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Surprise and coincidence, the operation to occupy Siachen had it all

In 1983, the Pakistan army tried to occupy Siachen, but its troops could not stand the inclement weather and retreated.

chandigarh Updated: Dec 10, 2017 12:35 IST
Mukesh Rawat
Mukesh Rawat
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Military literature festival,Siachen,Kunal Verma
From left: Lt Gen Sanjay Kulkarni, Rahul Bedi and Shiv Kunal Verma during a session on ‘Siachen - the ongoing conflict’ at the Military Literature Festival in Chandigarh on Saturday.(Anil Dayal/HT)

History, unlike most academic disciplines, is prickled with the needles of uncertainties, surprises and happenstance. When it comes to the military, these can have long-term strategic implications.

The story of the Siachen conflict is no exception to this.

The first time when Indian forces realised that Pakistan, with the help of the United States of America, was planning something around Siachen, was because of a chance discovery of some maps of the area from some foreign tourists who were exploring the region for trekking.

Speaking at the Military Literature Festival, Kunal Verma, author of the book ‘The Long Road to Siachen’, said, “When military officials analysed the maps, it was found that the US had drawn a line which would virtually hand over Siachen glacier to Pakistan.”

It is only after these maps were discovered, coupled with noticing some ground presence of the Pakistan Army in the early 1980s, that India became serious about occupying the glacier. A mad race between the two neighbours followed suit.

When luck smiled

If discovering Pakistan’s ploy was coincidental, the story of how India reached first on the glacier to occupy it, is no less interesting.

Lt Gen Sanjay Kulkarni (retd) was one of the officers to be part of the first team to occupy the glacier in 1984.

Speaking during the session on ‘Siachen - the ongoing conflict’, he said, “From 1981 onwards, the army had started sending small patrolling parties in the area. Pakistani forces were doing this for long and were even granting permissions to foreign expeditions to visit the glacier. But we were unaware of this.”

In 1983, the Pakistan army tried to occupy it, but its troops could not stand the inclement weather and retreated.

Later when April 13, 1984, was chosen as the day for the operation to claim and occupy Siachen, some raised doubts that the 13th is an inauspicious day. “But we moved ahead with the plan by telling ourselves that it is also the day when Baisakhi is celebrated,” Lt Gen Kulkarni said.

However, occupying the glacier required specialised high-altitude gears which had to be purchased from Europe. Till then, Indian troops had just visited the glacier but not occupied it.

In January 1984, when Indian officials visited markets in Europe to purchase the equipment, they found that all of them, across European markets, had already been purchased. The intelligence revealed that Pakistan had purchased them in advance. This, as per Lt Gen Kulkarni, was the first concrete proof that Pakistan was planning an expedition to Siachen.

The Pakistan Army decided to launch an operation in the first week of March. But this was postponed to May 1, 1984, because senior officers felt that the weather was too harsh in March for troops to stay there and occupy it.

“We had no clue about all this. We were unaware that Pakistan was planning an expedition in March and that it has been postponed to May 1,” said Lt Gen Kulkarni.

As luck would have it, the army was successful in arranging the high-altitude gear just in time and they were flown to the base camp by the air force a day before the operation.

On April 13, 1984, the Indian Army successfully occupied the glacier and the rest is history. The 17-day advantage made all the difference in the lofty peaks as the army continues to dominate positions in Siachen.

History, of course, could have been otherwise if such coincidences had never occurred.

First Published: Dec 09, 2017 21:43 IST