Siachen, sometimes referred to as the ‘Third Pole’, is the longest glacier outside the polar region. Mapped in detail as early as 1850 by the British, soon after it was discovered by a British couple, it is a place where ‘your worst enemies and your best friends will only care to visit you’. The glacier is claimed by both India and Pakistan, though since 1987, Indian troops have been in command of the glacier by occupying almost all the dominating heights along the Saltoro ridge west of the glacier, many after fierce battles. How Siachen became the ‘world’s highest, coldest and world’s the most demanding military frontline’ is the essence of Nitin Gokhale’s meticulously compiled account of “Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga”.
The origins of India’s military initiative lie in some maps that Colonel ‘Bull’ Kumar had chanced upon with a German rafting expedition on the Indus, that showed Siachen under Pakistani control, based on a US defence mapping cartographic error. Col Kumar brought this to the attention to the army’s brass hats in Delhi. Sensing the gravity of Pakistan’s designs, the India army launched a few expeditions in the late 1970’s and in April 1984, with the government’s approval, following intelligence inputs – of large scale shopping by the Pakistanis in Europe, for mountaineering gear – India moved the first lot of troops into those freezing heights. Pakistan delayed launching its troops till May, assuming that the winter months till April were unlikely to attract to allow Indian troops in the region.
It was a folly that still rankles them till date, and is a subject of great embarrassment to the Pakistani army, which has always concealed its loss, from its own people. Benazir Bhutto had even chided the Pakistan army for being good at only fighting its own people. But in India, the significance of this enormous military victory is sadly still lost amongst India’s politico-bureaucratic elite. As General Malik notes in his foreword that India’s military gains – along the Soltoro ridge – allows it to dominate both Pakistani positions west of the ridge and overlook the Shagskam Valley, illegally ceded to China, and also block infiltration into Ladakh. How this was achieved is the focus of this book, which is liberally laced with interviews of all the key players who had planned and then executed the operations to give India complete control of the strategically located glacier.
Serving in Siachen requires ‘great courage and fortitude’ as the memorial to fallen heroes at the Siachen base camp reminds us. And even now, the logistics chain is long: for every 30 soldiers on the front there is a tail of over a 100 men that cater to their needs, as the glacier itself there are no resources, not even drinking water, despite all the snow! It is thus the longest running air operation in the history of warfare, where the gallantry of helicopter pilots and medical services is as crucial life saver for troops manning those jagged peaks at 13 to 21,000 feet. The detailed accounts of the hardships and mind boggling gallantry of Indian soldiers are all in this book. And then there is the legend of OP-Baba, a Soldier Saint, in whose memory there is an interfaith shrine, and every patrol that goes out, gives his shrine a formal ‘all ok’ report, when it returns! Laced with so many personal accounts and recalling all those forgotten heroes, Gokhale, a journalist with 30 years experience in print and television, has told it, like it deserves to be told, with honesty and respect for the deeds of valour that have few parallels in history. Those rare photographs repeatedly remind the reader that it is a place where only the bravest of the brave go, and the quality and the content of book, is hard to fault. It was a story waiting to be told, and is indeed a collector’s item.