The Siachen Glacier and the enduring Legacy of Operation Meghdoot
“Sia” in the Balti language refers to roses and “Chun” signifies the growth of these high-altitude roses in abundance, at a height of over 6000 metres and in temperatures that plummet to -50C (Barua 2019). The name today invokes irony as the glacier complex contains almost no vegetation or resources that could be utilised and the etymology of its name merely offers a nod to a bygone era which might have witnessed the growth of such vegetation. The Siachen glacier is part of the East Karakoram range and is 75 km long, stretching from Leh into Gilgit in PoK and experiences blizzards of over 150 knots (Ahmad 2006). Due to its inhospitable conditions, it is often referred to as the “third pole” and hosts no permanent settlers with the first historic records of it being successfully traversed only dating back to the early 1900s (Wirsing 1988). These conditions make the glacier’s transformation into an army base no cheap undertaking for either of the warring parties in terms of men or material. According to Swain (2009) a Pakistani soldier loses his life every fourth day due to being stationed at the glacier, while an Indian casualty is reported almost every other day. Only 3% of the casualties since India’s 1984 occupation of the glacier have been combat related. It costs upwards of 30 million rupees a day to maintain the Indian base on the glacier, according to ex defence minister George Fernandes and each soldier is endowed with appropriate gear costing 1,00,000 rupees (Khosa 1999). Unlike Pakistani positions which are well connected by an elaborate network of roads and mule tracks emanating from PoK, Indian positions on the glacier can only be supplied by air. Numerous sorties are undertaken daily even from as far as Chandigarh and Punjab and are necessary to refurnish essentials and evacuate soldiers suffering from high altitude sickness or pulmonary oedema (Ahmad 2006). The altitude of some Indian forward bases on the Saltoro ridge ranges from Kumar (16,000 feet) and Bila Top (18,600 feet) to Pahalwan (20,000 feet) and Indira Col (22,000 feet) (Ahmad 2006). The steep descent makes the area prone to avalanches and is filled with jagged crevices and blizzards. Warfare under such conditions embodies wars of attrition and of outlasting the opponent, with the Indian Army having lost more than 800 of its troops to the elements of nature (Bhola 1988).
Siachen Glacier, world’s highest battlefield. Source: Deccan Chronicle
This highest battleground of the world is incidentally also its costliest and one which India has successfully and painstakingly held since 1984. This article seeks to understand what motivated India’s Operation Meghdoot to capture this battleground and what has motivated the maintenance of troops there until date. The description of the conditions of service, the strategic importance of Siachen and the build up and execution of the operation seeks to instill within the readers, renewed appreciation for the sacrifices of the Indian army.
The importance of the glacier
The glacier, which Pakistan claims as its “jugular vein” is located at the world’s only nuclear tri-junction, with India, Pakistan and China having disputed claims to or around the area (Baghel 2015). The glacier also lies south of the contentious Xinjiang and Tibet regions of China and also of the Shaksgam-Muztagh drainage basin which was ceded to China by Pakistan illegally in 1963 (Wirsing 1988). During the Cold War the glacier was surrounded by important links for Pakistan to China and for India to the USSR via Afghanistan. With the USSR gone, India was compelled by circumstance to attach increasing importance to the glacier in the absence of a proximal ally (Bhola 1988). The Saltoro Ridge, presently in Indian hands is the sole deterrent to the establishment of substantial supply chains between PoK and China (ET 2019). The glacier also feeds the Nubra, Shyok and Indus rivers which are invaluable water sources flowing southwards (Khosa 1999). Most importantly the Indian capturing of the glacier’s highest ridges provides India with a view of Gilgit-Baltistan and offers the Indian army the advantage of height in the event of repelling enemy attacks. The fall of this glacier into enemy hands would ensure definite Chinese expansionism from Aksai Chin and India losing more areas of control in Kashmir.
The glacier occupied an important position in British India during the Great Game which witnessed the UK and Tsarist Russia compete for territory in Central Asia. Fearing Russian expansionism from the north, the British made several unsuccessful attempts to map the glacier in 1835, 1848 and 1889 until finally succeeding in 1909 (Joshi 2017). The discovery of the glacier’s southward slope and the southerly flow of the emanating rivers dispelled any beliefs about it belonging to China in accordance with the watershed principle. This led to Lord Curzon affirming the glacier as constituting a “natural frontier” for India (Dasgupta 2015).
Following the first war between India and Pakistan in 1947, the UN-mediated Karachi Agreement of 1949 demarcated a Ceasefire Line (CFL) that temporarily divided Kashmir between the two nations until a referendum would determine the final fate of the region’s inhabitants. Owing to the rugged and uninhabitable topography of the Karakoram mountains, the northern extremities of the CFL remained undefined and the agreement stated that from a point on the CFL, named NJ 9842, it would run ‘thence north to the glaciers.’ There was deliberate ambiguity in the wording of agreements pertaining to the Siachen glacier as its occupation was an unimaginable prospect for either party at the time. The CFL was renamed as the LoC with minor modifications by the Shimla Agreement of 1972, but the fundamental ambiguity of how the line would run beyond NJ 9842 still remained unaddressed (Joshi 2017).
