NJ 9842 and thence north to the glaciers, a fragmentary diplomatic heritage from the 1972 Shimla Agreement left a lot of work for the Infantryman. A vast expanse of frozen solitude of no material value to man or beast yet the infantry soldier stands vigil in terrain and weather beyond the realm of imagination of our countrymen. To what purpose one may ask? To preserve the nation’s territorial integrity and uphold our national pride would be the stoic soldier’s response.
The Siachen Glacier gets it’s name from an amalgamation of two Balti words, Sia – meaning the Wild Roses which grow in the Nubra Valley and Chun – meaning an object found in abundance. Thus, lands with an Abundance of Roses, yet ironically the two nations have not been able to find peace in this region. The opposing Infantry occupies glaciated peaks making it the world’s highest battle field.
The Siachen Glacier located between the Great Karakoram and the Saltoro Ridge originates at Indra Col, the Northern Tip of Indian soil and drains into the Nubra Valley along the ancient Silk Route. The crests of the Saltoro Ridge, NJ 9842 being a geographical reference point on this ridge, vary between 5,450 to 7,720 metres (17,880 to 25,330 feet). In this part of the world passes hold the key, the important ones from North to South being the Sia La at 5,589 metres (18,336 feet), Bilafond La at 5,450 metres (17,880 feet), and Gyong La at 5,689 metres (18,665 feet). The average winter snowfall is 10.5 metres and temperatures can dip to −50 C, with wind speeds of almost a 100 kmph, the wind chill factor further plunges the mercury. It is over this peace of desolate and perilous wilderness; the Siachen Glacier system with its tributary glaciers covering approximately 700 square kilometers that India and Pakistan are engaged in an isolated war over the last 30 years.
The conflict officially started in April 1984 with both sides vying to occupy the heights along the Saltoro. The opposing Infantry trudged across the crevassed glacier, scaling near vertical cliffs and ice walls to establish precariously perched shelters on razor sharp ridges. It is under this vast expanse of snow and ice that many a brave soldier lies entombed, from both sides, waiting for millennia of snow to melt before they can be reached.
It is 2 AM and a not so pleasant shout of ‘Bed Tea’ jolts you out of a fatigued slumber at the Transit Camp in Chandigarh. It’s time to get dressed for a journey to Thoise on the IL-76 (the carrier aircraft of Indian Air Force). The altitude and the temperature during the day dictate completion of flying operations in the wee hours of the morning, the weather GODS permitting or you wake up at 2 AM again the next day and pray for clear weather. The less fortunate take the long journey by road via Manali – Rohtang – Leh – Khardung La – Partapur over a potholed, avalanche prone, ice covered road which takes six nerve wrecking days. A lot of people like to believe that across Khardung La near Partapur lies the Siachen Glacier, the journey has just started is what an Infantryman would cheerfully say. Getting there is an arduous task and takes more than a month’s preparation and going through the challenging paces of mountaineering training and snow and ice craft to prepare the soldiers to face these elements of the Mother Nature.
Residing With the GODS
If you thought the climax of the movie ‘Welcome’ was nerve wrecking and bone chilling, imagine 10 men sharing a small claustrophobic fibre hut measuring 10 feet by 10 feet half suspended at 21,000 feet secured by ropes on anchors in the ice which have to be shifted as the ice shifts. If you don’t like the accommodation you could shift to an ice cave and go back a few thousand years in time. That’s the least that the soldiers have to worry about. The Infantryman does not mind the cold either; he feels it because he is alive, he is ever grateful to the GOD for allowing him to feel alive. He adjusts to the rarefied atmosphere by walking slower and stopping every few steps to catch his breath even if it means baking his skin under a furious sun and a high dose of ultraviolet radiation.
What worries him is the treachery and deception of the terrain and the enemy. The breath taking view and the blanket of snow which covers everything as far as the eye can see hide the true character, difficulties and challenges that the terrain presents.
It deceivingly hides the crevasses waiting to swallow the unsuspecting, the overhangs waiting to give way under you, the ice walls waiting to crumble on you, an unbroken wall of pinnacles and the perfect ski slope turns into a devastating avalanche in the blink of an eye which can obliterate the entire post, blizzards can last 20 days and winds reach speeds of 125 miles per hour taking the mercury further South. Add to this the ever present and vigilant enemy waiting for an opportunity to pound you with every weapon at his disposal.
The conditions also bring about mutual respect between the two sides which only soldiers in combat can exhibit and appreciate, small gestures like holding fire during evacuation of casualties, not sniping when the GODS have not been too kind to a locality, guiding the enemy to locate his casualties, celebrating cricket and greetings on festivals, the courtesies of war being done with its back to surviving the moment from the enemy, weather and terrain.
Long periods of isolation in this inhospitable terrain, interrupted by a few moments of telephonic conversation with your near and dear ones, a few hours of satellite TV, provided the generators work, surviving on frozen food (your wife could kill you with the frozen tomatoes), water from melted ice, choking on kerosene fumes as you try to keep warm, frozen Intravenous (IV) fluids as the doctor tries to revive a patient are but a few of the inconveniences that the Infantry Soldier bears for a period of 120 to 270 days at a stretch. The conditions would drive a lesser man crazy but the Infantry man perseveres because integrity of the nation is at stake. Over the years the Infantry has brought method to this madness and learnt to overcome the terrain, the weather and of course the enemy. Some may draw parallels to mountaineering expeditions in similar or more difficult terrain, but the expeditions have the luxury to choose the timing, the route the equipment they carry, the duration at the summit and above all the option to call it off. Siachen soldiers do not have this luxury; they have a task to accomplish which has to be done whatever the cost. The nation counts on the Infantrymen and they deliver.
The deliverance has taken its toll and we have lost more than 2000 soldiers to the enemy and the elements. It costs the country more than three crores a day to sustain operations in this sector. Men and materials both work at reduced efficiency, wear out faster and leave a part of their body and soul behind. No soldier has gone South of Khardung La the same when he arrived here for his tour of duty. Some lose their hair, some a limb, few carry a lifelong illness and few never go back their body and soul lie somewhere in the glacier.
There have been many a feat of valour and glory in the Indian Army, but the capture of the highest military post in the world, the Pakistani Qaid Post (renamed Bana Top by the Indian Army) by Sub Bana Singh under leadership of Maj Virender Singh of 8 Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry is testimony to the sheer grit and determination of the Infantry Soldier.
Return to Civilisation
An arduous tenure over and behind, the soldier looks forward to take a breath of oxygen rich air but before he returns to his loved ones he takes a moment at the shrine of OP BABA, the guardian angel of all soldiers at the Glacier, to thank him for his safe return.
The last stop is at the War Memorial to pay his respects and gratitude to his fallen brethren to whom he owes his life and his glory. But for all the hazards the Siachen Glacier is worth fighting for and the Infantry takes pride in serving here and defending it. It brings out the essence of soldiering.
It is in this difficult terrain that the Infantryman true to his reputation holds ground against all odds, facing both the enemy and the elements. As he rises to meet the challenge to fight for survival every day he also dominates the area to achieve total military ascendancy, pushing the limits of human endurance beyond the edge. That is the spirit of “SIACHEN SOLDIER”
Colonel H S Burn of JAK LI wrote
this poignant story for the Special issue
of Salute on Indian Infantry