In June 1989, I was posted to the High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) in Gulmarg as an instructor and served there for two years in a very challenging environment. Just a few years earlier, in 1984, the Indian Army had occupied the Saltoro Ridge in an amazing preemptive move, which gave India control over the Siachen Glacier. This flowed from attempts by Pakistan to alter the status quo in the area through cartographic aggression. As is well known, the Cease Fire Line (CFL) drawn up between India and Pakistan following the Karachi Agreement of 1948 was demarcated upto map grid reference NJ 9842. From here, as per the wording of the Agreement, the CFL was to proceed ‘Northwards on to the Glaciers’. Though not explicitly stated, this was presumed to be the Saltoro Ridge, which ran Northwards up to Indira Col and thence on to the Shakshgam Valley. Sometime in the late seventies/ early eighties, Pakistani maps began to show the CFL as extending from NJ9842, North-Eastwards towards the Karakoram Pass. Pakistan also started giving permission to foreign mountaineering expeditions to go to these areas. Indian intelligence agencies also came to know that Pakistan was attempting to occupy the Saltoro Ridge in an operation code named “Ababeel”. As a counter, India launched “Operation Meghdoot” and occupied the heights on Saltoro Ridge before the Pakistanis could do so. This gave India control over the Siachen Glacier
I vividly remember an interaction with the then Deputy Commandant, HAWS, Col (later Brig.) Pushkar Chand, where he told us how he and his team set out to accomplish the assigned task to occupy the Saltoro Ridge. It was a race against time and weather, and he was given no time to prepare. The task force consisted of troops from Ladakh Scouts, Kumaon Regiment and Special Frontier Force. A seasoned mountaineer and experienced soldier, Col Pushkar Chand, knew that every patrol had to be led by an officer. Therefore, as the existing strength of officers with the companies was inadequate, volunteer young officers from Northern Command and from other commands were selected under High Risk Mission, because the enemy here was not only the Pakistan Army but also extremely tough terrain and freezing weather conditions. Troops then had very limited glacier clothing so old pattern extreme cold climate clothing (ECC) was issued to these men. The task was to occupy Saltoro Ridge before the Pakistani Army could do so. From the Pakistani side, this task had been given to its special forces. From the Indian side, teams were distributed and Partapur became the centre of activity. Troops started moving forward and small teams were constituted to reach the Saltoro Ridge fastest and earliest. In spite of the long arduous route, the gritty young officers led the troops to the highest battle ground on earth – and occupied the passes and critical heights on Saltoro, preempting the Pakistan Army by a mere three days. This singular act redefined the limits of human endeavour, gave a new definition of bravery under extreme terrain and climatic conditions and redrew the Line of Control, which in this area henceforth came to be known as the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). Never before was such an operation conducted – and perhaps never in future too, will such a war ever be fought in the history of mankind. To reach those forbidding heights was by itself a great feat of mountaineering, to be undertaken only by the best mountaineers of the world. To live there was unimaginable. Yet, the Indian army did that and more – truly an unforgettable experience of life. Havildar Sonam had much to do with the successful accomplishment of this mission, but I did not know that when I was posted to HAWS.
One of my duties at HAWS was to oversee the running of the student officer’s mess as the mess secretary. That was when I came in contact with Sonam, who at that time had been posted to HAWs as the administrative non commissioned officer (Adm NCO) and it was Sonam’s job to run the student officer’s mess. His inability to properly supervise the mess and manage the budget led to financial losses which both he and I had to make good from our pockets. This annoyed me no end and I decided to take up the matter with the Deputy Commandant, Col Pushkar Chand. I wanted Sonam sacked for his lack of ability in accounting of rations and managing the budget. Col Chand was none too pleased with this state of affairs and directed me to get this NCO to his office. Finally, I thought, this matter will be resolved. It was settled, but hardly in the manner that I thought it would be.
When Sonam entered the Deputy Commandants office, The Colonel’s anger changed to an expression of amazement. He got up from his chair and clasped Sonam in a warm embrace. Then looking Sonam in the eye, he scolded him. “Did you not know that I was the Deputy Commandant? Why have you not come to meet me”? Sonam simply smiled and did not utter a word. That was the end of my complaint and then the Deputy Commandant introduced Sonam to me.
“Sonam is a legend”, he said and then filled me up with a bit of history of which I was not aware. When “Operation Meghdoot” was launched in 1984, Havildar Sonam was part of a patrol that had an officer as a patrol leader. During the approach march to the given location, the patrol leader fell in a crevasse and was badly injured. In those icy conditions, such injuries prove fatal if the person is not quickly evacuated. As helicopters were not available for evacuation, Col Pushkar Chand ordered the patrol be split in two. One group was to evacuate the injured officer. The second group, under Hav. Sonam was to continue with the mission.
