Friday 24 April 2020

How India Captured Siachen

Operation Meghdoot was the code-name for the Indian Armed Forces operation to capture the Siachen Glacier in the Kashmir region, precipitating the Siachen Conflict. Launched on 13 April 1984, this military operation was the first assault launched in the highest battlefield in the world….

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Siachen was crucial for India. In a daring operation, India captured Siachin. Operation Meghdoot was launched on 13 April 1984 when the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force went into the Glacier. However, very few people know that the glacier operations started a full six years before that! Yes in 1978. It may seem odd to many but Siachen operations were launched in that year.

Operation Meghdoot – was the code name given to the Indian operation to capture Siachen. A battle was about to take place for the first time in the history, at the height of more than 6000 feet above sea leve, the highest battlefield in the world.. And none knew how it would end as all were certain it wasn’t going to be easy. Gen PN Hoon deployed the Northern command and the 15 Corps to the Saltoro ridge. Ladakh Scouts, and a company from 4 Kumaon was deployed along with a unit of M18 and Cheetah helicopters from the Air Force.

A chain of command was established. Lt Col Pushkar Chand would be the Task Force Commander with Captain Sanjay Kulkarni heading the platoon from 4 Kumaon to Bilafond La. Major AK Bahuguna would be heading the Ladakh Scouts to Sia La and Lt Col DK Khanna would be taking on Gyong La with 19 Kumaon.

The first target for Operation Meghdoot was to occupy the Siachen glacier, specifically Indira Col, Sia La, Bilafond La and Gyong La the most important points on the Saltoro ridge. But at an altitude of around 6,500 feet India had to face an enemy even more lethal - the weather.The temperature in the glacial areas drops to below -30 degree Celsius. Basic tasks like breathing, talking and walking start feeling tough and difficult.

The soldiers on ground would risk High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, Hypothermia, frost bites and even Amnesia. Pilots were warned about acute sunburn and a condition known as white-out when after looking at vast stretches of white snow and no landmarks, pilots face spatial disorientation.A training camp was set up for the troops at HAWS, High Altitude Warfare School run by Col Kumar where the troops would be getting training in mountain warfare and acclimatizing.

All troops including Capt. Sanjay Kulkarni and Lt. Col Pushkar Chand sans the Ladakhi Scouts,who were a mountain-based force that were already acclimatized to high altitudes. They needed thermal coats, pants, balaclavastents, ice axes, goggles, ice shoes which were available only in Europe. But when Gen Hoon contacted their supplier in Europe they were privy to an essential piece of intelligence. The supplier, while readily offering another supplier’s number, voiced his inability to service Gen Hoon. Because there had been an order for more than 150 pieces of winter equipment and gear by Pakistan. In Pakistan, a meeting was held in December 1983, in the GHQ Operation Room under the chairmanship of President General Zia-ul -Haq. In this meeting Maj Gen Pir Dad Khan (Commander of the Northern Areas) was given the task of pre-empting occupation of the passes, reaching there not later than May 1984, as weather conditions before that period would not allow the use of helicopters and the PAF. This decision, to launch their operation in May was a serendipitous moment for India.

Brig Channa was correct. Years later Pakistan’s Military Dictator General Pervez Musharraf would admit in his book “In The Line of Fire” that India “pre-empted us”.Any action on the glacier was only possible around mid- June.  But Brig Channa wasn’t ready to wait that long.  His tactic was surprise. It was a race, and the winner takes Bilafond La and Siachen.What stayed with him even 35 years later was when he questioned the delivery of the new equipment which could be delayed and asked the men if they would venture into the subzero terrain with less than adequate clothing? The answer, he remembers, was a vociferous yes!

Lt Gen Hoon, Air Marshal MSO Wollen, Commander-in-Chief, Western air command, AVM A Dayala, Air officer commanding of Jammu and Kashmir and Maj Gen Shiv Sharma carried out a sortie over Sia La and Bilafond La.The weather was not on their side. It had started snowing and they could feel a storm building.The other intense fear other than the impending storm was the winter clothing.They were on the threshold of the Operation and as yet the essential equipment hadn’t arrived.

