The Siachen Glacier

Battle of Guts and Wits

  © The Week - 02 November 1997


As the inky blackness of night spread over the Pir Panjal mountains in Western Kashmir, a large column of commandos moved stealthily over the forbidding terrain that in daylight would have daunted many a stout heart. The commandos belonged to a Special Forces battalion under the command of Colonel V.N. Prasad, an experienced paratrooper. Theirs was a daredevil mission to destroy a terrorist camp tucked away in the folds of the Pir Panjal mountains and presumably inhabited by 10 well-armed foreign mercenaries. These mercenaries were among those lured by the Pakistani intelligence apparatus from some of the war-ravaged Islamic countries for infiltrating Kashmir and unleashing terror on the local people. The odds were stacked against the commandos, and even the elements appeared to be in a foul mood on 18 July 1997, a blanket of fog hung thick despite chilling winds.

The commandos, most of whom had no natural aptitude for mountaineering, had a long trek ahead in the thick fog, lugging their weapons and equipment at an altitude of 13,000 feet. They had not undergone a second stage acclimatisation, which is essential for plainsmen climbing to the rarefied heights over 10,000 feet. Time spent on that would have meant loss of the surprise element and, ultimately, the failure of their operation; even a vague hint of the Army presence would have sent the mercenaries scurrying into the pine forest. The operation, code-named Kuvalaya after the mythical king Shatrujeet's winged steed, had been conceived by Major General Shantanou Choudhary, one of the frontline Generals leading the Army against the militants in Kashmir. Once he confirmed that the terrorists were hiding in a meadow near Mangnari, a hamlet situated midway down the mountain side, General Choudhary decided that surprise was the key to success.

And for accomplishing the unexpected he did not look beyond the Special Forces battalion commanded by Colonel Prasad. A few years ago it had played a key role in warding off a seaborne terrorist threat to the Republic of Maldives and capturing the masterminds of the operation. The secret nature of Operation Kuvalaya was its main challenge. It had to be visualised entirely on maps, right from choosing the routes, to identifying the terrorists' escape avenues, placing an outer cordon of the area, laying ambushes, organising searches and rushing the assault teams. It was risky since maps, though periodically updated, do not always mirror reality. Moving wraith-like over steep gradients, razor-edged ridges, narrow defiles and thick pine forests, the 250 commandos reached their assigned locations at 3 a.m. and set out to cordon the target area. The perimeter of the area, at whose centre lay the terrorist camp, was 25 km long. The cordon comprised six sectors, each under an Officer. Before dawn the next day three assault teams were to move in swiftly, probing the mountainside for the hideout.

Precision was imperative as they were operating in darkness. Meanwhile in the hideout, Ahmed Hassan, a Pakistani from Karachi, and his gang slept peacefully. Trained by Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (IS), Hassan was an instructor in sabotage and expert in radio communications & demolitions. A deputy commander of Afghanistani Hizbul Mujahideen, his assignment was to smuggle in several young Afghan nationals who would unleash violence in Jammu & Kashmir during the Independence golden jubilee celebrations. But little did the communications expert know that all his transmissions were being intercepted by General Choudhary's units. The Signallers had even obtained a positive fix on the location of Hassan's transmitter. The transmissions were to his boss, the supreme commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, who responded to the code number 77 on the terrorist radio net. Along with Hassan were four Afghans, an ISI trainee called Mohammed Hassan and a local guide Zubaida Sultan. They were waiting for another batch of Afghans who were to bring in more explosives and weapons. Hassan had even been promised a portable missile launcher by his ISI controller with code No. 54.

Neither the Afghans nor the weapons arrived. The missile launcher was captured by a Rajput battalion, while the Afghans were ambushed by the Madras Regiment. By the time Ahmed Hassan had unzipped himself out of his US Army sleeping bag obtained from Rawalpindi, Colonel V.N. Prasad and his men had effectively sealed the camp. Except two litres of water and a packet of shakker para & namkeen para, the men carried nothing but weapons. With the cordon in place Colonel Prasad sent out his Company Commander Major Anil Gorshi for a final inspection, while assault team leaders discussed the finer details of their operation. For Major Chowgule, the senior-most of Colonel Prasad's team leaders, it was just another mission. For the other two, 2nd Lt. P.S. Bajwa and 2nd Lt. M.P. Singh, it was the first real action. What the youngsters lacked in experience they made up with courage and confidence.

Instead of blundering blindly through the opaque fog, Colonel V.N. Prasad decided to wait a while before letting the assault teams to move in. Each team had to take a separate route, choosing a stream bed or a mountain spur for maintaining direction, while converging on the terrorist camp. When the fog lifted momentarily at 7:30 a.m. the assault teams moved out, picking their way stealthily on the rocky stream beds. A clink of metal, a dislodged pebble rolling down or the crunch of a boot would have been enough to jeopardise the operation. There was one serious problem; the risk of undertaking multi-pronged assaults on unidentified targets when visibility is poor. Besides the enemy hiding behind the opaque mist, the teams risked getting caught in their own cross-fire. Zubaida was the first to wake up in the hideout, which was two caves measuring ~90 sq. ft. The small entrance was nicely concealed by a big boulder. Zubaida had known about that hideout from the time when he used to guide opium smugglers from Pakistan, long before terrorism became financially attractive.

He woke up one of the Afghans, and together they crawled out into the woods for their morning ablutions. They were looking for a place to squat when 2nd Lt. Singh's team spotted them. For a moment no one moved. If the terrorists were shocked to find their meadow swarming with soldiers, the commandos least expected to confront the enemies clutching their pyjamas at their knees. Reacting quickly, the commandos shouted to them to identify themselves, but the fog that descended on the scene came to the terrorists' rescue. Pulling the Afghan with him Zubaida darted towards the hideout and disappeared in the caves before the soldiers opened fire. The sound of the gunfire alerted Ahmed Hassan. Armed with AK-47s and a rocket launcher he and two others emerged from the cave and took up vantage position that Ahmed had selected on his first visit for just such an eventuality. By now 2nd Lt. Singh's team reached the open meadow below the hideout only to be greeted by a hail of bullets from the waiting terrorists. Even as they scurried for cover behind small rocks, Colonel Prasad called in the other two teams and moved ahead with Naik Ajith Kumar who was carrying a rocket launcher. In the gun battle that followed, one Afghan who tried to slip away was shot dead. The firing went on for over an hour, with neither side wresting an advantage.

It was then that 2nd Lt. Bajwa salvaged the situation. He crawled up towards the entrance of the hideout and shot one of the Afghans whose gunfire had kept the troops at bay. Ahmed Hassan's Jihad ended with a 9mm bullet from a soldier's gun. Almost at the same time Major Chowgule's team coming in from the northeast shot another Afghan hiding among the boulders. This left just Zubaida, Mohammed Hassan and two Afghans trapped inside the cave. 2nd Lt. Bajwa, returning to his earlier position, directed Naik Ajit Kumar to aim the rocket launcher at the entrance of the cave. With the cave opened up, 2nd Lt. Bajwa crawled up to the entrance again and shot another AK-47 wielding terrorist. He then waited as Havildar Kuldip Singh fired several rifle grenades from his automatic grenade launcher to finish off the rest. But that was not be; the terrorists had retreated to the safety of the inner cave. The quick-thinking 2nd Lt. Bajwa then, drawing on a seemingly endless reserve of raw courage, ducked into the cave, pulled out the pin of a hand-grenade and hurled it into the cave after holding it for three seconds, hand-grenades explode four seconds after the pin is pulled out. He made sure that the terrorists did not kick or hurl it back, and marked a rather neat finish to the operation