The Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir had legally acceded to India, as reconfirmed by United Nations’ resolutions. The UN-sponsored Indo-Pak 1949 agreement clearly mentioned that “the Cease Fire line stopped in Ladakh at point NJ9842 and continued ‘thence north to the glaciers’”.
However, Pakistan government started giving permissions to foreigners to trek and mountaineer in the Siachen glacier area. The 76 km long Siachen glacier lies between the massive peaks of the Saltoro Range to its west and Karakoram Range to its east. The glacier’s width varies from 1 to 2.5 km. The average annual snowfall is 35 feet, with temperatures ranging from minus 25 to 50 degrees Celsius.
By joining NJ9842 to Karakoram pass using a dotted line on the map, Pakistan wanted to usurp the region. On the other side was the Shaksgam valley, which Pakistan had simply handed over to China. Like Pakistan, other nations also started mapping Saltoro Ridge and Siachen glacier as a part of Pakistan. Col Narendra Kumar who was an avid mountaineer discovered this. Authorized by the Indian army, Narendra and his team mapped the entire Siachen glacier region between 1981-83 by scaling Sia Kangri, Saltoro Kangri, Indira Col ridge; and crossing many Saltoro passes including Sia La, Bilafond La and Turkestan La (Indira Col pass). Turkestan La pass is the gateway from India to East Turkestan, which was renamed Xinjiang after its illegal occupation by China.
Indian intelligence agencies find out that Pakistani military was buying high-altitude equipment. Their plan was to occupy the heights and establish military posts. India immediately launched Operation Meghdoot and established many important military posts in the Siachen region by April 1984. Narendra Kumar’s herculean efforts had enabled India to beat Pakistan’s wicked plans by a few days! Pakistan was hurt and started scheming.
Sometime in early 1987, the Pakistanis occupied and set up the world’s highest military post at a height of 6,749 metres (22,143 feet) near the crucial Bilafond La pass. The post was so strategically important that Pakistan named it the ‘Quaid’ Post, after their first Quaid-e-Azam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The Quaid post gave a clear view of up to 80 km around the entire Saltoro range; the Siachen glacier which was located about 15 km away; and many Indian Army posts. At exactly the same time, China adopted an aggressive tone against India at the Arunachal Pradesh border.
The Quaid Post was manned by commandos of the 3rd Shaheen Company battalion, a part of a Special Services Group led by Brigadier Pervez Musharraf. On 18 April 1987 from the Quaid post, the Pakistanis fired upon the Indian troops at the Sonam post located to its north-west, killing a Junior commissioned officer (JCO) and five soldiers. Sonam post, the world’s highest helipad at 6,400 metres (21,000 feet), was earlier established by Ladakhi Havildar Sonam. The Pakistanis also started sniping at Indian helicopters, preventing them from dropping supplies to the Amar post, located to the south of the Quaid Post. The Siachen area had become the highest battleground on Earth.
Launch of a reconnaissance mission
The Indian Army immediately launched an operation to evict the Pakistanis from the Quaid Post. The highly trained 8th battalion of Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (8th JAK LI) was the most ideally suited for this high-altitude assignment. Since, helicopter gunship attack in such oxygen-depleted air around narrow peaks was not possible, Commanding Officer (CO) Col AP Rai decided to send a recce team. The 13-men team was led by the young Second Lieutenant Rajiv Pande. It had taken over 35 helicopter sorties just to transport Pande’s team and their supplies. The aim was to identify different accesses to the post and to find out how many Pakistanis were manning the Quaid post with their position details.
After due acclimatization, on 29 May 1987 the team start trekking in the dark night towards the ice wall leading to the Quaid Post. The troops had to halt every few meters to regain their breath in that oxygen-depleted altitude. There were frequent blizzards and sub-zero temperatures. Walking was difficult due to wind speeds reaching 125 kmph.
The Quaid post was virtually an impregnable glacier fortress with high ice walls on three sides with steep inclinations of 80° to 90°. The fourth side, called the ‘saddle’ or ‘shoulder’, had a thin razor sharp ridge line. Rajiv’s brave men drove pitons on the cliff and passed ropes through coupling links, almost all the way up to the ‘saddle’. From here, the next step involved the very difficult and murderous climb up to the peak without getting noticed by the Pakistani soldiers stationed at the top. It would have to be a frontal assault, a suicidal task! Nevertheless, they proceeded. The Pakistanis were waiting for them to come in the firing range. They opened intense heavy machine gun fire and killed 10 Indian soldiers, including Rajiv Pande. Only 3 survivors managed to return to the Sonam post.
The preparations for the attack
Then, Col AP Rai asked Major Varinder, a fifth-generation army officer, to capture the Quaid post and take revenge on their slain colleagues. A regiment consisting of 2 officers (Major Varinder and his deputy Captain Anil Sharma); 3 JCO’s (Harnam Singh, Sansar Chand and Bana Singh); and 57 jawans was ready to go. Another 10-man team led by Captain Ram Prakash was to establish a post just ahead of Sonam post to provide artillery cover to these bravehearts using rocket launchers.
