Lachhman Dass was barely 22 when he faced formidable military challenges on the planet’s most unforgiving battlefield as a member of a hand-picked assault team assigned to capture the highest post on the Siachen glacier in June 1987.
The team’s last serving soldier that carried out the dangerous mission against an enemy firmly ensconced in those heights will hang up his boots in April, bringing down the curtains on a magnificent chapter in India’s military history.
The death of 10 soldiers killed in an avalanche at Siachen’s 19,600-ft Sonam post last week has turned the spotlight back on the glacier and the hardships faced by the men defending it, aware of death lurking at every step.
“There’s no guarantee you will come back alive. Soldiers have to endure an endless cycle of extreme conditions. But the job has to be done and we will do it no matter what the cost,” says Subedar Major and Honorary Captain Dass, who was awarded a Vir Chakra for capturing Pakistan’s Quaid post.
Dass is from 8 Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry, a battalion designated as Bravest of the Brave for winning two highest gallantry awards.
He gets goosebumps when he strings together the events that led to the capture of the Pakistani post perched at a height of 21,153 feet, a vantage position in the western Himalayas from where Indian military activity could be easily monitored.
Several attempts to take the post had failed, the battalion suffered casualties, guns were frozen and soldiers deployed along the icy peaks were frostbitten.
“It was a scene from hell. We were fighting for our own survival and the enemy was holding high ground,” says Dass, who was part of one of the four teams that were formed to mount the final assault on June 24. The next 72 hours saw the battalion’s finest fighting men, including the legendary Bana Singh who was awarded the Param Vir Chakra, stretched to their limit.
Bana Singh, after whom the Quaid post was renamed, and Dass were in the same team. They used a rope to climb an ice wall standing more than 1,200 feet to get near the enemy.
“There was only one approach to get closer to the post. Even a handful of soldiers at those dominating heights can hold out against an attack by 100 soldiers. We knew we had to produce a miracle,” he says.
Sonam and Amar posts were providing them cover fire but the soldiers went without food and sleep for three days before they crept up on the enemy bunker and lobbed grenades, killing eight Pakistani soldiers.
In 1987, soldiers deployed on the glacier received an avalanche allowance of a mere Rs 100 a month. The Seventh Pay Commission report has raised their hardship allowance from Rs 14,000 to Rs 21,000 and for officers from Rs 21,000 to Rs 31,500. However, bureaucrats will receive Rs 55,000 to Rs 75,000 a month as tough area allowance for serving in places like Leh and Guwahati, an anomaly that the three service chiefs have taken up with the government.