Book Excerpt: Beyond NJ9842 - The Siachen Saga

BEYOND NJ9842 : The Siachen Saga by Nitin A Gokhale
Format: Hardbound with Dust Jacket
ISBN: 978-93-84052-05-8
Pages: 300
Price: Rs 799

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“Pet mein roti, haat mein soti, chaal chhoti chhoti”

“That is the philosophy practiced by us, the Indian army soldiers deployed in the mountains and particularly in Siachen,” Sanjay Kulkarni tells me in his cosy sitting room in Leh on a lazy Sunday afternoon in October 2013. “If your stomach is well filled, if you have a stick in hand for support and if you follow the basic rule of taking tiny steps during the climb and not get rushed, you have mastered the art of survival in the mountains,” he says, explaining a routine that he and his mates have followed all their life in the army when deployed in the mountains.

I had specially flown to the capital of Ladakh to visit Siachen and more pertinently to meet Sanjay, then a Major General and the Chief of Staff or the No. 2 man in the 14 Corps, the Indian Army formation that was raised post the Kargil conflict in 1999, which has an unique task of guarding disputed borders with both India’s adversaries, China and Pakistan. In February 2014, he has been promoted to the rank of Lt. General and posted as Chief of Staff in the Kolkata-based Eastern Army Command.

The ever smiling and weather beaten Sanjay has mostly served in the mountains guarding the frontiers with China and Pakistan throughout his 35 year career in the army. Nathula, Tawang, Zakhama, Lekhapani, Leh—places in Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Assam and Ladakh, that average citizens don’t know much about. That is where he has fought, stood guard and honed his soldiering skills. Mountains are almost like home for this soldier, like many of his contemporaries and juniors commissioned in the Indian Army, post the 1971 war. Delhi, Udhampur and other ‘routine’ places are but an interregnum in between postings to these far off places.

So when young Sanjay Kulkarni finished his training in the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in 1978, he was assigned to the 4 Kumaon battalion, a unit that had in the past produced two Chiefs of the Indian Army—Gen KM Srinagesh (1955-57) and Gen KS Thimayya (1959-1962). This battalion also has the distinction of winning the first Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest gallantry award. Maj Somnath Sharma won it in 1948 for bravery in Kashmir.

But, learning the history of Kumaon regiment was far from my mind.

I was in Leh to understand the events of April 1984, when Sanjay Kulkarni as a young Captain, and his platoon of soldiers were airdropped at Bilafond La signalling the launch of Operation Meghdoot that has now lasted for three decades, and is easily India’s longest running military deployment!

Even before 4 Kumaon moved to Leh in 1982, Sanjay had already done the basic and advance mountaineering courses in the High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS). In 1981, he had in fact climbed Stok Kangri in Leh, even as Col Kumar and his team were climbing Siachen that summer.

In 1982 and 1983, 4 Kumaon was part of the Long Range Patrols (LRPs) that India sent out to the glacier in the summer months between May and August.

The unit was deployed at Turtuk, ahead of the 26 Sector HQ located at Partapur, then Commanded by Brig. Vijay Channa, a Guards Officer with the reputation of being a bold and unconventional strategist.

In 1984, the 26 Sector (equivalent to a brigade which normally has three battalions under it) was in charge of the Chorbatla-Turtuk-Tyagshi-NJ 9842 portion of the LoC but was short of one battalion. The two battalions assigned to 26 Sector were concentrated in the Turtuk-Tyagshi area. In the summer months, a contingent would carry out the LRP but would invariably return to base by the end of August, since heavy snow and dipping temperatures would make it impossible for the troops to stay on the glacier. Moreover, till then, there was no decision to permanently deploy troops at those forbidding heights.

As the army turned its attention to the glacier, all incoming units were trained in the craft of mountaineering. “All of us were made to learn ice craft, rappelling, and mountaineering before going for the LRPs. In fact, some of us also learnt skiing,” Gen Kulkarni remembers. Air support was provided by the air force helicopters. He remembers going right up to Bilafond La and Sia La during the summer deployments. The Air Force choppers used to drop soldiers at what is now known as Base Camp, and from there on the soldiers would climb to Camp I, Camp II and Camp III.  Then they would walk up to what is now known as Kumar base, named after Col Kumar. From Kumar base, patrols went to Bilafond La and Sia La. But invariably by end-August or September, the patrols would return to base, Gen Kulkarni remembers.

As 1984 dawned, training was continuing apace, but no one except very senior officers had any inkling about the plan to go and occupy Bilafond La and Sia La. Then suddenly, by March, there was feverish activity in the 26 Sector.


