of Siachen) when it was covered with mist. They advanced through a narrow track leading to the post. An Indian lieutenant and a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) at the post, adopted the contingency plan which was to allow NLIsoldiers to move towards the Post. They redeployed their two mortars, which were trained on the Pakis. The JCO and his team acted as the stop. They let the Pakistanis enter the post till half way while the other half were still outside. The JCO held his fire till they were in the killing zone, The signal to open fire was to come from him. Suddenly, an avalanche of firing buried the trapped Pakistanis. Those not in the line of fire were attacked by mortars, grenades and artillery.
Nearly 50 Pakistani NLI soldiers were mowed down by our unit, about half that number fell into a crevice from where their bodies could not be recovered and another 30 wounded. White flags went up across the LOC opposite Tyakshi, signaling for permission to pick up the dead bodies which was granted.
After mishandling of the Charar-e-Sharief incident, when wide publicity of such a victory would have been good for our national morale, the Government chose to scuttle the coverage. Later, Pakistan denied the incident altogether.
Why was it necessary for India to put its Army at such high altitude? Was there any real threat? Did not India violate the Shimla agreement by crossing over the Line of Control (LOC) According to me, it is Pakistan who violated the Shimla Agreement and even laid claim to the entire glacier territory.
The Two – Nation Joint Military Commission was tasked to draw the 1972 Line of Control (LOC) from the changed 1965 cease – fire line, which terminated the LOC at a point NJ 9842 with a clause that thence the line will run Northwards, keeping the international watershed principle in mind. The two-nation military commission had not even identified NJ 9842 as they had defined it only on the map. The LOC had been just tapered off at that point. It was in the 1982’s that an Indian Survey Team identified NJ9842 from an approach from Urdolop glacier.
However by early 1980s India had enough proof of Pakistani designs. Pakistan started permitting foreign mountaineering expeditions to the glacier areas. Pakistan’s helicopters carrying Senior Officers flew over and even landed on the glacier in 1983-84.
Surely, they could not be skiing for fun!!! What was Pakistan’s design? Pakistan laid claim from NJ 9842 and wanted to extend the line North East wards and join it to the Karakoram Pass, which lies North-East and clearly is in violation of the Shimla Agreement. With the completion of the Karakoram Highway by China the road illegally built by China through the Indian territory in Aksai Chin, Indian positions were compromised. The road is like a noose around India’s neck. If the glacial heights and the passes which lie on the Soltoro range were not dominated by India, Pakistan would soon be able to threaten Nubra Valley and even Leh at any opportune time they choose by capturing the heights right upto the Khardungla Pass. Pakistan would then overlook Leh town. What more proof can there be of Pakistan’s design than the fact that it ceded more than 3’000 square kilometers of the glacier to China.
Whenever Pakistan has been asked why they ceded this territory to China, they have given no answers. During the first round of the Siachen talks held at Islamabad, in January 1986 which were led by me along with the Defence Secretary S.K. Bhatnagar, Pakistan did not even have a map of the area to which it was laying claim to. They had a hand sketch of it.
One of the reasons discussed during the talks was as to why Pakistan’s Military Commanders were making forays onto the Glacier areas since the 80’s was replied that they feared that India was keen to dominate the Karakoram Highway west of the Soltoro ridge. If I had done this, this would have been in violation of the Shimla Agreement and our the political leadership would never have allowed it. In fact the glacier region under India now, does not violate the Shimla Agreement. It runs “northwards” of the NJ 9842 point, in accordance with the Shimla Agreement and the International watershed principle.
The Incomplete Mission
April 13, 1984: Waves of helicopters carrying only two men each (due to a rarefied atmosphere) of the DOGRA and the KUMOAN Regiments landed at Siachen and secured the passes of Sia-la and Billafond-la. Simultaneously they were followed by two companies of ski troopers who were tasked to beef up the two passes and in addition secure Gyong-la. One column of troopers was directed to occupy Indira Col. They were self contained with rations and arms to last for ten days.
Some 20-30 jawans were positioned on each pass. Pakistani troops were, however, taking battle positions onto the Karakoram Highway west of the Saltaro ridge. In fact, according to me, the Pak Army wrongly judged that I would decend from the glacial heights and would go to occupy the heights which would dominate the Karakoram Highway. Whilst during the planning stage I had this very Plan in mind but after discussions with Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi it was shelved because she questioned me – “General, would you not be violating the Shimla Agreement”?. My reply to her was “Yes Madam Prime Minister, but it would be only a little northwards violation”. To this, she rebuffed “I do not want you to violate any clause of the Shimla agreement”.
