April 1984 saw the Indian Army, supported by the IAF, launch an audacious and preemptive operation to occupy the Saltoro Ridge and dominate the Siachen Glacier. These vignettes are a tribute to that operation.
For long, the inhospitable Russian Tundra in winter has been seen as the most hostile battleground that armies could experience. Hitler’s defeat at Stalingrad in the bleak winter of 1942 and the decimation of his Panzer divisions by hardy and acclimatised Russian forces remain one of the key turning points of World War II. Hannibal’s epic crossing of the Alps in 218 B.C and Napoleon’s over-confident attempt to conquer Russia in 1814 remain two other epic campaigns not only against human adversaries, but against the fierce elements of altitude and nature.
In more recent times, some of the battles fought by Thimayya’s Srinagar division against advancing invaders from Skardu and Gilgit in snow-bound passes in J&K and Ladakh in the early summer of 1948, and battles fought by the Indian Army supported by the Indian Air Force in 1965, 1971 and 1999 in the Kargil sector at altitudes of 13-20,000 feet are all examples of courage in the face of hostile weather and terrain. However, all these examples pale when compared to the hostility and prolonged nature of the India-Pakistan face-off on the Siachen Glacier.
The Indian claim on the Siachen Glacier is based on the widely accepted watershed principle of demarcation, and runs for almost 110 kms along the Saltoro Ridge from slightly west of NJ 9842 and ends at the Indira Col, a pass that is dominated by the Sia Kangri Mastiff at the tri-junction of India-Pakistan and Shaksgam (ceded to China by Pakistan, but still claimed by India). While India claimed that the LOC thereafter (now called the Actual Ground Position Line or AGPL) ought to follow this line, Pakistan claimed that the LOC should continue as the crow flies in a north-easterly direction by joining Pt NJ 9842 with the Karakoram pass.
As a result, the Pakistanis claimed the Saltoro Ridge and the Siachen Glacier and commenced sending foreign expeditions to the area from the late 1970s. These expeditions used to climb the main peaks on the Saltoro range, like Saltoro Kangri and Teram Kangri, and then explore the glacier by descending onto it through the various passes mentioned earlier. Some Pakistani commentators offer an Islamic perspective to the glacier by highlighting the travels of a Muslim saint, Syed Ali Hamadani from Kashmir to Kashgar, ‘spreading the message of Islam and constructing mosques’.
It was thanks to some of the Indian Army’s ‘mountaineering pioneers’, like Colonel Narinder ‘Bull’ Kumar, that Indians discovered and realised on ground, that despite the desolate and treacherous nature of the terrain, Pakistan was following a ‘creeping strategy’ to occupy the heights of the Saltoro Ridge in the early 1980s. When the Indian Army came to know through the mountaineering community that this would mean that the entire Siachen Glacier would lie in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, it was left with no other alternative but to recommend to the Government of India that military operations were the only way out to secure the glacier.
Control of the glacier for India became even more critical considering that just east of the glacier lay the vast high altitude desert plains that the Indian Army calls Sub-Sector North (SSN). This is the area that saw much action in the 1962 India-China War and includes the Indian Advance Landing Ground (ALG) of Daulat Beg Oldie, and contested areas of the Depsang Plains that have seen numerous face-offs in the recent past between Indian and Chinese border patrols. Strategically, should Pakistan have taken control of the Siachen Glacier, SSN would have been sandwiched between Pakistani and Chinese forces, a fact that was well appreciated by the Indian Army leadership. The entire Siachen Glacier, with all major passes, is currently under the administration of India since 1984. Pakistan controls the region west of Saltoro Ridge, with posts located almost 3,000 ft below over 50 Indian posts.
Considered by many to have been the brain behind Operation Meghdoot, as the Indian Army’s stunning high-altitude operation to pre-empt Pakistan from occupying the Saltoro Ridge and the Siachen Glacier was called, Lt Gen M.L. Chibber, the Northern Army Commander, and Lieutenant General P.N. Hoon, his aggressive corps commander in Srinagar, were given a free hand to plan the operation by India’s army chief, General Arun Vaidya.
They brainstormed over the plan from late 1983 onwards with Colonel ‘Bull’ Narinder Kumar giving them a ‘birds eye view’ of the area in the absence of Google Maps, with ‘on ground’ operational perspectives coming from the aggressive paratrooper divisional commander of 3 Infantry Division, Major General Shiv Sharma. The actual assault in mid-April 1984, led by 4 Kumaon and Ladakh Scouts and supported by a bunch of intrepid IAF and Indian Army helicopter pilots, is well-documented by many analysts and military historians.
Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice Marshal from the IAF and currently a Visiting Fellow at Oxford.