Cheetah helicopters made over 200 sorties to place the men and material at Amar and Sonam posts. Food like potato and fruits would get frozen, unbreakable even with a hammer, hence rations were sent in tins. During rehearsals, two soldiers were killed by falling down into crevasses. Their bodies were never found. A thin layer of snow could be covering a 200 feet fall. One could get lost in a blizzard or get snow blindness. Sweat could also become ice in a soldier’s gloves and socks. Frostbite can then quickly chew away the fingers. High-altitude sickness could cause organs to shut down. It had taken 7 days to get acclimatized at that altitude and temperatures dropping up to -50 C.
After these intense preparations, ‘Operation Rajiv’ (named in the honour of Second Lieutenant Rajiv Pande) was launched in the evening of 23 June 1987. A platoon set out to find the rope fixed by Pande’s patrol. Due to heavy snowfall, they managed to trek only a few hundred metres in waist-deep snow till 4 am the next morning. The team could not find the rope and returned to the base camp.
The attack begins on the night of 24 June 1987
On the 24th at 8 pm, the entire team led by Major Varinder began trekking again in waist-deep snow. Harnam Singh’s team finally found the pitons and ropes put up by Pande’s team. Their happiness soon dissipated when they saw the bodies of Pande and few others, some still roped together in death. The cold had preserved their bodies, which would be retrieved later.
As planned earlier, three assault groups were made viz. a 10-men team led by Subedar Harnam Singh, followed at a distance by another team led by Subedar Sansar Chand and a third reserve team led by Naib Subedar Bana Singh.
The first group of 10 Indian soldiers started climbing the 90 degree gradient ice wall. They had barely covered a distance of 50 m, the Pakistanis opened fire and 3 Indian soldiers were instantly killed and many were wounded. Every Indian casualty needed four comrades to carry him down to the base, to be later evacuated by a helicopter to a hospital. After a brief rest, the four helpers would be back in the battle zone.
The Indian troops were unable to fully fire back as some of their weapons jammed in -25 °C temperature. The Pakistanis meanwhile were heating their weapons with a kerosene stove kept below their weapons. Also, India could not fully use its artillery in the high winds, as the mortar shells could swerve unpredictably and harm their own colleagues.
Despite heavy Pakistani fire, Major Varinder and some of his men succeeded in climbing the crucial wall section in the darkness. Now, they were only 200 m away from the top. There they took shelter in craters, behind icicles and in shallow trenches dug in the ice. Some soldiers started hallucinating in the cold. They somehow spent the entire day, frozen and hungry.
Second assault on the night of 25th June
25 June at 9 pm, Subedar Sansar Chand’s team led the attack on the Quaid Post. They were supported by rocket launcher fire and massive artillery barrage from the post established by Ram Prakash ahead of the Sonam post. Major Varinder and his team used their machine guns to support. They burnt camphor to prevent their guns from jamming in the cold weather. Sansar and his team captured the enemy’s first bunker after lobbying grenades at 2 am on 26 June 1987. Instead of resting due to exhaustion, Sansar’s brave team persisted and captured their second bunker by 5 am. They had crossed deadly crevasses and survived fierce and continuous firing from the Pakistanis. Bodies of many Indian soldiers fell such that they could never be recovered. Then, Sansar Chand and his depleted team reached near the top of the Quaid Post. Since, the battery of his radio set had drained, Sansar sent a soldier who was gunned down. Thus, he could not communicate with Major Varinder, who was located just 100 metres behind him in the ‘saddle’. It was the 3rd day that they had had little to eat or drink. Their breath and sweat was frozen like icicles on the icy peaks.
Col AP Rai’s commanding officer Brigadier Chandan Nugyal himself radioed Varinder, promising him artillery fire support. Varinder knew his men could not last another day in the open on the icy peaks in extremely cold conditions, eating just a bar of chocolate. If the mission had to succeed it had to be completed soon. If the weather cleared, Pakistan would send in further reinforcements. Since there was no contact with Sansar Chand, Varinder decided to launch a dual attack with his 8-member team and another 5-member team led by Naib Subedar Bana Singh.
The final assault on the 26th of June itself
Accordingly, at dawn of 26 June 1987, Varinder and his men crawled out of the saddle to link with Naib Subedar Bana Singh. Bana was feeling low as his men were unwell and he was low on supplies. Then he heard the voice of Guru Gobind Singh: “I am only testing you”. He became enthusiastic again.