On April 18, Pakistani helicopters were sighted over the passes to try and locate our positions as to whether we had started marching towards the Karakoram Highway, or we had halted on the Glacier. When I was informed about it, I as Corps Commander ordered, “Shoot them down”. There were no casualties but this was only the beginning.
I took over as Corps Commander of 15 Corps on August 3, 1983. In September-October, I briefed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi about the strategic importance of Siachen and about Pakistan’s designs to capture Khardung La, the highest motorable road in the world, and thus dominate Leh by bringing artillery, rockets etc., into the Nubra Valley – capture Leh and then link up with the Chinese at Aksai Chin.
The Prime Minister saw the design and agreed that India must clear Pakistan’s domination on the glacier if it had to secure its area of Partapur, Turtok Khardung La and safeguard the whole of Ladakh. During the briefing, Mrs. Gandhi also wanted to know whether the Aksai Chin, through which China had illegally built a road, could also be vacated by the Indian Army. I told her that there was nothing militarily impossible, but a nation had to prepare for it seriously. I also recommended that such an option could be considered and, we could now open talks with China at the diplomatic level.
At that time, I was ideally qualified to lead the operation as I had wide experience of conditions of snow at high altitudes, having been Commandant of the High Altitude Warfare School as well as training with the Swiss Army. Contrary to the general belief that operations could not be launched at such high altitudes and that they could never be sustained in such inhospitable terrain, I advised the Prime Minister, for providing the proper equipment, training and with good leadership – nothing is impossible. I was to prove it later when we consolidated all the passes from Indira Col, Sia-la, Bilafond –la and Gyong-la within a period of 10 to 15 days.
The preparation for Operation Meghdoot started long before the operation was actually launched, in November- December 1983. I was detailed by the PM to proceed on a shopping mission to Europe. The shopping did not include arms, but skis, tents, boots and other equipment for soldiers to survive at high altitude.
The equipments were purchased from Germany, Sweden, Austria and France. It was a secret mission, but from one of my experiences in Vienna I think Pakistan had got a whiff of what we were up to. A visit to a shop in Vienna was cancelled at the last minute and I was told that the equipment had been sold to a Pak-purchase team. This could, however also be because there was already a race between the two countries to dominate Siachen.
For me it was a race against time. The plan was to launch the operation during winter when Pakistan would least suspect our action and by doing this I hoped to avoid casualties on our side. All equipment purchased was specially flown into Kashmir so that soldiers could begin acclimatizing themselves with the equipment and with High Altitude Warfare techniques. The operation was finally launched on 13th April. It was still winter at Siachen.
The plan was a vertical envelopment by surprise during winter, when the passes were closed and this is what exactly happened. By April 18, we had secured control over Siachen, including Indira Col.
What prompted me to put men atop Siachen considering the logistics involved today? More than Rs. 6 crores are spent every day for Siachen, while 2000-3000 Jawans are on the glacier. As the Commander of the Operation, I wish to state that the Operation was launched after a careful logistical planning. It was never intended to lock-up such a large number of troops as have been inducted onto the glacier by our Defence experts and Military Commanders. I would call upon the Government to institute an inquiry as to how such a large number of troops are today placed on Siachen, which is not at all in accordance with “Operation Meghdoot”?
One plausible reason for this is that some Commanders believe in a “Forward Policy”, as it was done in the North-East. However, I disagree with this policy because it is my considered opinion that to defend territory we have to be on the offensive in our thinking as well as execution. To draw a line on the ground and saturate it with troops is immobility of both mind and action.
The initial plan of putting 20 to 30 men on Sia-la-Bilafond-la and Gyong –la was only an interim action. This was to be followed by the raising of a Brigade (three battalions) trained in “WHITE SHOD OPERATIONS” i.e those who would be ski-trained and hence could operate throughout the year. The Brigade was raised while I was still in Service. This was to be further made into a Division (3 Brigades of nine Battalions) and then within one or two years it was to be organized into a “STRIKE CORPS FORCE FOR WHITE SHOD OPERATIONS”. This was never carried out.
The logistics costs which are being incurred today would have been avoided, had the plan been fully implemented. The plan was to not station the Strike Force in Ladakh but elsewhere, (the advantage of this would be that the logistic support for this large force would not have been there). On the other hand, it would have been a deterrent to Pakistan. It would have the capability to strike at the underbelly of the Soltoro Range, if Pakistan dared to attack and capture one of the Passes on the Glacier. The number of soldiers actually stationed at Siachen was to have been minimal. If Pakistan did manage to capture, any post then the Strike Force would have reacted and Pakistan troops would have to either pull back or be annihilated.
