By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch
Going by queries of media friends about how soldiers live on the Siachen glacier 32 years after India’s occupation of the Saltoro Range one is not surprised that some are so outwitted by the news of an avalanche striking Sonam post held by 19 Madras on 3 February that they suggest Indian Army (IA) should vacate the area, albeit without any inkling about the ground and its strategic significance. Incidentally, George Fernades was the only defence minister who took journalists with him on his numerous visits to the Siachen area, to bring awareness about the region, including its strategic significance and why India pre-empted Pakistani move to occupy the Saltoro Range. There are some who ask why the post was located at such place where such an avalanche could occur, again without knowing the ground realities. The post of Sonam where the avalanche occurred is an essential piece of ground which guards the approach to Bana Post (the highest on the Saltoro Range) from being cut off, Bana being the erstwhile Qaid-e-Azam post of Pakistan at a height of 6,500 metres (21,326 feet) that was captured by Indian troops in 1987 under the leadership of Honorary Captain Bana Singh who was later awarded the Param Vir Chakra.
But this is about the indomitable spirit of the Indian soldier, epitomized today by Lance Naik Hanamanthappa Koppad rescued after six days of remaining buried under 35 feet of snow in temperatures of minus 55-60 degrees centigrade, who was battling for his life in deep comma at the Army’s Research & Referral Hospital in New Delhi and has unfortunately passed away on 11 February. As the whole nation stood by him and prayers were being held all over for his recovery, providence had other plans despite the best of medical treatment provided. His rescue indeed was miraculous and the herculean rescue operation mounted by the Army itself was one of the most daunting and intricate. Sonam post has a number of Fibre Glass Huts (FGH) as also a helipad. It is at an altitude of 20,500 feet where average temperatures are about minus 25 degree centigrade by day and about minus 45 degree centigrade by night. One has had the privilege to spend a night at Sonam as a Brigade Commander during 1998-1999. The recent avalanche reportedly occurred because of part of the Bana ice wall collapsing on to the post.
The ice debris from the avalanche covered an area of 800 metre by 1,000 metre with a depth of 25 to 30 feet. Massive ice boulders, some the size of a small room, had covered the post. Most of this was blue ice, almost as hard as concrete. The Army pulled out all its stops for the rescue. A 200-man strong rescue operation was mounted round the clock with rock drills, electrical saws, radar equipment, medical teams and specialized rescue dogs Dot and Misha airlifted and pressed into round the clock operation, egged on by the weak radio signal received from the buried men on the fourth day post the avalanche. It was an operation in line with the highest traditions of the Army and its spirit of never leaving a comrade behind. Helicopter pilots of both Indian Army and Indian Air Force flew repeated sorties in highly adverse weather conditions. The rescue team worked relentlessly through snow blizzards, spine chilling cold and great personal risk of being buried under an avalanche themselves, cutting, drilling, sawing and dug through tons of ice and snow. Through night and day, six days in a row, they kept at it, throwing everything they had into it.
Chances of finding a survivor in an avalanche goes down with passage of hours but that didn’t daunt or shake the resolve of these 200-odd men. For them, percentages and probabilities did not matter. What mattered was that 10 of their own were trapped under those sheets of ice, and they had to be pulled out even if their chances of survival were being talked of in the negative. Everyone up the chain of command was involved. Then the miracle happened of pulling out Lance Naik Hanamanthappa Koppad albeit with a weak pulse, otherwise inert but fortunately without any cold exposure-related frost bite or bone injury. The balance nine of his colleagues had unfortunately passed into the annals of history, with the nation saluting them.
What prevails is the fact that officers and men of Indian Army resolutely throw themselves willingly into harm’s way, when the occasion demands it. Because they know that no matter what, their mates shall come after them if they were to fall. The logistics of supporting the 200-man rescue team itself was mammoth, where one Cheetah can carry only two kerosene jerrycans at those heights. The fuel and kerosene required to light up the area, fuel the specialized equipment and power communication equipment required scores of flying hours, for pushing in of fuel, equipment, rations, standby troops, medical support, weather warning equipment etc. Even by the most modest estimate, this translates into thousands of man-hours over a six day period. Imagine all this effort to rescue 10 men, who by every acknowledged line of reasoning stood negligible chance of survival. But that is what the Indian Army is about.
Why India occupied the dominating Saltoro Range in 1984 through a lighting helicopter-borne operation was because Pakistan was about to capture this strategic piece of ground. Musharraf rues India pre-empting the Pakistani move in his autobiography. Significantly, troops that occupied the Saltoro Range had no special clothing and no special rations as is provided presently. There were no FGH or snow scooters in those days. Most of the troops that went in for the initial occupation stayed on for more than one year. Over the years, the system has been streamlined. There is proper acclimatization at various heights along the Siachen glacier leading on to the posts on the Saltoro Range. A soldier presently does 40 days of acclimatization enroute to Tiger Saddle which is the northern-most post on the Saltoro Range. More significantly, all troops are put through a rigid pre-induction schedule under supervision of a team from the High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) before proceeding to their posts. This includes all types of ice training and dealing with emergencies. Given the difficulty of the terrain, the tenure of soldiers in the northern, central and southern glacier is three months, six months and one year respectively.
Yes, the life on the Saltoro is tough but the soldiers are prepared for it both mentally and physically. Morale is always very high. Vagaries of weather are there but there are units that have successfully completed tenures on the glacier without a single weather casualty, especially units where men have been practicing yoga. There are every day acts of heroism in dealing with blizzards, crevasses and rescuing colleagues that have fallen into crevasses, sometime while riding a snow scooter. At the same time, avalanches have been occurring periodically elsewhere in J&K particularly in Kargil Sector and along the LoC in the Kashmir Valley. Some time back entire crew of a gun position was buried in avalanche in Dras area of Kargil. Doesn’t mean we should vacate our borders.
The strategic value of the Saltoro Ridge can be gauged from repeated Pakistan attempts to capture our posts, though repulsed every time. We are in occupation of Saltoro Range because it is our territory. We can extract heavy price from Pakistani troops deployed on lower ground to the west, when required. The northern tip rests on the Shaksgam Valley (Indian Territory) that was illegally gifted by Pakistan to China in 1963. If we vacate the Siachen area, it would imply: gifting Sub Sector North (east of Siachen Glacier) to China, as positions there will become untenable; our next defence line south of the Shyok River will likely require deployment of minimum two Divisions (instead of the one Brigade on the Saltoro Ridge) at mammoth expenditure; Leh will come within enemy artillery range; through Aksai Chin China will link up with Pakistan in Gilgit-Baltistan area, enlarging the collusive China-Pakistan threat further. It will open avenues for Pakistani infiltration and terrorism into Ladakh, with reverberations through the Zanskar Range right down to Kulu-Manali in Himachal Pradesh, requiring deployment of perhaps another two Corps to control the area. Siachen Glacier also happens to be one of the largest fresh water reserves of India, vital for our precarious water situation.
Army units and pilots of both Indian Army and IAF take pride in serving on the glacier. No one has ever sought exemption from serving there. On the contrary, there have been many instances where individuals have tried to hide medical infirmities so as not lose out serving on the glacier. Troops on the glacier are a ‘band of brothers’ whose bonding cannot be understood by those who have not set foot in the area. The leadership, brotherhood and elan of troops on the glacier surpasses the icy heights. Lance Naik Hanamanthappa Koppad symbolises every individual on the glacier. That there has not been a single incident of enemy transgression testifies the resoluteness of our troops. Our citizens can sleep in peace.