As Brig Channa returned from the meeting in Srinagar, he was instructed to launch the Operation only after thorough preparations. Even three decades later, he remembers the months in the run up to the launch of Operation Meghdoot. Sipping his favourite tea in a tall glass, Brig Channa, now an active senior citizen in Delhi’s Greater Kailash I locality, transports me back to those months and explains why the key to success in battle is planning and preparation.

“I would say 90 per cent of the battle is won if we are fully prepared for the task at hand. Personally, I would think that if you are administratively prepared it’s a major start. Of course, the best way is to start living, eating, sleeping day in day out about your next operation. Especially, for an operation at those heights which had never been done before. No one had fought on the glacier at altitudes in excess of 18,000 feet. No one in the world had a clue how to fight a war on the glacier. So, everything that we did had to be beyond the conventional. Everything that we did had to be innovative.

“I had a hunch that something was going to happen ‘up there’. Call it the soldier’s hunch or instinct, I had this gut feeling since taking over as Sector Commander, but more so from the end of 1983. From then on, all that we were doing was to constantly think of the possible operation. Look, I had no executive orders yet (for an operation on the glacier), but one had to be prepared. That build up in the mind was there,” he tells me and also explains why Operation Meghdoot was necessary.

“In my mind this occupation (of Saltoro ridge) was a must. Suppose whatever quantum of troops, even one company of Pakistan troops, had come in and fired on our Partapur HQ, can you imagine the reaction? It is like the whole body feeling the shock, when even a small pinprick troubles your finger. It would have been akin to that. Therefore, to my mind this occupation (of the Saltoro ridge) was a must, to prevent the Pakistanis from threatening the Nubra Valley.

“The decision wasn’t taken in haste. It was a very deliberate, conscious decision taken at the highest level. The Prime Minister was involved in it. My only regret is that they only told me to hold the crest line. They didn’t permit me to go down (towards Pakistani areas). One should have and closed the chapter once and for all. If we had gone down to Gyari, go and hold the area, you didn’t need to occupy the glacier, at all because all routes are blocked by you.  But, of course those are all bigger political decisions. I remember pressing for it, though I was a small fry in the whole game. Had we done that, today’s situation needn’t have arisen. Siachen ensures that Pakistan and China don’t link up on top of our head, but also makes sure that Pakistan alone does not create problems for us in the Nubra Valley. You have forestalled all that. Look at Siachen, look at Karakoram Pass and look at DBO,” he points at the map and explains. “As it is, Pakistan has given Shagksham Valley to China. Why do you allow the two adversaries to encircle you,” he asks. (See map)

After returning from Srinagar to his HQ in Partapur, Brig Channa got down to selecting his officers and men for the operation. Sanjay Kulkarni was asked to lead the platoon of 4 Kumaon to Bilafod La. Major AN Bahuguna (who retired as a Brigadier and now lives in Dehradun), then with Ladakh Scouts, was to go and occupy Sia La. All these troops had first concentrated at Sasoma, and later moved to Base Camp under the Task Force Commander, Lt Col Pushkar Chand.

By 11 April 1984, 19 Kumaon (from 68 brigade), the backup force for the operation concentrated at Leh. Ski troopers comprising 5 officers, 6 JCOs and 43 others from HAWS joined up with the task force at the base camp. Two Zu-23-2 guns, four grad P (multi barrel rocket launchers) and three detachments of SAM missiles were also at the base camp by then. The Air Force had positioned 6 Cheetah Helicopters under Wg Cdr GS Sandhu, and two Mi-8s under Wing Cdr KK Sangar at Thoise for the operations.

Maj Gen Shiv Sharma, GoC, 3 Infantry Division and Brig Channa’s immediate boss had by then established his tactical HQ at Partapur.

During discussions on the possible D-day and H-hour for the actual launch of the troops, there were several suggestions. Of course, the operation had to be launched in the timeframe of 10-30 April, 1984 set by the Northern Command. The final day had to be chosen by the Sector Commander, Brig Channa. He finalised 13 April. Why? Many have asked him the rationale behind choosing 13 April. So far Brig Channa has always kept mum. But talking to me in the winter of 2013, he finally revealed the reasons for deciding to launch Operation Meghdoot on 13 April 1984 although many had said the date ‘13’ could be unlucky.

WHY 13 April?

Brig Channa says:  “Well, what I say may sound controversial, but the fact is that both the Pakistani Army and us, follow the legacy left behind by the British. When the British planned, they used to be very cautious in their approach, very slow, erring on the side of caution. They were not prone to take risks. But, in such an operation I had to take a risk. And go up when they (the Pakistanis) least expected it. I was proved right.

