Having been heli-dropped on the Lolofond Glacier on 13 April 1984, marking the commencement of Operation Meghdoot, it took about four more days for Captain Sanjay Kulkarni and his men to reach the Saltoro Ridge and establish their camp on Bilafond La. The inclement weather and near whiteout conditions had made movement slow. Despite the intensive training and previous exposure to the conditions during the ‘Polar Bear’ recce mission, most men were showing symptoms of high altitude sickness.
On 17 April 1984, Lance Naik Ramesh Singh succumbed to high-altitude pulmonary oedema and became the first casualty of Operation Meghdoot. Though the decision was to maintain radio silence till the capture of all the objectives and use only the presser switch to indicate positions, the early death of a dear comrade greatly affected the morale of the troops. Having secured his objective, Captain Kulkarni decided that evacuation was necessary and radio sets were opened. As expected, this chatter was picked up by Pakistan and soon enough, the Indian positions were buzzed by Pakistani Lama Choppers as the area was being reconnoitred by Pakistan DDMO General Ghulam Mohammad Malik.
It was only a matter of time that Pakistan’s Operation Ababeel, which the Indians had successfully pre-empted, was set into motion. However, Sia La too had been occupied by the Indian troops and by the next day Camps I, II and III on the glacier had successfully linked up with the Bilafond Platoon. With this link-up, the two passes to the glacier from the Saltoro Ridge were effectively sealed and secured.
A life beyond imagination
Expecting a Pakistani attack, Captain Kulkarni put in place a rigorous drill for his men to keep them alert. Unlike the recce missions, this was the first time that the troops were staying in such harsh conditions in battle-ready positions. Weapons were zeroed, trenches which had filled up with the previous day’s snow were dug and suitable positions were identified for affixing the mortars on the solid ice to ensure accurate firing. The men were getting used to a life which they had never imagined—one where the slightest exposure of their skin to the metal peeled it off. A life where they were unable to sleep for more than two hours, being constantly disturbed by the cold and the wind.
The eerie silence at night and hypoxia had started affecting their cognitive abilities. Hallucinations, mood swings and irritability overtook them. Shooting stars appeared to be enemy fire and stationary things appeared to be moving. False alarms became a daily feature and ‘saab dushman’ rang out every now and then, making all the troops spring up to their positions. While dealing with all this, Captain Kulkarni also used innovative methods to keep the spirits of the men high. To keep them distracted, he would often ask them to narrate a story or talk about their family or their favourite Bollywood film and even play antakshari.
On 25 April, during his routine check in the morning, Captain Kulkarni found the sentry on duty missing. It had snowed all night. A frantic search was launched. One of the soldiers noticed a mound of snow that had not been there the night before and informed Kulkarni. As the team prodded and chiselled at it, they found Lance Naik Govind Singh clinging to his rifle and cosily sleeping in the heat trap created around his body. To everyone’s surprise, he jumped up with his weapon and saluted his team after he was woken up. Kulkarni immediately decided that hereon, the sentry on duty would walk into his tent every hour and report and wait till he heard his ‘Ram Ram’ or ‘ok’ in return.
On the same day, Kulkarni also noticed what he thought were some white crows flying at a distance. Alarmed, he asked the troops to man their positions and, through his scope, saw Pakistani troops trying to approach their position from the Ali Brangsa side.
First exchange of fire on Bilafond La
The first shots in Siachen were fired by Pakistanis on that day, but their lower altitude made it inaccurate. No exchange of fire took place and Kulkarni concluded that this was a probing mission. Nevertheless, this incident led Kulkarni to establish a listening post right at the edge of the pass, about 500 metres from the camp, to ensure that he could see all the activity below and keep a watch out for any advancing Pakistani troops.
The first Battle for Bilafond La was fought on 23 June 1984 by this platoon of 4KUMAON that beat a spirited Pakistani attack at the cost of one death and two wounded on their side, leaving over two dozen Pakistani soldiers dead/wounded. As per official records, at 0445 hours on this day, the listening post manned by Lance Naik Chanchal Singh and Lance Naik Govind Singh spotted 30 to 40 Pakistani soldiers stealthily moving up the Bilafond La and opened fire on them with their light machine guns (LMGs). The Pakistani troops responded by firing with all their weapons including LMGs, heavy machine guns (HMGs), and mortars, making it impossible to carry out any movement between the listening post and the main camp. However, throwing caution to the wind, Chanchal managed to reach the post and after informing Captain Kulkarni about the impending attack, succumbed to his injuries.
With the enemy about 500 metres from the post, Kulkarni ordered massive firing and all hell broke loose. Caught in the open, the Pakistani troops suffered heavy casualties and were beaten back. This bloody nose in the first major skirmish in the region forced them to withdraw from their position at Ali Brangsa to about 7 km southwest of Bilafond La.
On 24 June 1984, the BBC Radio reported: ‘Indian and Pakistani troops have clashed at a place called Siachen in the Himalayas’ and thus, Siachen, the world’s longest glacier outside the poles, became the world’s highest battlefield.
Amit Paul is the author of the book ‘Meghdoot: The Beginning of the Coldest War’ which tells the story of how and why India ended up on top of the Saltoro Ridge. He is based in Gurugram and can be reached at email@example.com
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)