Siachen Barren and bloodiest battlefield

Col J P Singh, Retd
On 13 April 1984, while the Northern region of India and Pakistan was celebrating Baisakhi festival, Indian Army, in a swift and surprise move physically occupied Siachen, the un-demarcated Northern limb of line of control (LOC). Pakistan made a huge hue and cry on this unprecedented Indian move. Pakistan Army resorted to offensive actions on seeing the presence of Indian Army in the glacier. Heavy shelling and intermittent physical assaults failed to deter Indian Army from establishing a firm foothold in the uninhabited glacier. There after entire glacier and its highest peaks are under Indian control. LOC, the line which is not legally recognized as International Border; is the de facto boundary between India and Pakistan since the1972 Simla Agreement. Starting from Akhnoor sector, this 470 km line passes through Keran Sector and Gurais Valley and ends at Point NJ9842 which is short of inaccessible glacier massifs of North Kashmir where India, China and Pakistan rub shoulders thus rendering the areas North of it un-demarcated and disputed.
Siachen is called the highest and the coldest battlefield of the world where Indian and Pakistani armies have fought intermittent hand to hand battles since 1984. What prompted Indian Army to occupy the glacier was consequent to Pakistan allowing mountaineering expeditions to the glacier with Pak Army officers accompanying them. In1984 Pakistan gave permission to a Japanese expedition to attempt Peak Rimo which overlooks Eastern part of Aksai Chin. Such expedition would have established links between the Western route from Karakoram with the Eastern route from China; the ancient trade route. Hence the Indian Army, committed to the sovereignty of the nation, had to preempt such a move to defend the peaks and the passes of the glacier and guard national frontiers.
The Siachen Glacier is 72 Kms in length and is the second largest glacier in the world. It is located in the Eastern Karakoram Range of great Himalayas. Highest point of the glacier at Indira Col is 18,875 ft in altitude. This peak divides Southern and Central Asia. The lowest altitude at the terminus of glacier at Chinese border is 11,875 ft. The glacier lies immediately South of Himalayan watershed that separates the Eurasian Plate from the Indian Sub Continent in the extensively glaciated portion of Karakoram. The glacier lies between Saltoro Ridge to its West and main Karakoram to its East. The Saltoro Ridge originates from Sia Kangri peak on Chinese border. The major passes on these ridges are Sia La, Belafond La and Gyang La. The average temperature dips to – 50 and the average snow fall is 35 ft. The glacier is feeder of the Nubra River in Ladakh which enters into Shyok before flowing into Indus. Siachen is world’s greatest non-polar glacier and hence called ‘Third Pole’.
Siachen is beautiful to look at but arduous to live in. In spite of the severest climate, the word Siachen ironically means the land of plenty of roses. Sia in Balti means rose and Chun means in abundance. Watching from a distance, Siachen looks like a heaven but living there is like hell. Men live and sleep in ice coverings, Igloos or small Arctic Tents and breathe air so sparse of Oxygen that they feel breathlessness all the times. Fainting spells and pounding headaches are common among the troops. Frost bites chew its way through flesh and limbs. Despite wearing five layers of insulated warm clothing, they shiver and suffer the miseries of harsh cold. Cold kills more men than the bullets. The men often fall victims to loss of hearing, memory and despite putting on snow goggles, loss of vision. Many lose their eyes, hands, feet and many a times limbs to the frost bite. Hair fall is very common. Pulmonary Odema, a disease of lungs is so dangerous a ‘high altitude disease’ that it persists as a life long slow poison. Prolonged mountain sickness depresses and demoralizes soldiers. For a soldier this is a real sight of mythical hell often referred to in religious discourse. It is 72 Kms long sea of slow moving ice surrounded by stupendous towers of snow. They see snow, snow and snow 24X7. How does an 18 years adolescent soldier cope with the climate and combat which is feared even by the veterans for its random application of death and destruction on the glacier. The sudden blizzards can bury field fortifications and its occupants in seconds. While some soldiers fall to enemy fire, far more perish in avalanches and crevasses. Tragic death of 150 officers and men of Northern Light Infantry in an avalanche which slammed into Pakistan army base in Siachen at 5.45 AM on 7th April 2012 is an example of this stark reality. This avalanche hit Pak Battalion HQ at Gyari in Siachen base when the men were fast asleep, leaving no survivors. Indian army has also lived through such disasters in the past and taken them in the stride. Undeterred by such calamities, the brave soldiers are always ready and wait to battle on the roof of the world and once there, they remain engaged in endless battle with the enemy and the nature.
