‘Veer Bhogya Vasundhra’, the better known amongst regimental mottos means, ‘the brave shall inherit the earth’. This slogan aptly defined the spirit of the occupation of the Saltoro Ridge by the Kumaonis in April 84 who ventured into uncharted glacial waste lands and claimed that piece of earth as their prize by the dint of their valour. This story perhaps would not have had such amomentous ending, but for a series of cumulative events and sheer providence, that changed not only the course of history but also geography. Whether the Siachen Glacier indeed is of vital strategic importance for the nation, vis a vis the cost in terms of casualties and defence expenditure is still a matter of debate among well informed military thinkers. But what is not of any dispute is the fact that human beings, especially the indomitable Indian solider can face the most unimaginable hardships and still triumph over them by sheer will power, unparalleled fortitude and sacrifice.
The Siachen story dates back to the colonial past when the India–Pak boundary got delineated in a tearing hurry, and was almost immediately violated by Pakistan. From the early sixties onwards numerous international mountaineering expeditions started coming to the Himalayas and the Siachen Glacier in search of adventure. The US mapping agency by error or by design had by early 1970 started showing the Saltoro Ridge and the 75 km long Siachen Glacier in Pakistan territory. Thus more and more mountaineers started seeking Pakistani visas and permission to explore the Siachen Glacier and venturing to its icy peaks. These expeditions were invariably accompanied by Pakistani army officers. This routine would have gone unnoticed but for two reasons. Firstly a German expedition in 1978 gave details of its incredible adventure to the glacier on a popular German TV channel in 1979, and secondly the commandant of High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) Col N Kumar himself an accomplished mountaineer also came to know of these expeditions and erroneous maps, and flagged the issue passionately to higher ups who sat up and took notice. He of course became the first Indian to travel across and map the Glacier and its three passes. It was also during this period that the first mention of the rumblings in the Himalayas and Karakoram region was published by ‘The Telegraph’ of Kolkata in 1982.
Another interesting episode triggered off a chain of events with far reaching consequences. Sometime in late 1983, a Pakistani delegation came to London with a shopping list of high end arctic equipment for the Pak Army meant for use in glaciers. By a quirk of fate the vendor supplying this equipment was also a supplier to the Indian Army . This news through our MA in London travelled to Indian Intelligence agencies. Following up on this lead and after some very good intelligence gathering efforts in Pakistan it transpired that Pak with its crack high altitude trained troops were planning to occupy the Saltoro Ridge on or around 17 Apr 1984. After due thought and hurried planning it was decided to preempt this plan. Accordingly on the auspicious day of Baiskhi that is 13 Apr 1984 , Indian Army troops of 4 Kumaon with helicopter support landed at the base of the glacier and trekked and occupied the three passes of Bilafond La ,Sia La and Gyong La much to the discomfiture of the Pakistan troop who arrived few days later and despite their onslaught held their positions.
The story has another footnote which bears recounting. In 1987 Pervez Musharraf then commander of the newly raised (With American help and training) elite commando unit SSG attacked Siachen with great ferocity. Despite severe hand to hand fighting and heavy casualties the attack failed. But Pervez Musharraf remembered this defeat. He realized too that those who occupy and hold higher ground in high altitude areas cannot be dislodged. He attempted exactly the same in Kargil area and occupied high ground and passes in Dras and Kargil surreptitiously, and tried to replicate what we had done in Siachen. But the plan did not follow the planned script; the defining difference was the unparalleled bravery and spirit of the well lead Indian soldiers, and rest is history. Thus were the seeds of Kargil misadventure sown in the wake of the defeat on the icy slopes of Siachen Glacier?
Lt Gen Sudhir Sharma,PVSM, AVSM,
YSM, VSM,(Retd) is the Chairman of
MitKat Advisory Services, India’s
leading premium risk consultancy. He
hails from the Brigade of Guards.