Siachen: -50 degrees Celsius, 21000 feet & a Param Vir Chakra
“Quartered in snow, silent to remain. When the bugle calls, they shall rise and march again”
-Scroll of the Indian Army at Siachen Base Camp
In the late 1970s, a German mountaineer showed up at the door of Col. Narendra Kumar with a US drawn map of Northern Kashmir, where the border was a little too east for India’s comfort. Definitely, something was going wrong that resulted in such a map. Col. Kumar brought up the question to the higher authorities.
Col. Narendra Kumar. Source: The Tribune
An expedition was planned under Col. Kumar to Siachen to give a message that this area belonged to India. However, on reaching Siachen in 1978, Col. Kumar was met by Pakistani helicopters who sent him warnings to back off by releasing colored smoke.
So, what was going on? Let us go back a few years to understand. Pakistan, since the early 1970s had been using mountains and mountaineering expeditions for political gains called- ‘Oropolitics’. The term was born out of Siachen itself, where India and Pakistan launched a series of expeditions to declare Siachen as their territory. Pakistan had started mountaineering expeditions since the early 1970s. They wanted a more firm meetup with their Chinese allies. Col. Kumar also noticed evidence of a presence of previous expeditions from the Pakistan side.
With this newfound evidence, a second expedition was launched to further stake Indian claim over Siachen in 1981. Oropolitics can only go as far before guns start rolling out. Both the countries realized they reached the end of oropolitics and it was time for more serious action, possibly, war.
Both countries began gathering materials and resources to fight at the unscalable heights but both the South Asian countries went to the same shop to buy the high altitude gear. Here, India was told that Pakistan had already bought the Arctic Gear. Alarm bells started ringing in Delhi. Hasty preparations helped India beat Pakistan by a week in occupying the Bilafond La Pass of Siachen glacier. But would such a determined Pakistan, who had been preparing since the early 70s, give up so easily?
Map of Bilafond La Pass and surrounding areas
In 1987, India was involved with trouble brewing in the northern Tibetan border and Sri Lanka. This was an opportune time for Pakistan to launch an attack and take India by surprise.
In April 1987, Pakistan launched an offensive with Special Service Group (SSG) Commandos and established a post near the Bilafond Pass. This post was so important for Pakistan that they named it after its Quaid-e-Azam, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Quaid Post. The post was commanded by Subedar Ataullah Mohammed and 17 soldiers of the elite SSG commandos unit. This was a very critical position as from here they could watch all the Indian troop movements, launch artillery strikes and target Indian supply lines.
A pre-Kargil scenario was unfolding step by step on much smaller but equally, or probably more, treacherous conditions. A reconnaissance patrol under Lt. Rajiv Pandey was tasked to establish ropes for the steep climb. A larger force would use these ropes for the assault. Unfortunately, the 13-men team was discovered and attacked. 9 soldiers including their commander laid down their lives. The four remaining soldiers came back to report that the ropes had been fixed.
Lt. Rajiv Pandey. Source: The Times of India
Next, Major Varinder Singh was tasked to occupy the post with 64 soldiers. What the world was about to witness was the gallantry of one of India’s only 3 living Param Vir Chakra awardees, Captain Bana Singh.
Naib Subedar Bana Singh. Source: India Times
The group led by Major Varinder Singh started scaling the heights towards the Quaid Post, a steep 90-degree climb from the ropes established by the late Lt. Rajiv Pandey’s team. The horrible weather was a huge hurdle to their ascent. In 20 hours, the jawans were able to scale only 150 meters. They were given the option to return but their determination was in line with the traditions of the army. They decided to keep forging ahead.
As this brave group re-started their ascent, they saw something which further filled them with determination and will power- the dead bodies of their 9 fallen comrades. Now, there was no turning back. Hearts filled with vengeance, they attacked.
The attack to reclaim the post was initiated. Subedar Harnam Singh’s party met with heavy casualties. Contact with the next party under Subedar Sansar Chand was lost. Now, Naib Subedar Bana Singh with two soldiers were handpicked by the injured Major Varinder to carry out the assault.
However, the conditions at 21,000 feet above sea level took the better of the two accompanying soldiers with Bana Singh. In those conditions, Naib Subedar Bana Singh stayed put, all alone. Reinforcements of 5 soldiers came up after a day.
On the morning of the 26th, Major Varinder decided to go for a frontal assault. Brigadier Chandan Nugyal, the brigade commander, launched a huge barrage of artillery fire from the base.
Without any consideration for their personal safety, the 5 soldiers along with Bana Singh attacked ferociously, lobbing grenades upon grenades at the enemy. In one bunker, Singh personally threw grenades and closed the door, killing all inside. In the meantime, ropes that were used by Pakistanis to scale up were cut. When Ataullah’s men realized it was all over, 4 of them jumped to their deaths to evade capture. Quaid post was now the Bana post.
In mountain warfare documentaries and articles, we create an image of war-cries and fights but this was Siachen, world’s highest battlefield. Major Varinder Singh specifically told Broadsword, “We had no strength to celebrate. At 21,000 feet, nobody does the bhangra, yells war cries, or hoists the tricolour. Ultimately, sheer doggedness wins. If we had once hesitated, Quaid would still be with Pakistan,” All the victorious soldiers did was cook some rice- their first meal in 3 days. On the evening of 26th June 1987, Indian flag was unfurled at the now renamed Bana Post.
The gallantry of Captain Bana Singh denied Pakistan the long cherished dream of linking up with China through the Saltoro Range, keeping a joint watch over India. India would have been threatened from the west by Pakistan and Aksai Chin by China. Today, India is in a position to keep a close watch over Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan and also over China’s activities in Aksai Chin.
Siachen Glacier overlooking Gilgit Baltistan and Aksai Chin
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