On 13th April at 0530 hours a Cheetah helicopter took off from Base camp to Bilafond-la. It carried Capt. S.K Kulkarni and a soldier. Sqdr Ldr Surinder Bains told Capt Kulkarni that he isn’t sure if the snow can withstand a landing. He asks if they could jump. Capt Kulkarni says that they can, but how would they know if they wouldn’t get immersed in the soft snow? The dummy sackwas dropped, it lands with a thud. It was safe to go down; Capt Kulkarni and his JCO take the plunge. Sqdr Ldr Bains did 17 sorties to deliver 27 soldiers. At 0700 hours an Indian flag was planted on top of Bilafond La The first point of Saltoro ridge was secured. However, within 3 hours of landing, they had to evacuate their radio operator who suffered from HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema) despite being trained, acclimatized and fit. Now Capt. Kulkarni had a radio, but no radio operator, which was vital for their operations. 29 men remained at Bilafond-La but tragedy struck within 48 hours, when another soldier died of Hypoxia and they were down to 28. And of these 28, 21 had got severe frostbite. They could not proceed beyond their camp location because of poor weather. They could not do that on the 14th April again because of bad weather. The moment of victory of the 13th of April turned to nervousness because of the storm that picked up from the evening of the 13th April and lasted till the 16th April. Everything came to a standstill.

The ground troops from the Base camp however had started to establish camps 1, 2 and 3 along the route to Bilafond-la.This task was completed by the 15th of April. Major Bahuguna who had to move to Sia-la was meanwhile grounded at Base Camp because no helicopters could fly. Meanwhile Captain Kulkarni’s last resort of switching on of the radio to pass on the information of a soldier’s death had been picked up, as expected. They were paid a visit, and it wasn’t a friendly one. Things were getting very uncomfortable for Brigadier. All eyes in Northern Command and the Military Operation Directorate were turned on him. Sending troops in winter on the glacier now seemed a bad decision and the entire onus was on him since he had been stubbornly adamant on the date and final call. And after 3 days, the storm abated. The Indian Air Force flew over 32 helicopter sorties, a record on 5 Cheetahs and 2 Mi8’s to drop Major Bahuguna and 29 men 5 km east of Sia-la. The Ladakhi scouts under Maj. Bahuguna trudged 5 km,up the treacherous slopes, movement beingextremely difficult because of the heavy snowfall, to reach and occupy Sia-la.

While Capt. Kulkarni had occupied Bilafond-la on the 13th April, Major Bahuguna had Sia-la under his able command by the 17th April. Lt. Col. D.K Khanna meanwhile, with 19 Kumaon, was moving slowly to the highest and most treacherous peak, Gyong-La which they would eventually occupy by the first week of June. The top brass in Northern Command now decided to take stock.Since the Indian soldiers were visible to an immense number of Pakistan planes flying furiously back and forth overhead, and the fact that India had beaten them to the glacier, meant that a backlash was inevitable. Sam- surface to air missiles-7, 2 detachments were inducted at Sia-la and Bilafond-la on 22nd and 23rd April. 2 Zu-23-2 guns were airlifted by Cheetahs to Bilafond-la and the Siachin glacier. 2 Zu-23 guns were deployed for the protection of the Leh airfield and 2 more for the Thoise airfield. Indian intelligence had had reported a formation of a Burzil force on the Pakistani side, in the 80 Infantry Brigade.They had launched Operation Ababeel to evict Indian troops and capture Bilafond La and Sia La.

Capt Sanjay Kulkarni, well established with his platoon on Bilafond-la had put a system in place where every hour the sentry would come and give a report and Kulkarni would respond by saying ok or Ram Ram. He had posted one sentry at the edge of the pass about 500 metres from where the tents were pitched, called the listening post. The sentry would stand at the farthest point possible to look out for any Pakistan troop movement. From that position the sentry could see at least a kilometre into Pakistan territory.It was a monotonous and physically demanding task. The first serious attack came on the 23rd of June at 0450 hours. 26 Pakistani casualties were reported that day. The Indians had lost one man, but this wasn’t the last attack. In June Pakistan attempted another attack, but it was repulsed by the Indians. In August 1984, two more attacks were mounted by Pakistan but they were foiled on both the accounts,and Pakistan suffered 30 odd casualties.

Meanwhile Gyong-La, the highest point at 18,665 feet had been secured by Lt. Col. D.K Khanna,and the whole of Siachin was now under the control of the Indian Army. These daring operations by brave soldiers fighting on two fronts, the weather and Pakistani soldiers trying to dislodge them from their positions. The Pakistanis tried many a times taking heavy casualties, finally realizing that the Indians were there for good. To keep Siachin, the country has to spend a heavy amount on logistics, clothing and food for the men who keep vigil in hostile conditions.


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Picture Post:
Kadri Manjunath Temple hot water
 springs & tanks, Mangalore, India


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