“If you read Gen (Pervez) Musharraf’s book, he says India pre-empted us. What does it indicate? That they (the Pakistanis) were preparing to occupy those passes too. I also know that when our team went abroad to buy snow clothing, the Pakistanis were already doing so; when we were collecting quotations, they had already bought the snow suits outright!

“So it was a race against time. You see the operating season on the glacier is generally end-May/early June when they say it is comparatively safe to operate. So, one had to choose that time frame. Pakistani had much shorter distance to cover, had lesser logistical problems. I would say no more. It was one of those intuitions where I said let’s do it early.  I was asked about it. When would I like to launch? I mulled over it and thought about Baisakhi (a harvest festival observed with much fanfare in North India, and even Pakistani Punjab). Now, Baisakhi is celebrated equal fervour on both sides. People are in a joyous mood. Their guard is down. It was also the most unlikely date to launch a military operation. So there you are. 13 April it was. I would concede that it was risky. Some called it suicidal. But that is exactly why we had to do  that day. Rest is history!”

Once the date was set, Northern Command HQ was informed.

Reconnaissance of the area of operations by senior officers prior to the actual launching was considered essential. So on 12 April, Lt Gen Hoon, Air Marshal MSO Wollen, Commander-in-Chief, Western Air Command, AVM A Dayala, AVSM, VM, Air Officer Commanding of Jammu and Kashmir and Maj Gen Shiv Sharma visited the base camp, and carried out an aerial survey of Sia La and Bilafond La.

Meanwhile, a snow storm was building up. Fresh snowing had taken place in the higher reaches.

5.30 am, 13 April 1984: The first Cheetah helicopter, carrying Capt Sanjay Kulkarni and one soldier, takes off from the base camp. Then another follows. Then one more.

By noon, 17 such sorties are flown by Sqn Ldr Surinder S. Bains and Rohit Rai. Capt Sanjay Kulkarni, one JCO and 27 soldiers are heli-dropped at Bilafond La. With this


Three decades after he jumped from the Cheetah at Bilafond La, to signal the beginning of Operation Meghdoot, Gen Kulkarni vividly remembers the scene. “Four of us jumped one by one, as the first two helicopters hovered just short of Bila around 6 am that day. I remember throwing a 25 kg atta bori (gunny sack full of flour) to test the depth and hardness of the snow. It was quite hard. We jumped and then constructed a helipad of sorts to allow the latter sorties to land for half a minute or so, and then return for another trip,” he laughs and recalls now.

“The most abiding memory of that day is of course of extreme cold. It must have been minus 30 degrees celsius. We were to be deployed by ‘vertical envelopment’ (heli-dropped) at Bilafond La and another platoon led by Maj. Bahuguna was to be dropped at Sia La, but they couldn’t be sent until 17-18 April because the weather turned bad and remained bad for the next three days. Extremely bad weather.

“Within three hours of landing, we had to evacuate our radio operator, one sepoy Mandal, who suffered HAPO (High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema) despite being trained, acclimatised and being fit. So, we had a radio but no radio operator. Of course, it helped since we were supposed to maintain radio silence. So now 29 of us remained at Bilafond La. Within 48 hours, we were down to 28. Another boy died in two days. April, after all is winter on Siachen.  Of this lot, 21 of us, I remember got severe frost bites.

“All this despite the fact that all these boys had come with me to the glacier in 1983, and  were very familiar with the precautions that needed to be taken on the glacier. And this despite the fact that Gen Hoon had managed to get us imported snow clothing and equipment from abroad, just in the nick of time. I remember they arrived on 12 April evening, barely hours before we were being launched into Operation Meghdoot. Thermal coats, thermal pants, very nice balaclavas, excellent tents, ice axes, goggles, the works were bought from Europe. The weapons however remained the basic Indian Army 7.62 mm SLR. Of course, we had mortars, MMG, missiles, Grad P rockets. Some of the weapons came by air, some came through porters. I remember that at that time we were paying the porters princely sums. They were getting 50 rupees per porter per day, almost equivalent to the porter fee for expeditions to Mount Everest then. But we didn’t mind since they were all local Ladakhis.”

But, getting to Bilafond La turned out to be the easy part. As the day progressed, the “weather packed up,” as military men would say in the mountains. The visibility was down to zero, it started snowing heavily, ruling out any further helicopter sorties.

“The blizzard hit us even as the two-man tents were being set up. It was damn difficult. At that point of time, the higher authorities must have thought that this was a big mistake. We remained out of contact for three days,” Gen Kulkarni recalls.

Amidst the blizzard however, the platoon led by Capt Sanjay Kulkarni planted the first Indian flag on Bilafond La on 13 April 1984!

Operation Meghdoot was now a reality.