Tinned, pre cooked and vacuum packed meals are issued to the troops for ease in cooking and eating. But an average soldier coming from rural background does not cherish such meals. He is used to normal peace time langar food which is akin to his family and regional delicacy. Wanted dishes are not only difficult but nearly impossible to cook to taste on small stoves in sub zero temperature. Hence he starts ignoring meals consequently losing his appetite, weight and strength.
At Siachen the drinking water is made by melting ice on small kerosene stoves. Bathing and washing are out of question. Men are generally issued 14 pairs of thermal socks which are worn in layers. They sweat during movements and marches. Once removed, the sweat freezes in them and when worn again they re-sweat causing abrasive wounds and lasting damages. Hot water bottles freeze immediately.
Indian Army is maintaining its troops at Siachen at a prohibitive cost. Most of the maintenance and transportation is by choppers. Smaller quantities of loads are ferried on each sortie due to high altitude constraints. Transportation cost of a can of Kerosene oil on which the survival of the soldiers depends is roughly $1000 and a cooked Chapatti would roughly cost Rs 1000 each. Certain stores from the dropping areas / landing areas are moved with the help of snow scooters and pulley systems. Porters, ponies and Yaks are also employed for carriage of stores, rations and medicines up to certain points. But their load carrying capacities are very less. Wastages in stores, medicines and rations are enormous due to avalanches, snow storms and blizzards. Igloos and bunkers where the men live are made up of fibre glass panels which are imported from Russia, Siberia and Mangolia. All the casualties are evacuated by choppers. A chopper landing in Siachen can neither switch off its engine, nor can it stay there longer. The rough maintenance cost of the troops in Siachen per day is between $ 300,000 to 500,000. Five to six soldiers live and sleep under a small and congested roof. Solar panels are affixed to some Igloos. In either case the kerosene stove is the companion of the soldiers around which his survival exists. The black soot of the stoves colours everything black including his lungs. Sometimes soldiers have to live and sleep in tunnels gouged out in the frozen ice with a pickaxe. Hardly any one sleeps at night because of insomnia and for the fear of enemy sneaking in. Sentry duties and patrolling are difficult to perform. Normal tenure in the glacier heights is 90 days at one stretch. Units which serve in the glacier are sent to good peace stations. Soldiers are given Glacier Allowance and rewarded with gallantry medals, good postings and faster promotions after their successful tenures in the Siachen Battlefields. They live closer to the God and are cared by the Almighty. Some emotional anecdotes expressed below may give an idea of spiritual belief in soldering:-
The soldier stood and faced the God
With shinning shoes and bright brass.
Step forward you smart soldier
How shall I deal with you my dear.
God, I did my duty on the highest battle field
I am violent b’coz the world was awful and rude.
Many times I was shaken with fears
God, forgive me I have wept unmanly tears.
That I never took a penny extra for the job
Whatever was given was my genuine reward.
Step forward happily, you Soldier
Walk peacefully on Heaven’s streets
For having done well in Siachen hell.
Let us express our gratitude to military personnel who have served their country in times of peace and war in hostile and unlivable habitat and to their families for supporting them. I hope the govt fast tracks, whatever it can, to improve living conditions and fighting capability of troops deployed in Siachen particularly after disastrous avalanche of 7th April and Army Chief’s revelations of chinks in defence preparedness. It is high time the govt got serious about strengthening Army’s fighting ability in the highest, coldest, barren and bloodiest battlefield of India.