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Heroes on the heights

The 25th anniversary of the Siachen operations passed in silence. Manmohan Bahadur writes.

india Updated: May 22, 2012 21:03 IST

'An aerial art show pulled thousands of Washingtonians out of their offices, vehicles and homes on the morning of April 17, as the space shuttle Discovery flew atop a modified 747, the battered space veteran taking a final victory jaunt. There were costumes, there were cheers and, of course, there were tears," wrote The Washington Post. This was symbolism at its best - a tug at the nationalistic chords of a nation, so important in nation-building.

In our country, Siachen glacier operations have recently hogged media space due to the tragic loss of 135 Pakistani lives in an avalanche. We, as a nation, must remember that it's been 28 years since Op Meghdoot started on April 13, 1984 but operations on the highest battlefield in the world was launched six years prior in 1978.

This writer was a young flying officer then and saw the first expedition of the Indian Army's High Altitude Warfare School trek up the glacier to display the Indian tricolour. The IAF was tasked to support it. We flew the Chetak helicopter then, and veterans will recall how 'interesting' it would be when the pilot realised close to a landing that he had very little power left. Our oxygen system was as primitive as it could get - sucking directly from the tube, akin to taking puffs in a modern 'hookah parlour'. We could not land, as there were no helipads - so fresh rations were delivered by opening the sliding doors of the Chetak and pushing out the gunny bags. Then a thought struck: why not pick up the letters, which keeps up the morale of a soldier? Sure enough, on the next ration-dropping mission, we lowered a bag on a rope with a message that the next day their letters would be picked up in a similar manner. I vividly remember that the first time the bag came up, there were no letters in it; instead, there was a pack of eye-drops with a scrap of paper that had a message scribbled in Hindi, "Sahib hamare pas likhne ke liye kagaz nahin hai. Kripaya kuch likhne ka saman le aiye." (Sir, we do not have paper to write. Please get us some writing equipment). The red fauji inland letters were delivered on the next sortie and we made sure that their letters reached their homes.

The brave Indian jawan has held the tricolour fluttering all these decades on those dizzying heights, and helicopters and transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force have kept them supplied with sustenance through many a snowfall. The operations have become very scientific and professional, with none of the crazy things that we did in those early years. But still, the fact remains that on seeing a post on a vertical cliff at 23,000 feet called 'Bana top', one knows it could have been captured either by a crazy guy or by an Indian jawan.

The 25th anniversary of Op Meghdoot came and went on April 13, 2009, with a silence as intense as the roar of the blizzards that blow there. Only the Army and the IAF held a service at the Siachen Memorial at the Base Camp. The memorial has a banner that says, "Quartered in snow, silent to remain, when the bugle calls they will rise and march again." Stephen Cohen may have equated the Siachen conflict to two bald men fighting over a comb. But if the head is Indian, albeit bald, we still have a duty to protect our interests - that's what nation-building is all about.

Manmohan Bahadur is a serving air-vice marshal of the Indian Air Force.

The views expressed by the author are personal