Bana and his 4 soldiers started the final assault with indomitable courage at the very dark noon of 26th June. To avoid being detected, the team decided to climb the last part from an unexpected, longer and extremely hazardous route. It was a steep 457 metres (1,500 ft) high wall of ice! The persistent snow blizzard, bitter cold and the poor light conditions gave them cover from the enemy, which was anyway not expecting anyone to take this dangerous route from behind their post. Bana and his 4 men used extreme precaution, as the darkness covered the treacherous crevasses. In the face of death, Bana and his men were slowly but surely making the treacherous climb of 90 degrees angle. Physically they were exhausted, but mentally they remained strong.
After several hours, they reached the top. Bana found that there was only one Pakistani bunker and a few trenches. They split into 2 groups to surround the bunker, where the over-confident adversaries had holed up due to really bad weather. Stealthily, Bana Singh crawled all the way till the bunker’s door, suddenly flung it open, and before the stunned Pakistanis could react, he lobbed a grenade and closed the door!
Then, quickly in tandem with the other group led by Chuni Lal, they started a ferocious attack to kill the Pakistani soldiers in the trenches. It was an intense gun fight and at times a hand-to-hand combat using bayonets. Some Pakistani soldiers fell off the slippery slopes of the peak and some escaped towards the Pakistani side. Bana Singh and his team had finally captured the post in a little over 4 hours since they had started the climb. He fired the victory flare. As he had prayed before the operation, he prayed again to the Gurus after the operation. By then, Major Varinder Singh had also reached the top. They opened the bunker and had their first meal in three days. But, they got no time to relax.
The fierce retaliation
Brigadier Pervez Musharraf was very upset that the Indians had captured the Quaid Post. Immediately, Pakistani artillery started shelling the post and their soldiers launched a counter-attack. Sepoy Om Raj had his hand blown off and despite best efforts could not be saved. Major Varinder Singh was also seriously wounded. However, he refused to be evacuated and continued to command his troops. The Indians fought hard, forcing the Pakistanis to withdraw. Major Varinder had gained tactical superiority of the post and by 5 pm the Indian flag was flying at the top.
Major Varinder walked down the hill using his right hand to stop the wounds from further bleeding. He was to recover after 17 stitches and a 15-day hospital stay in Leh.
On the morning of 27 June 1987, Brigadier Chandan Nugyal arrived by helicopter and congratulated the heroes for this unprecedented victory. Nugyal renamed the top as Bana post and the ‘saddle’ in the ridge-line as the ‘Viru saddle’ after Major Varinder. Even, Pakistani defense reviews too called this battle as “Bravery beyond comparison”!
Later, the Indians respectfully handed over the dead bodies of Pakistani soldiers during a flag meeting in Kargil. China agreed for a flag meeting with India in Arunachal Pradesh in August 1987 to diffuse tensions. But, revengeful Musharraf led a major Pakistani attack on the Bilafond Pass in September 1987. It was in vain as about 1,000 Pakistani men lost their lives. Further Pakistani attempts to reclaim positions in 1990, 1995, 1996 and 1999, all ended in failures for them.
Bana Singh was promoted to the rank of Subedar and awarded India’s highest wartime gallantry award, the Param Veer Chakra for conspicuous bravery and leadership under the most adverse conditions. Before retirement on 31 Oct 2000, Bana was made Subedar Major and later an Honorary Captain.
Sansar Chand was awarded a Mahaveer Chakra for the crucial capture of 2 bunkers and the ‘saddle’.
7 soldiers were awarded a Veer Chakra, including Second Lieutenant Rajiv Pande (posthumously) and Major Varinder Singh for his valiant leadership. Varinder went on to become a Brigadier. Col AP Rai got the Uttam Yuddha Sewa Medal (UYSM).
Riflemen Om Raj (posthumously) was awarded with a Sena medal. Chuni Lal was also rewarded with a Sena medal and later promoted to Naib Subedar. Chuni Lal went on to become the most decorated soldier of 8 JAK LI winning a Veer Chakra (1999); a UN citation for valour in Sudan and an Ashok Chakra (posthumously in 2007).
For his mountaineering skills and incredible mapping of the Saltoro range and Siachen glacier, Col Narendra Kumar received many awards viz. the Param Vishishta Sewa medal, Kirti chakra, Ati Vishishta Sewa medal, MacGregor reconnaissance medal, IMF Gold medal, Arjuna award and a Padma Shree.
Over the decades, the Indian Army has developed great skill at surviving at ‘super high altitudes’. For every battalion posted up there, there are many others in training to acclimatize for the freezing cold and the high-altitudes. India spends over Rs 2,000 crore a month to sustain troops on the Siachen glacier. Men now have better equipment, food and weather forecasting machines, but there is still an enormous cost in dead and injured.
A memorial for the dead at the Siachen Base camp summarizes well:
“Quartered in snow, silent to remain. When the bugle calls, they shall rise and march again!”
- Indian military journals
- ‘Our bravest warriors’ by V. Longer
- ‘Stories of Heroism’ by B. Chakravorty
- ‘History of the Indian Army since 1947’ by Col J. Francis
- ‘Nothing but!’ by Brigadier Samir Bhattacharya
- Google images