At the time of launching of the Operation Meghdoot on April 13, 1984 my worst fear was a vertical aerial envelopment by Pakistan east of the glacier which could cut-off the supply route to the passes while I attacked. Luckily, this did not happen and Pakistan can now never occupy the posts since India is in a dominating position and can crush any Pak design on the glacier.
India’s plan went awry because a Division and then a Corps was raised but it was inducted into Ladakh. Due to this, troops were locked in inaccessible terrain and the logistics became a burden on the economy.
The present military position is that Pakistan has approximately one brigade strength of troops garrisoned at Dansum, Siari area and HQ at Skardu, with their Corps Headquarters (Force Command Northern Area) at Gilgit. While Sia-la and the dominating shoulders of Bilafond-la on the Soltoro and Siachen glacier are with India, Pakistan holds portions of Gyong-la glacier. In 1988 during Operation Ibex, India wrested away the southern portions of Gyong-la to improve its tactical position.
One of the failures of Operation Meghdoot was that it should have taken control of the Dansum area, which has given Pakistan the tactical advantage of having three approaches to Siachen, while India has only one route. To this I say, if we would have taken control of Dansum we would have violated the Shimla Agreement as Dansum is north-west and not north of NJ 9842. Secondly, Dansum is also situated in a valley (at 10-11,000 feet) and we would have been dominated by Pakistan unless we captured the heights west of Dansum on to the Karakoram Highway.
In the 5th round of Siachen talks, India and Pakistan almost agreed on a comprehensive settlement based on the redeployment of troops to the 1972 positions. The demand by Pakistan is not practical. Which are these positions? Will the two countries ever be able to prove these positions?
Instead, I suggest a four-point formula. First, both the sides must stop shooting at each other. Secondly, the actual ground position line (AGPL) as it is today can then be identified and the same be marked on the map. This can be exchanged for study. Thirdly, the cease-fire line must be delineated on the map and identified on the ground from NJ 9842 northwards, keeping the international watershed principle in mind. Fourthly, to then sit down and discuss the situation between India and Pakistan to reduce tension. India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharla Nehru had stated in Parliament that not an inch of Indian territory will be allowed to be taken by an aggressor. I wonder how India is today ready to barter away large areas of territory to aggressors who have no scruples. Operation Meghdoot was in accordance with what Nehru had promised the Indian Parliament.
Often described as an icy wasteland, there is a viewpoint that trying to fight for Siachen is a national waste and that India and Pakistan must avoid this eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.
Jawan’s who have spent time at Siachen say that it is no fun being there. The only form of entertainment they have is the code language that they use. They name the artillery and mortar fire after popular film actresses. Once a JCO called on his wireless, “I want Madhuri, Kajol, Sridevi and Hema five rounds rapid fire” So his Major replied , if we give all of them to you, then who do we have left for ourselves”!!
When India loses a cricket match against Pakistan it has an immediate reaction at Siachen. The shelling begins. The Pakistans shell to rejoice, the Indians to hit back.
Both India and Pakistan have their own network of spies. Like in one case near the Base Camp on the Indian side, a Captain found a house which had transmitters. The wireless set was, based in the basement of this typical Ladakhi house, while an antenna was camouflaged on the stalk of a rose tree alongside. When the Captain asked the man what this was, he replied, “I listen to All India Radio”.
Not to be fooled, a Major arrived on the scene and threatened him. The Captain again intervened and promised that if he told the truth he would not be harmed. The man fell for it and told the names of the Pakistani officials with whom he had been in touch in Turtok area.
Though Ladakh has a predominantly Buddhist and Muslim population, this spy belonged to the minority community.
Siachen literally means a “valley of roses”. But it has become a “thorn of contention” between India and Pakistan. It is an exposed raw nerve of partition.
The situation as it develops today 19 April 2012 appears to be conciliatory. General Kayani Chief of the Pakistan Army, the most powerful man in that country has appealed to India that we should settle the issue of the Siachen Glacier because of the heavy causalities as both sides are suffering and has suggested that we should sit down to talk. While I fully subscribe to his views, we must first sit down and decide the threat perceptions, which we face as a result, and then prepare a foolproof document that ensures that the true Pak intentions are fully studied before we can come to any logical conclusions. Demilitarizing the area would not be a viable solution, but a possible joint surveillance system to be worked out between Pak and India may be mooted and then discussed in the Indian Parliament after taking into confidence all the political parties.