As we have seen, in 1987 I took over the command of the 28 Infantry Division, which had a significant mandate: to take care of the vast border region starting from Zoji La in the west and extending over the Siachen sector right up to the Karakoram Pass. The focus of my command was Siachen, that is the Saltoro range foothold we had secured in 1984.
Minor stirrings of tension had been noted on the glacier where Pakistan had reportedly established a post on the left shoulder of Bilafond La. Disconnected from the rest of the country as this glacier region has been, most people had not even heard the word ‘Siachen’ and the fact that the media hardly covered this was all the more reason for this state of ignorance.
In any case, the general public’s lack of understanding and awareness of the armed forces has always driven me to the edge of impatience. On many occasions I have had to control my temper on being asked whether India was in a state of readiness to defeat Pakistan. Or worse, if we have enough tanks and bombs to protect ourselves!
Over time, I have become more patient, not knowing whom to blame for this: the determined effort and policies to keep the military away from deliberations of matters political, or the general lack of awareness or respect for the work the army undertakes or the role they are expected to play – an attitude that seems to say: ‘What do they do when the country isn’t at war, in any case!’ Or perhaps it’s the idiotic and caricature-ish representations of the armed forces in most Hindi movies. Whatever be the case, an account and sense of the history of this region of conflict would be meaningful to and imperative for anyone who wishes to obtain an understanding of my experiences.
How do I begin outlining the history of the Siachen glacier? Frankly, I am quite unsure where to start. The discovery of the expanse, its changing relevance and its great role in the geopolitics of the region for the two countries that were impacted constitute a research endeavour by itself.
As I bring together details that will be essential as a background to my experiences, I will take the liberty of quoting heavily from the research formulated by my brother-in-law and friend Harish Kapadia. Harish is married to Meena’s cousin Geeta, and we have had many meetings over the last many years to discuss and deliberate on issues and interests dear to our hearts. An avid mountaineer, a true lover of the outdoors and determined to step out of his comfort zone to explore the Himalayas through several mountaineering expeditions, Harish has been an inspiration and mentor to many.
What binds us closer is Harish and Geeta’s younger son Nawang, who joined the army because of his deep and abiding passion for the armed forces. This commitment was cut tragically short when Nawang fell to Pakistani terrorist bullets, barely two months into his service in the army, during an encounter in the Kupwara sector of Jammu and Kashmir. Since then, Geeta and Harish have been as much immersed in raising awareness of the role of the armed forces as they have been committed to discussing the tangled issues that mar the geopolitics of the region. Over the years Harish and I have found multiple grounds for common conversations, developing a mutual respect for one another and our respective areas of interest and occupation.
Personally, my thoughts and perceptions of Siachen are those of a soldier concerned about matters related to security. I had never done in-depth research of the kind undertaken by Harish, and thus
I am indebted to him for aiding this elaboration of the historical background of Siachen. It isn’t that difficult to gather information from the internet; online information is available in plenty on events
from 1987 to now, and a great deal has been written by various people who are experts in the field of mountaineering, and also students and analysts in matters of military strategy.
The region that is now called Op Meghdoot has pieces written by different agencies with varying focus areas. Op Meghdoot was the name given to the operations undertaken by the Indian army in 1984–85 to occupy important features of the Saltoro range and forestall Pakistan’s efforts to do the same.
Each piece of writing is dedicated to a different aspect of the Siachen glacier – ranging from details of the environment to its strategic significance, to the reasons for disputes that have arisen, which have warranted military commitment, and the irreparable environmental damage being caused due to the war on the glacier.