In Siachen, it was not unusual to lose track of time. Amidst spells of snow storms and blizzards which could stretch up to 10 days, it didn’t matter at what pace the clock ticked. The days were defined either by weather or hostile activity.
The assigned mission was rather crisp: ‘To ensure sanctity of the Actual Ground Position Line.’ However, with deployment on forward defence line varying from 18,000 to 21,000 feet and the mercury hovering around minus 45 degrees Celsius, the challenges were enormous. Two most critical ones were: maintain moral ascendency over the adversary and keep own casualties to the minimal. Weather-related casualties being almost four times the ones attributable to enemy fire; avoiding high-altitude illness and cold injuries were the key imperatives. The crux was: ‘to stick it out and be fit to fight another day’.
When we began induction into the Northern Glacier, I, as commanding officer, sensed some degree of scepticism in certain quarters on the ability of a Jat unit to deliver in such environment, being from the plains. Soon the doubts were put to rest as the senior commanders and dignitaries found the men operating like the mountain goats, amidst fierce fire assaults, taking heavy toll of the enemy. Six months down the line, with just two casualties, the battalion went on to demolish the myth of holding Siachen being cost-prohibitive in terms of human life. As a sequel to the defence minister’s visit, the Siachen allowance was increased from ` 400 to ` 900.
Coincidentally, Sundays proved to be at odds. Starting with my own ice shelter going up in flames on the very first Sunday, twin helicopter accidents, frequent enemy’s grab actions and numerous hostile activities had a date with Sunday. September began on a dull note with weather turning extremely fowl. After a week, it was on Sunday that the sky opened up and air maintenance resumed.
In the evening, as we were planning future operations, I was informed that my father was serious. An hour later, there was call from the Base Camp breaking the news of his demise. Overpowered by deep sense of loss and intense mental agony, I decided to take a short walk. As I stepped out of my ice shelter, I saw one of my men waiting to see me. He had received intimation through a letter that his father had expired a week back and the family was awaiting his arrival for performing the last rites, he being an only son. With both my brothers abroad, my situation was no different. Together, amidst icy solitude, we shared our moment of grief.
In the battle zone, camaraderie is the hallmark. Next day, my course mate, who was commanding a helicopter unit in the sector personally flew in to pick me up, so that I could catch the courier flight to Chandigarh. I insisted that the aggrieved jawan also be taken on board, which he obliged, despite load restrictions. Soon, we were back on the line of duty to continue with our mission.
Siachen has the unique distinction of being the toughest battlefield in the world, as no other army has ever fought in such environment. Those who have slugged it out and stood their ground, unmindful of personal losses, have one common trait: indomitable spirit, far surpassing the bounds of human limits. A tragedy in Siachen brings alive the frozen moments, even quarter of century later: a mark of tribute to all those who go down in the finest traditions, leaving a legacy for posterity to emulate. The nation’s indebtedness to the bravehearts needs to transcend beyond platitudes and rhetoric.
(The writer is former army officer; currently professor and chairperson, Aligarh Muslim University)