Shimla Agreement signed in 1972 between Indian PM Indira Gandhi and her Pakistani counterpart Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Source: India Today
In this situation of uncertainty, Pakistani endeavours to insidiously capture the glacier came to light due to several expeditions being undertaken from PoK. A research expedition by the Imperial College and sanctioned by Pakistan was undertaken to the glacier as early as 1957 (Baghel 2015). Between 1974 and 1981, 16 more expeditions often led by Austrians, Americans and Japanese researchers were sanctioned by Pakistan in an effort to “promote foreign tourism” and cultivate within the international community, a belief that the region was Pakistani (Padder 2013). These Pakistani efforts were also manifested in the form of cartographic aggression when German and American maps of the area upon being analysed by the Indian army, showed the region and beyond as belonging to Pakistan. The stakes were high for India as an impending Pakistani occupation supported by the international community would lead to India losing control of key passes such as Gyong La, Bilafond La, Sia La, Yarma La and Indira Col (Joshi 2017).
Colonel Narendra “Bull” Kumar’s acumen which came with him being a leading commandant of the Indian High-Altitude Warfare School aided in the steps India took next. His two expeditions (1978 Teram Kangri expedition and the 1981 Siachen expedition) confirmed Indian suspicions (a Pakistani Sabre jet threateningly circled the expedition in 1978) and scientifically determined the India Col as the terminating position of the CFL which effectively gave India jurisdiction over the area (Padder 2013). The Indian Army Command was however hesitant at this point to undertake an expedition until Lt. General Chibber in 1982 became the northern army commander. Hostile protest notes sent to him by the Pakistan army after two more Indian army expeditions to the glacier (1982 and 1983) combined with more foreign maps giving preference to Pakistan led to the matter being taken up with Army Chief General TN Raina who approved of an operation to be undertaken (Singh 2018).
Reports from RAW indicated Pakistani purchases of high-altitude mountaineering equipment from Europe and troop concentrations on the other side of the Nubra valley in Nuzreb and Borgu Dilargam (Bhola 1988). In the wider geopolitical situation, an operation by India also became imminent since China had completed in 1978 the “Friendship highway” by which it could supply insurgents entering PoK. With India’s ally, the USSR being stuck in the quagmire of the Afghan war, India wished to avoid a two-frontal war with Pakistan and China and hence embarked upon a mission to prematurely capture the glacier and prevent outright conflict (Khosa 1999).
With no previous precedents of warfare above 6000m, a sudden and surgical capture was necessary to ensure the mission passed without interruption. The Indian Operation Meghdoot was thereby launched and executed successfully prior to Pakistan launching their equivalent called Operation Abadeel (Baghel 2015).
Meghduta (cloud messenger) referred to the name of a poem by Kalidasa (400 CE) about a message of love carried by the clouds over the Himalayas. The Operation was thereby appropriately named since the IAF employed AN 12s, AN 32s, Mi-7s, Mi-8s and Chetak and Cheetah helicopters to transport troops and supplies. The Indian Army had been training troops at the base of the glacier since 1983 and had experienced limited military operations in the area since 1978 (Baghel 2015). Interestingly, the operation was preferred to the alternative of attacking Pakistan’s nuclear facility at Kahuta to prevent the enrichment of weapons grade uranium, since the former would lead to less overt warfare (Khan 2003).
Cheetah helicopters used by the IAF during Operation Meghdoot. Source: Hindustan Aeronautics Limited
The Operation was finally approved by PM Indira Gandhi and 5:30am on April 13th 1984 witnessed the air dropping of troops of the Kumaon Regiment and the Ladakh Scouts over the icy heights of the Saltoro Ridge. Lt. Col Chand was assisted as the task force head by Capt. Kulkarni, Major Bahuguna and Lt Col. Khanna who scaled different strategic points on the glacier (Joshi 2017). Lt. Col. Chand chose April 13th as the date since it was Baisakhi and a date on which the Pakistani army wouldn’t be expecting an attack from India. 32 sorties led to the successful completion of the operation with a Pakistani helicopter expressing alarm at finding Indian troops well stationed upon the glacier on the evening of the very same day (Singh 2018).
The forces traversing through the adverse conditions. Source: India Today.
Pakistan was slow to notice and respond due to its preoccupation with being the centre for mujahideen training in the Afghan war and skirmishes between the troops were only first reported on April 25th when the Pakistan Burzil Force attempted to dislodge the Indian troops in vain (Khosa 1999).
The Armed forces after successfully occupying the glacier. Source: DNA India
The Operation provides India with unparalleled diplomatic leverage over Pakistan as witnessed by the 13 rounds of negotiation which have surrounded Siachen ever since. Pakistan presently occupies the Nubra river valley but this is a small consolation in view of Indian possession and maintenance of positions that provide the advantage of altitude and which have within their control a majority of the 2000 sq km of the territory disputed therein. India effectively controls two-thirds of the glacier and 2 out of the 3 main passes. The possession of the Saltoro ridge not only gives India access to surveying any Pakistani activities south and south west of the glacier, but also gives India a view of Chinese activities in the Shaksgam region (ET 2019). The upcoming five years will witness India spending over $1.5 billion and Pakistan over $400 million. For the Indians every day they hold on to the glacier becomes easier, due to technological advances, new weapon systems and rising defence expenditure; and the disparity in economic growth between India and Pakistan makes the financial burden steadily more difficult for Pakistan to bear. (Andersson 2019).
With 879 troops having sacrificed their lives until now and with thousands more to follow if a diplomatic arrangement isn’t reached, India juggles with the growing human losses and environmental degradation of the region with proponents of rapprochement such as Brigadier Kanwal advocating for military retreat and the glacier to be turned into a “science park” for scientific research.
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