Lance Naik Hanumanthappa of 19 Madras Regiment passed away this morning. In life, he allowed us to believe in miracles. In death, he became the symbol of sacrifice in Siachen. His rescue will go down as an incredible effort by soldiers, air warriors, engineers, mountaineers and doctors to save a man who had used his training & survival instincts to dodge death. It inspires hope even in tragedy and tremendous respect for every man or woman who has ever volunteered to serve on the Siachen glacier.
|Patrol at a forward post|
We were lucky to have spent some time in the company of some of these men and women, way back in 2006. This was during our filming at the Siachen base camp and various forward posts for Times Now's flagship weekend show 'Line of Duty', where we were practically lived a military junkie's dream capturing life along India's frontlines for over 3 years.
|Driving from Leh to Siachen via Khardungla Pass with Military Analyst & LOD Anchor Maroof Raza|
We were in Siachen for close to 10 days - the world's highest battlefield to explore the extraordinary compulsions that has led to the conflict being described as one 'that is too painful to continue and too meaningful to end'. As we drove down from Leh to the Siachen base camp, via the Shyok-Nubra valley, I felt as though as we had been transported to an almost ethereal world.
|Driving along the Shyok-Nubra Valley|
I don't think I have ever seen a place that is as stunning or surreal as the Siachen glacier. It was tough to imagine that this paradise that can turn into hell. That this was the highest combat theatre on earth. Nothing prepared us for the experience that was about to follow - to witness the super-human effort taken to be a soldier in Siachen. And to think that everyone there was a volunteer. This was real High Altitude Warfare - on a 50 square mile war zone, slit by a 76 km river, of slow moving ice, slithering down, like a giant white tongue!
|Aerial view of the Siachen Glacier|
|Aerial view of the Glacier|
I thought I would share some excerpts from our script, still so relevant -
History of the Conflict
NJ9842 - an innocuous little map point on the 1949 agreement turned out to be the most controversial co-ordinate in the history of the Siachen conflict. All because of 5 ambiguous words, ‘thence north onto the glacier’ - a phrase used to describe the ceasefire line between India & Pakistan beyond this point. Pakistan believes the line extends from NJ 9842 to the Karokoram pass, while India maintains the LOC moves along the Saltoro ridge from NJ9842 to Indira Col. Taking advantage of this ambiguity, Pakistan began allowing expeditions & reconnaissance exercises to the glacier. Such cartographic aggression on this remote, unmarked territory by Pakistan in the late 70’s & early 80’s forced the Indian armed forces to make a pre-emptive move into Siachen. Thus began Operation Meghdoot on 13th April, 1984. Within days, Pakistani forces moved in to gain control, but too bad, the heights were already taken! Since then, both countries have established anything between 120 & 150 outposts on the glacier. However, even today, the locations, routes, access and even names of some of these posts are a closely guarded secret.
|Screen Grab of the Map from Line of Duty|
International military analysts have always believed that it has been advantage India in this 32 year old conflict, almost a stalemate now – the Pakistanis cannot climb up & approach the glacier while the Indian troops cannot come down. This protracted saga has seen both countries lock horns to gain Actual Ground Positions on barren icy heights that easily tower over 20,000 ft.
|Aerial View of the Glacier|
Soldiering in Siachen
The battle on the roof of the world is therefore fought by part soldiers part mountaineers. Because, if they’re not firing at the enemy, they’re battling cryogenic temperatures, avalanches, bottomless crevasses & the sheer incline of ice cliffs. It’s a place where even 20 small steps can get the heart and lungs to work overtime, making soldiering difficult business.
And so, ceasefire or not, soldiering continues. Daily patrols are a must, if not for surveillance, just to tread on trodden tracks so that the trail does not disappear. It’s about maintaining good rope discipline - walking in columns of five, tied to a single rope. It’s about being sure of every step, so that the next one is not a tumble into a bottomless crevasse. It’s about surviving avalanches, where walls of ice, snow, mud, stone & shattered rocks come sliding down a steep gradient, swallowing everything in its path. Because soldiering on the glacier is not just dodging enemy bullets, it’s also about surviving elemental forces."
|Ceasefire or not, soldiering continues|
The Faith of OP Baba
Technology may be a force multiplier in Siachen but the real driving force is the faith that goes beyond science. Here soldiering is a religion and heroic soldiers are no less than demi-Gods. One such tale is that of that of OP BABA, a Subedaar who is believed to have single-handedly defended a high Indian post. He subsequently disappeared. Legend goes that the spirit of the Baba cautions soldiers of looming avalanches & other calamities. There’s an uncanny superstition about the temple drill - and the patrol leader religiously offers a daily patrol report of his men to OP Baba at his shrine, irrespective of the religion of the soldiers.
|At a Forward Post with Srini|
This is the land where only your best friends or your worst enemies visit you
The Siachen glacier maybe a strategic acquisition but as an old Ladaki saying goes, it still is the land where only your best friends or your worst enemies visit you. At -50C, where even an orange is as hard as a baseball and at over 20,000 ft where oxygen is rarefied, the human body is tested. Soldiers can’t sleep, lose appetite, some even complain of partial memory loss. Sweat here can be a dangerous enemy, because when it turns into ice, frostbite can set in. Touching a gun barrel with bare hands too can prove fatal. But the two most serious killers here are - high altitude pulmonary edema & the high altitude cerebral edema, where body fluids accumulate in the lungs and the brain respectively.
This is why after a hard day’s patrol, the hand and feet drill is a must. This is when the limbs are closely scrutinized for frost bites and then soaked in warm, saline water. It may look like a semi-social get-together, but it’s just the army’s way of mixing business with pleasure.
|Srini getting into the Siachen gear|
|Inside the Cheetah|
|We could barely walk in this gear... imagine what the soldiers have to deal with!|
The Air-buses of Siachen
While good war tactics say ‘higher is better', war logistics maintain that ‘higher is harder to re-supply'. That’s the paradox in Siachen. But this has been overcome by the Indian Air Force and the Army aviation pilots providing air logistical support. Preparations for these daily missions begin well before dawn at the base camp, so that maximum numbers of sorties are achieved. From first light to early dusk, the rotors keep churning sortie after sortie, ferrying men and materials to forward Saltoro posts as high as 20,000 ft from the Siachen basecamp. Without this air support for troop maintenance & casualty evacuation, Siachen would have long been a lost battle for India.
|Siachen Base Camp Helipad - as an MI17 prepares to take off|
Choppers like the Cheetah & the MI 17 serve as air buses on this road-less ice tract that stretches over two trillion cubic feet of ice. They may look like tiny green dragon flies against the gigantic peaks, but they’re the lifeline of the glacier - carrying almost anything, from monthly rations of rice & kerosene & instant noodles to larger operational requirements like weapons, ammunitions, fibre-glass igloos and ofcourse rescue/evacuation operations. It's a strategic nexus for the longest running & most demanding military air operation ever. And though every operation is well fraught with risks, these air warriors are 'Aapatsu Mitrum' or 'A friend to those in distress'.
|With the Siachen Pioneers|
|The first Indian flag hoisted on Pak soil - at the 10 Dogras mess, Siachen Base Camp|
There's a view that the Siachen glacier will be converted into a peace park. But the military in particular and the establishment in general is wary of Pakistan's intentions after the experience of Kargil. And until an agreement is reached over the Siachen dispute, many more good men will fall in the line of duty.
Quartered in snow
Silent to remain
When the bugle calls
They shall rise and march again
You can watch the Line of Duty Episodes here -