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Operation Meghdoot – Into the Valley Of Death

The recent debate sparked over the India-Pakistan T-20 series has once again brought the historical tension between the two nations to limelight. Rather juvenile in its conception and deadly in its implications, the outcomes of a cricket match have left the field for good, politicised to no end by involved parties. A rather intense bone of contention has always been Kashmir – and mystified legends of human warfare have centred around the deathly beautiful valley. This article attempts to chronicle one such astounding incident of this duo’s rivalry infused with ingenious deception. Colonel Narinder Kumar, fondly referred as “the Bull ” for remarkable prowess in the boxing ring and a hardy personality remains one of the central protagonists in the drama unveiled at Siachen and it is his precepts that bring India massive gains in this battle.

The Kashmir War of 1947 (instigated by Pakistan to forcibly occupy the valley with its tribes) and the consequent hastily drawn Karachi pact in 1949 laid the foundations of an undelineated boundary along certain parts of the north west frontier of India- Pakistan. Colonel Bull, posted as the irreplaceable principal of the Indian army’s prestigious high altitude warfare training school in Gulmarg got wind of certain highly suspicious increased mountaineering and trekking expeditions along the other side of the border in 1976-77. The front along the North-West practically ends at a peak named NJ9842 and is “thence north to the glaciers” (as often written in maps ). The north of the NJ9842 rivaling the barrenness of the Poles itself, does not hold any potential takers owing to sheer naturalistic and topographical challenges. Recognizing a clever ploy to seek legitimacy in international spheres for land left unclaimed, Colonel Bull immediately recruited his 40 best into a daring sojourn that has for unfathomable reasons not gained deserved acknowledgement as a truly unique spectacle of nerves and precognition.

The almost virgin territory of the inaccessible Siachen glacier had been breached by the opposing forces – the Colonel returned from the 1978 expedition with enough evidence of sustained inhabitation – broken bottles and the like.

The expedition naturally unnerved the body of defenses and bureaucratic red tapism that very often plagues India and soon Colonel Bull was out on another strategic expedition in 1981 involving 70 students this time – out to survey the impenetrable natural fortresses of the Saltoro range to the north of the Siachen glacier – the only possible entry point of the Pakistani army being the west of the mountain range. However, far more worrying than material proof of occupation was the account of two German mountaineers the Colonel came across and interviewed in the northernmost part of the glacier – the Sia Kangri peak. The Germans revealed how the Indian army had declined their request of ascending the glacier and an appeal to the Pakistani army had resulted in success and the journey being possible for them. This definitely emerged as a point of great concern – the Pakistani army was slowly yet surely assuming authority of the area and encroaching on Indian soil.

The conception and final lap of this reverberates how truth indeed is stranger than fiction in the culmination of Operation Meghdoot. Post the 1981 expedition, the Telegraph newspaper (Kolkata issue) published an extensive, tell all, blow by blow details named “High Politics in the Karakoram” – of the Colonel’s endeavours and explosive discoveries in the context of invasion and homeland security. General consciousness among the general public was on the rise and civilians were finally becoming aware of the strategic significance of a territory as barren and apparently nugatory as the Siachen glacier. To acclimatize soldiers in the impossibly harsh and often fatal conditions expeditions to the South Pole saw a dramatic rise – serving a dual purpose of scientific advancement and climate training.

Meanwhile Pakistan was on the move too – sending its battalion to the highly inaccessible territory of Gilgit-Baltistan to prepare for the final confrontation incoming sooner rather than later. An especially curious development, rather a coincidence, that the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) got hold of was a special pair of Arctic shoes that were of the greatest importance for walking on the ice sheets. Pakistani armed forces placed their order for a vast number of the shoes from the same European establishment that the Indian forces got their shoes from – the final nail in the coffin of Indian suspicions was proven right.

Thus came about Indian Armed Forces’ one of the most ambitious operations till date – Operation Meghdoot (the naming owes credits to Sanskrit genius Kalidasa’s play Meghdoota or the divine cloud messenger ). The Indian side gained a 4-day headstart over the Pakistani side and commenced with battalions from the Kumaon regiment and the Ladakh Scouts allocating to the eatsern foots of the glacier on foot to avoid radar detection. Under the able and skillful guidance of then Major RS Sandhu, Captain Sanjay Kulkarni and Captain PV Yadav the Indian toops, by 13th April 1984 had situated themselves in the key locations of the Saltoro ridges and the mountain passes of Sia la, Bilafold la, Gong la. The operation was a successful one for India, and Pakistan could occupy only a minor portion of the Saltoro’s foothills.

The verbatim of one of the Pakistani soldiers on the brink of emotional collapse and mental stability on the radio to his immediate senior remains bone chillingly traumatic in its myriad, exceedingly human implications (the verbatim was captured by Indian operatives and relayed by the same in English, the source language remains undetermined): “Rashid has been killed and the reinforcements have not reached, tell these seniors to come forward and see for themselves. They are safe in their bunkers and care little for us.” While casualties and death toll remains unverified on both sides the desperation of soldiers remains painfully human no matter how many attempts at dehumanisation are made to propagate demonised othering. Captain Rashid’s death remains unanswered like several other deaths – his partner Captain Iqbal was honoured with the one of the highest military honours conferrable – political motivations within forces are not something unheard of.

The actual ground position line now runs along Saltoro mountains and merges to the Indira Ridge at the India- China-Pakistan LAC tripoint near Sia Kangri. Many sentiments often resonate with the militaristic appeal of the operation and echo with calls of blood for blood in avenging and protecting the motherland. Some others view the conflict in the same vein as summarised by Stephen P Cohen as the “struggle of two bald men over a comb”. No matter what the reader’s take, the message engraved on the Siachen scroll of honour, “Quartered in snow, silent to remain. When the bugle calls, they shall rise and march again”, fills us, the ones safe and sound in our preparations for a new day, with a sense of intense loss and foreboding, praying the bugle never sounds again.

– Bipasha Bhowmick

Picture: Representational (Credits – indianexpress.com)



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