Operation Meghdoot: Securing Siachen for India
Siachen Glacier in the Eastern Karakoram range of the Himalayas, is famously known as the ‘highest battlefield on earth’ as well as the second-longest glacier in the non-polar areas. It lies on the tri-junction shared with Pakistan-occupied areas of Jammu &Kashmir along with the Saltoro Ridge to the west and the Chinese province of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, with the Karakoram Range to the east.
The glacier starts at the northernmost demarcated point of the ceasefire line between India and Pakistan, commonly called the Line of Control, at the edge of the Union territory of Ladakh. Located at around 20,000 feet above sea level, the average snowfall in this 76-km-long glacier is around 35 feet, where temperatures can touch -70 degrees Celsius. The area had remained majorly untouched by British surveyors during their surveys, and it was not until the efforts of the Indian armed forces much later that Siachen and Nubra glaciers entered the world map.
Prelude To The Conflict
In The Hindu newspaper, journalist Dinakar Peri, in an article titled 'A Glacial Fight' (dated April 17, 2017), writes about India and Pakistan entering into a conflict for the first time after Independence in 1947-48. Despite the signing of the Instrument of Accession in 1947 between Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), Hari Singh, and the Indian government, the Pakistani side was not satisfied with the state being given to India as the Muslim population had a demographic majority in the state.
After an intense battle fought between the two countries over Kashmir in 1947-48, the United Nations intervened and the negotiations resulted in the creation of a Ceasefire Line within the state of J&K. This line, which later came to be known as the ‘Line of Control’, was mutually agreed upon up to the point on the map known as 'NJ9842'. The UN did not specify who controlled the Siachen Glacier, which lay just beyond that point, assuming that there would be no conflict over a region that was so inhospitable. Thus, the Karachi Agreement signed in 1949 left Siachen unmarked, and India has since claimed that the ceasefire line “runs north towards the glacier”.
When India went to war with the Chinese during the 1962 Sino-India War, Pakistan extended its hand of friendship to China, which shares a border with Siachen. More importantly; Pakistan claimed the ceasefire line extending from NJ9842 till the west towards Karakoram Pass, yet not towards the northern areas, as per the claim by the Indian side in the 1949 agreement. This was intercepted by the US cartographers that had now started raising the alarm among the Indian authorities.
In 1972, the Shimla Conference took place led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. After India’s victory over Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh War, the Siachen Glacier was left unmarked again, this time under an agreement known as the ‘Suchetgarh Agreement’. According to the Indian government’s interpretation, the Pakistani domain extended from Saltoro Ridge till NJ9842, whereas Pakistan claimed that its domain extended further east, to the Karakoram Pass.
The Premise For Action
In the 1970s, soon after winning the Bangladesh War, India faced an Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi. This was followed by a General Election that was won by the Morarji Desai-led Janata Party. But Desai’s government didn’t last long and Gandhi soon returned to power.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani government had started permitting mountaineering expeditions in the Siachen area where such teams included a liaison officer from their army. In 1977, the first contingent consisting of Pakistani & Japanese mountaineers along with around 1500 porters climbed Mountain K2, not far from the Siachen Glacier. In the news portal The Print, journalist Vandana Mohan, in her article titled How India Beat Pakistan To Gain Control of the World’s Highest Battlefield 34 Years Ago (April 14, 2018), a report prepared by America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which stated that Pakistan had started building its bases around the glacier to address their mountaineering and military purposes as well.
Perceiving this as a possible ploy by the Pakistanis to claim political domain over the area, the Indian government too decided to allow expeditions from their side. In 1978, the first expedition was led by the then commandant of the Gulmarg-based High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS), Col Narendra Kumar, also fondly called ‘Bull’ by his colleagues. The officers (including student officers) and instructors now started marking their presence on the glacier between 1978 and 1983.
The Danger & Confirmation
In The Indian Express, journalist Sushant Singh, in his article titled Operation Meghdoot: 34 Years Ago, How India Won Siachen (April 13, 2018), says that Col Narendra Kumar had started scaling the Indian side and mapped, photographed and took videos of the Siachen area. He informed Lt Gen (Retd) ML Chibber, the then Director of Military Operations, about the Pakistani Army allowing mountaineers to scale areas that the Indian Army had kept out of bounds even to its own soldiers. The Indian expeditions also noted that the Pakistani Air Force was carrying out sorties within that area. This fuelled doubts that India was already harbouring Pakistan’s intentions.