But the job was far from done. The other passes had to be secured before the Pakistanis took counter measures, or tried to attack the small platoon level force at Bilafond La.

Down below, at the base camp, slight recriminations had started. The Staff in Northern Command and the Military Operations Directorate were sweating. Sending troops in winter on the glacier now seemed murderous.

Remembers Brig Channa, whose final call it was to send Capt Sanjay Kulkarni and party to Bilafond La on 13 April: “There were many who stared at me with the ‘I-told-you-so’ look. But to be frank, I was still confident that the storm would pass over. And it did. Three days later.  The radio silence worked wonderfully. The Pakis came to know about the operation only after we had established and occupied the post at Bilafond La, that too because Sanjay opened the radio to tells us that one boy had died of hypoxia.”

But, even as Sanjay Kulkarni and his platoon remained out of contact, the ground troops commenced their arduous move on foot from base camp and established Camp I on 13 April itself. Camp II and Camp III were established by 15 April along the route to Bilafond La. Lt Col Pushkar Chand, the Task Force Commander, pushed the Ladakhis and 19 Kumaon to Camp I and then to Camp II. Lt Col Pushkar Chand, who later retired as a brigadier, was a para-commando and a renowned mountaineer. Speaking to me from his village in Uttarakhand where is settled now, he remembers walking to each and every post in the six months that he remained the Task Force Commander in the initial deployment of Operation Meghdoot.

“I was actually far away from this action as CO (Commanding Officer) of 1 Vikas regiment then stationed at Kiari. But the Corps Commander (Lt Gen Hoon) personally called me and ordered me to take over as the Task Force Commander, possibly because I was the fittest CO in the area that time,” Brig Pushkar Chand says. Many young officers and jawans who worked with him on the glacier remember him with fondness. “He kept the spirits high in the most difficult circumstances,” remembers a young officer from that time.

Four days later, on 17 April when the weather improved, the Air Force flew a record number of 32 helicopter sorties with five available Cheetah and two Mi-8 helicopters. That day, Sia La was occupied by a platoon of Ladakh Scouts under Maj Ajay Bahuguna. Troops had to be dropped approximately five km east of Sia la. They had to trudge up the treacherous slopes, which made movement extremely difficult because of heavy snowfall during the preceding days.

As the radio sets opened up—Sanjay Kulkarni had to tell base that one of the soldiers had died of hypoxia—and helicopters started flying again, the Bilafonda La platoon had an unexpected visitor: A Pakistani helicopter overhead!

“When the Pakistanis saw us, they turned. If they had not seen us, they would have probably done exactly the same thing (heli-dropped at Bilafond La). Now they had no chance. They realised we were already at Bilafond La!” Sanjay Kulkarni remembers.

The improved weather meant that the follow up action to consolidate deployment all along the Saltoro ridge was speeded up.

The top brass in Northern Command then took stock of the situation.

By now, Pakistani helicopters and even fighter planes were making reconnaissance sorties over the Saltoro ridge. Indian soldiers were surely visible to them on the key passes. The reaction at GHQ in Rawalpindi can only be imagined! India had beaten them to the top.

A backlash was inevitable.

As a first step, for providing of air defence cover to counter the Pak air threat, two detachments each of SAM-7 (Strella) missiles were inducted at Sia La and Bilafond La on 22 and 24 April respectively. Simultaneously, two Zu-23-2 guns under 2/Lt Manoj Misra of 126 Lt AD Regiment were airlifted by Cheetah helicopters to the FLB. While these guns were being deployed on 23 April when in fact, Pakistani jet aircraft flew over Sia La, Indira Col and then along the glacier to the base camp. They were certainly on a photo reconnaissance mission.

Gen Chibber, meanwhile along with Maj Gen Sharma and Maj Gen Amarjit Singh, flew over Sia La and Bilafond La. He subsequently ordered deployment of four ZU-23 guns. Two guns were meant for protection of the Leh Airfield and the two others for the Thoise airfield. One detachment of Grad Peach was also inducted by air at Bilafond La. With the link up of ground troops and induction of AD (air defence) guns, the entire Siachen glacier had been secured.

Immediately after Operation Meghdoot was launched, Gen Chibber wrote in an official note: “The two main passes were sealed off. The enemy was taken completely by surprise and an area of approximately 3300 sq km, illegally shown as part of PoK on the maps published by Pak and USA were now under our control. The enemy had been pre-empted in their attempt to occupy the area claimed by them.”

No one, least of all Gen Chibber, would have imagined that the Operation would go down in India’s history as the longest continuous deployment!

Excerpted from the forthcoming book by Nitin A Gokhale - "Beyond NJ9842 : The Siachen Saga" . The Book is being published by Bloomsbury and will be available in April 2014
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