For a brief moment this week, a natural disaster on the world’s highest battleground achieved the seemingly impossible: It united an otherwise fractious country.
Five days after an avalanche buried an army post at 19,600 feet at the Siachen Glacier, Lance Naik Hanumanthappa Koppad clung to life and taught us the meaning of grit. When they found him, saved by an air-pocket, he was drowsy, disoriented, dehydrated — but conscious.
For another three days he held on to life. The bodies of nine of his colleagues were left up at the glacier where the weather has, as yet, thwarted human effort to bring them home.
An unknown number of ordinary Indians prayed, in schools, in temples, at homes. A housewife from Lakhimpur Kheri offered her kidney. A retired CRPF jawan said he was willing to donate any organ.
The sparring that now characterises much of our public discourse was largely missing. Yes, some muted criticism on whether the media should have left the family alone. Others wondered whether India ought to rethink its Siachen strategy, given its human cost. But overwhelmingly there was just one emotion, and it was hope.
When he died on Thursday morning, there was a spontaneous outpouring of grief. Braveheart and Siachen Hero were the more common honorifics on Twitter.
Yet, most of us would be hard-pressed to name the nine others from the 19 Madras Regiment who died in the same avalanche. Or know that 878 have already died there in the past 30-odd years, slayed by an enemy called the weather. Or understand what it’s like to serve in conditions where the mere act of breathing becomes a challenge and where soldiers walk tied to each other by rope so that if one falls into a crevasse, the others might be able to stop a free-fall into a bottomless death.
Why did this one death on a glacier move us so?
Partly it was because of its immediacy. This is the first Siachen disaster covered so extensively by live TV: Photographs of the rescue, sound-bites from Hanumanthappa’s mother and wife, medical updates, tributes at Delhi’s Brar Square and his funeral at his village. Ironically, the disaster and its aftermath has for the first time also resulted in creating an awareness about the hardships undertaken by our soldiers who serve there.
But partly it was also the primordial drama of the story: Human resolve versus nature’s caprice. A soldier is buried alive under 35 feet, survives through some unknowable combination of fortitude and luck, and is saved in a stunningly heroic mission involving 150 soldiers, 300 sorties and two dogs, only to finally die in hospital. It brought to mind that other great mission — though that one ended happily — involving 33 Chilean miners buried alive for 69 days in 2010.
But mainly, the Hanumanthappa story plays out at a time when few ideas unite us as a nation. An unseemly political tussle has broken out over David Headley’s testimony. Universities are turning into battlegrounds of ideology, Left versus Right. The horrors of caste-based discrimination are emerging as India’s most shameful and enduring legacy nearly 70 years after Independence. The sleazy impunity of former TERI director general RK Pachauri sends out a depressing message to working women.
And, then, in the midst of all this, comes a story of daring, rescue, and endeavour. It offers us a pause from the unceasing cacophony that surrounds us, reminding us of our better selves, of how some things are worth fighting for and how some things must remain inviolate, undisputed, free of the taint of controversy or contention.
Watching the tributes in Brar Square to the haunting strains of the last post, in the presence of the three army chiefs, the political leadership of bitter rivals, the BJP, Congress and AAP and in the presence of ordinary Indians, many who serve and many others who watched from home on their TV sets, I thought about what we had lost: A soldier up on the glacier. But also perhaps who we once were as a nation, united in optimism and idealism.