During his expedition, Col Narendra Kumar encountered a German mountaineering expedition, whose map showed the areas beyond NJ9842, and almost 4,000 sq km of territory around it, as Pakistani domain. This alarmed the then-Indian Army chief, General T N Raina. The Indian government thus decided to deploy Indian soldiers in the Saltoro Ridge but due to the extreme cold and inhospitable weather conditions in the region, they would be deployed only in summer.
At the same time, soldiers at the High Altitude Warfare School in Gulmarg in (J&K) were now being trained under the leadership of Col Narendra Kumar. The institute, known as the ‘Mecca of high-altitude warfare’, trains military personnel not only from India but around the world in three types of warfare; snow, mountains & winter along with winter sports too. In an interview with BBC done in 2014, Col. Narendra Kumar tells us that in early 1984, while purchasing special equipment and Arctic gear for Indian soldiers from a London-based company, the Indian authorities, including intelligence agents with the Research And Analysis Wing, were tipped off that the Pakistani government too was purchasing similar equipment for its soldiers. As a result, the Indian Army intensified its patrolling in Siachen.
In an article titled Securing The Heights: The Vertical Dimension of the Siachen Conflict Between India And Pakistan In The Eastern Karakoram, published in the journal Political Geography (Vol 48, September 2015), scholars Ravi Baghel and Marcus Nusser tell us that the Indian Army had mobilised more troops in the Siachen area by 1983 and the diplomatic verbal duel between India and Pakistan had now turned serious.
1984: The Final Action
The year 1984 has been dubbed a ‘black year’ in India’s history due to the anti-Sikh riots following the assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. But it was also the year when the Indian Army and Indian Air Force brought some cheer to India with their success in Operation Meghdoot.
In his work, Into The Untravelled Himalaya: Travels, Treks And Climbs(2005), Harish Kapadia tells us that in early 1984, a combined expedition of Japanese and Pakistani mountaineers scaled the Aksai Chin overlooking Mt Rimo I, (eastwards towards the Siachen) which is part of the disputed area between India and China. This had now fueled the Indian army now to take more decisive action.
Drawing on the title of the 4th Century CE Sanskrit play Meghdoot by Kalidasa (based on the message of love carried by a cloud to the Himalayas), the military operation named Operation Meghdoot was secretly launched under the leadership of Lt-Gen Prem Nath Hoon. In his conversation with Nitin Gokhale author of Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga (2014), Brig Vijay Channa, then the commander of 26 Sector HQ, reveals that he was asked to choose a date between 10 and 30 April for the occupation of the Saltoro Ridge. He chose 13 April, the festive day of Baisakhi, when the Pakistanis would least expect the Indian side to launch any military operation.
Meanwhile, the Indian Air Force had been deploying its aircraft, Illyushin-76, Antonov-12 and Antonov-32, to transport supplies and troops to Leh since 1978. Now the Mi-17, Mi-8 and HAL Chetak (also known as ‘Cheetah’) helicopters carried them further, towards Siachen.
During this operation, the 114 Helicopter Unit, also called the ‘Siachen Pioneers’, rose to prominence. Till then, its operations had been limited to the Ladakh region, where it had actively taken part in the 1965 and 1971 wars. Post-Operation Meghdoot, the squadron was taken over by Air Vice-Marshal (Retd) Manmohan Bahadur, also famously known as the first Indian Air Force pilot to land at Siachen. These operations paved the way for the Indian Air Force to create an airbase by the name ‘THOISE – Transit Halt Of Indian Soldiers Enroute (to Siachen)’.
The first phase of Operation Meghdoot began in March 1984, when the soldiers marched on foot on the glacier’s eastern side. The troops, consisting of soldiers belonging to the Kumaon Regiment and Ladakh Scouts, along with the task force provided by HAWS, marched through an ice-bound Zoji La Pass. The units under the command of Lt-Col D K Khanna marched without opening radio sets, to avoid interception by the Pakistanis.