Sonam, a gritty Nunu (Ladakhi soldier), led from the front and reached the designated location. He had but a few men with him and the temperatures were sub zero. Sonam realised that the small snow tents they had were inadequate to protect them from the cold. So he had his men dig tunnels in the ice, to protect them from the windchill factor. But that was not the only challenge Sonam had to face. Soon, his small detachment came under enemy mortar fire! Movement was difficult, and Sonam could not determine where the fire was coming from, but the ice tunnels gave a level of protection, both from enemy fire as well as from the weather. However, something had to be done about the enemy firing.
Sonam, along with two of his colleagues, with the help of ropes, then worked their way to a vantage point, from where they determined where the fire was emanating from. That evening, he told Col Chand that he had spotted the mortar position of the enemy which was engaging them and requested that the enemy be engaged with own artillery fire. That posed a different predicament, because Sonam had absolutely no clue as to how to direct artillery fire on to the target. Necessity is however, the mother of invention. Col. Chand gave Sonam a few tips on what had to be done to direct artillery fire, and using that, along with his common military knowledge and judgment, Sonam was able to effectively engage the enemy position.
A larger challenge was movement. The area could be observed by the enemy, and whenever they attempted to move, they would come under enemy fire. Movement was thus restricted to hours of darkness only, to prevent observed enemy fire as also to avoid casualties due to avalanches. In those cramped and unbearably cold and harsh conditions, where each day was a challenge to survive, Sonam stayed for six months without relief. Indeed, that was a feat of superhuman endurance. That was also how the post came to be known as Sonam Post.
It so happened that when Col Pushkar Chand asked Sonam to indicate the grid reference of his post, the young gritty soldier, a master in the art of mountain warfare at those heights, had absolutely no idea how to read a map! The Colonel then joked with him over the radio. “Sonam” he said, “I am not worried if you are taken as a prisoner by the enemy, because you will reveal no information, since you know nothing. But the Colonel knew that Sonam was worth his weight in gold. He then told Sonam, “hence forth, when you give the report of your post to me you will say ‘Sonam Post OK’”. And that is how the post was named after Sonam – in honour of a great soldier.
My anger against Sonam had by now turned to deep respect. I truly was in the presence of a legend. That very evening I went to the mess and called all student officers to be present in the mess lobby. Then with great pride, I introduced Sonam to the young officers and asked them to interact with him during the course of their stay to understand the practical part of soldiering in extreme weather and terrain conditions. It is indeed an honour for a NCO to be honoured in the officer’s mess. Every student rose after I finished introducing Sonam to them and each of them came forward, to shake hands with the legend. Later, I would often see young officers surrounding Sonam and hearing his experience of Siachen. He would often say, “Sahib, Lama Guru ke Land Main Gama Nahin Banna”.
As instructors in HAWS, we were a class apart and presumably the best in this business in the world. I too was an arrogant professional and often use to challenge the limit of human endeavour. One day, while training on the glacier, Sonam saw me rushing up the ice wall during a demonstration. After the demonstration, when I was sipping tea, Sonam walked up to me. “Sahib “ he said, “don’t show your speed on the ice wall, it does not give you second chance and it also does not give you time to recover. Therefore, be like an Ibex – sure footed”. It was a lifelong lesson that I still remember. Even today I utter these words “Thank you Sonam for saving my life,” because I would have committed hara-kiri someday.
Later, Brig. Farookh Balsara, who was then the Commandant HAWS, decided to put Sonam’s portrait, in full mountaineer gear, in the officer’s mess. When this ceremony was organised the entire staff and officers including families were present. Sonam was feeling shy like a bride. Sonam, a short stocky man stood between two other legends of the Indian Army, when his portrait was unveiled. On one side was Col Pushkar Chand and on other side was Brig. Balsara. Pushkar was the first task force commander who led his troops to Siachen and Brig. Balsara was the man who led his troops to (one of finest overseas operation by Indian Armed Forces) Maldives. Sonam hung his uniform in September 1991 from HAWS. His picture in Student Officers Mess has inspired many young officers including late Major Shyamal Sinha, VrC and will continue to do so in future too.
All these memories came rushing back to me when news came in of Sonam Post coming under a wall of ice, claiming ten brave men of 19 Madras, who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty. Sonam post is one of the most critical posts on the Saltoro Ridge, lying between between Amar and Bana Post. But Sonam cannot be abandoned. Not now. Not ever. There is no option but to reoccupy the post in the near future. That is the price the nation has to pay to preserve its integrity and its way of life.
The author is a Delhi based Defence Analyst and is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.