The initial task was taken over by the 4th Kumaon Regiment. The first unit to take up position on the glacier was led by Major R S Sandhu. The next unit, under Captain Sanjay Kulkarni, captured Bilafond La, where the Indian tricolour was planted. This is considered a historic moment in Indian military history. The remaining forward deployment units then marched and climbed for four days under the command of Captain P V Yadav, who secured the remaining heights of the Saltoro Ridge. By the 13th of April, around 300 Indian troops had settled within the critical peaks and passes of the glacier.
To the surprise of Pakistani troops, who had managed to capture the Western Saltoro Range: under their Operation Ababeel, Indian troops were already in control of all three major mountain passes; Bilafond La, Sia La & Gyong La. By 29th May 1984, the 19th Kumaon Regiment had captured about 100 km of the Saltoro Ridgeline, where it now had Gyong-La, Indira Col and the adjoining glaciers under its control. It was the first time an Indian regiment had captured a stretch as long as this in the world’s highest battlefield.
After 3 years, in 1987, to recapture the positions held by the Indian side, the Pakistani army set up a post called ‘Quaid Post’, at 22,143 feet, and launched a series of attacks against the Indian Army. The offensive was initially led by Pervez Musharraf, then a Brigadier-General (and later Pakistani President). In retaliation, the Indian Army launched ‘Operation Rajiv’, where under the leadership of Naib Subedar Bana Singh, the post was re-captured and renamed ‘Bana Post’. For his bravery, Bana was awarded India’s top military honour, the Param Vir Chakra.
After Operation Rajiv, it was due to the skilful intervention of one of the greatest Indian Army chiefs, Gen K S Sundarji, that the ice between the two countries began to somewhat melt in Siachen. In his work, Into The Untravelled Himalaya: Travels, Treks And Climbs(2005), Harish Kapadia says
“Benazir Bhutto, who was then in opposition had marched on the streets with bangles on plates for the Pakistani generals, saying, “Wear these bangles if you can’t fight in Siachen.”
Former Indian Army Chief Gen (Retd) VP Malik, in his book Kargil: From Surprise To Victory (2006) says that Pakistan compares the loss of Siachen with its loss of Bangladesh. To this day, it claims that the conflict in 1984 had been provoked by India, which holds around 2500 sq. km. area.
A ‘Reverse’ Plan
Baghel and Nusser in their article tell us that, in 1999, Pakistan crossed the Line of Control during the peak winter season and tried to capture major positions on the glacier. This would have paved the way for them to take control of Kashmir. Despite this being in violation of the 1949 and 1972 agreements, the Pakistani Army led by General Musharraf had joined forces with Mujahideen militants in this pursuit, which later resulted in the Kargil War of 1999.
Investigations into the conflict led to a taped conversation between Musharraf and the then Northern Area Command in charge of the Pakistani Army, where they referred to the Kargil Conflict as ‘Reverse Siachen’. Here too, the Pakistani Army failed and the Kargil War was a massive success for India under the leadership of the then Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Defence Minister George Fernandes, Gen VP Malik and Air Chief Marshal AY Tipnis.
Thirty-nine years after the first Siachen conflict in 1984, the losses have been considerable for both countries, from finances to personnel. According to official records, human losses sustained by Pakistan are more than 600, where 353 soldiers lost their lives in gunfights. The Indian side has suffered more than 1,000 deaths, and only 220 soldiers died in gunfights. The rest perished due to either High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema or avalanches. Some continue to suffer from mental issues such as memory loss, acute depression and sleep deprivation, while still, others experience diminished appetite and amputations.
Journalist Rahul Bedi in his article A General Like No Other: Krishna Swamy Sundarji points out that the posts on the Indian side are at a higher altitude and thus colder than those occupied by Pakistan, where two soldiers lose their lives every day. The financial cost to both countries is also colossal, totalling around $2m per day, where each chappati (Indian flatbread) costs 80 times its regular cost. In an interview with the BBC, Col Narendra Kumar said: “With all the money we have spent in Siachen, we could have provided clean water and electricity to half of our countries!”
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