Nitin Gokhale, NDTV's Security and Strategic Affairs Editor, has written "Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga", on the standoff between India and Pakistan in the world's highest battleground. Here is an excerpt from the book:
Col Kumar's expeditions in 1978 and 1981 and a couple of others in between had given the Northern Command a fair idea about the civilian expeditions that were now increasingly coming into Siachen via Skardu and Gilgit. Clearly, Pakistan was throwing open the Karakorams for mountaineering expeditions. It began as an experiment to encourage tourism in the Northern Areas but soon turned into what Indian officials described as a bit of "mountain poaching," in which the line of control was extended to the Karakoram Pass from NJ 9842 showing the Siachen glacier as part of Pakistan!
Renowned mountaineer Harish Kapadia in his book, Siachen Glacier: The Battle of Roses, in fact claims that Pakistan had started permitting mountaineering expeditions into Siachen Glacier as early as 1974. "The first expedition to Siachen climbed the south ridge of Sherpi Kangri II. This was followed by an Austrian expedition, which climbed Sia Kangri from the southwest. A major expedition from Japan climbed peak K12. Two climbers reached the summit and communicated this but they never returned to the base camp. They died during the descent. All three expeditions were in 1974 and on the rim of the Siachen Glacier...it was not long before an expedition entered the main Siachen Glacier. The Shizuka University team had applied to the Pakistani authorities for permission to climb peaks here every year between 1964 and 1969, but had always been denied it. In fact, between 1961 and 1974, Pakistan had steadfastly refused permission to climb in the vicinity of the Siachen. Sometime in 1974, the Pakistani authorities informed the Japanese that their expeditions would now be permitted. The Japanese were offered a 50% discount on peak fees as well as the assistance of the Pakistani Army. Their permit statedthat the peak was located 'near the frontier of China and Pakistan.' Final permission was granted to them in January 1975. The 14-member expedition was accompanied by Capt Shaukat Nazir Hamdani of the Pakistani Army as the LO (Liaison Officer)."
Literature of the time also shows that Pakistan had launched a well-planned promotional campaign to attract mountaineers to come and climb some of the well known peaks in the region-According to one report, between 1975 and 1980, at least five Japanese and one American expedition were allowed to cross the Saltoro ridge via Sia La and Bilafond La to explore the Siachen glacier.
Harish Kapadia says the Pakistanis were testing waters. And waiting for Indian reaction. As he writes: " It is indeed surprising that Indian agencies showed no interest in the reports of mountaineering activities that were taking place right under their nose, even though details were published in many journals, including one from India. Was history repeating itself? The Indo-China war of 1962 had been triggered by a road that was being built in the Indian territory of Aksai Chin..."
They Indians realised the importance of Pakistani activities only in 1978 (after Col Kumar's expedition returned) but did not take it seriously until the protest note from Pakistan laying the claim to Siachen actually arrived in Northern Command in 1983, although three Army expeditions had been sent to the glacier in 1980,1981 and 1982.
Gen Chibber who had taken over as Northern Army Commander in 1982 after commanding a Corps in Punjab, was alerted to the Siachen issue again during one of the early briefings when his staff showed him a protest note by Pakistan's Northern Sector Commander warning India to keep off the Siachen area, following India's expeditions in the previous three summers. Gen Chibber couldn't help recall the episode in 1978 when he, as Director General Military Operations, had permitted Col Kumar to launch the first operational reconnaissance patrol disguised as a civilian expedition to the Siachen glacier.
Gen Chibber, writing in a defence journal after his retirement, recalled: "To understand the origin of the Siachen conflict, it would be relevant here to look at the developments in the Gilgit region. In the mid-seventies, the Pakistani government adopted the policy of throwing open the Karakoram to international mountaineers. It was a step to promote tourism, and they simplified the procedure to clear expeditions. They even waived off the royalty for mountain peaks below 6100 metres. A well planned promotional campaign was launched to attract mountaineers to come and climb some of the well-known peaks in this region-Gasherbrum group, Mount Godwin Austin and Nanga Parbat. Travel facilities to Gilgit and Skardu were improved, as were hotel facilities in these towns. The response was really good. In clearing expeditions, a bit of 'mountain poaching' was undertaken!"
By the summer of 1983, it was clear that India needed to keep a close watch on Siachen. Two patrols, Polar Bear I and Polar Bear II were sent between June and September 1983. The second patrol was tasked to build a small hut. A 'shelter of sorts' was put together by the end of September, 1983. It was good enough to protect the patrols from strong winds. To be fair, these patrols never came across any Pakistani ground patrols, although Pakistani helicopters did buzz them on a couple of occasions. The troops came back to base by end September as the winter set in.
Northern Command HQ should have been satisfied with the feedback brought back by the patrols, but two protest notes by Pakistan in August 1983 were unusually strong and gave the first official indication of Pakistan's stand. The note sent on 21 August 1983 by the Northern Sector Commander for the first time claimed all areas northewest of the line joining NJ 9842 to Karakoram Pass as Pakistan's! It read:
"Request instruct your troops to withdraw beyond line of control south of line joining Point NJ 9842, Karakoram Pass NE 7410 immediately. I have instructed my troops to show maximum restraint. But any delay in vacating our territory will create a serious situation." Ironically the note ended on a conciliatory note: "Assuring my fullest cooperation in maintaining peace and tranquillity along line of control."
Northern Command was in no mood to accept the unilateral extension of the line of control. It sent a counter-protest note pointing out air violations.
But, Pakistan was not willing to accept India's protest. Another note received on 29 August was more explicit. It read:
"Your reply to our protest note of 21 August 1983 received.
A) Your troops have carried out intrusions across LC north of Point NJ 9842-Karakoram Pass-NE 7410. They intruded approximately 25 miles inside our territory in Siachen glacier, NJ 9797, NK 0689.
B) Last year also your troops had intruded into the same area for which protest had been lodged by our government.
This is a serious violation and unless stopped forthwith is likely to disturb the peaceful condition. Therefore please instruct your troops to remain south of the line Point NJ 9842-Karakoram Pass NE 7410."
Gen Chibber now recalls: "We considered the protest note and took a view that such routine protests are a common feature of life in Jammu and Kashmir, where the armies of India and Pakistan are deployed against each other in a 'no-war-no-peace' confrontation. A suitable counter-protest was lodged and decision taken to continue our patrolling during the summer in 1983. It was during 1983 that the Pakistani side precipitated matters which developed into a conflict. In 1983, it became obvious to us that the Pakistani side was getting ready to physically come onto the Siachen glacier. Hence, we had to act swiftly in order to prevent them from doing so."
Northern Command kept the Army HQ in the loop and began its own assessment of the situation.
A detailed appreciation of the situation on Siachen and its importance as assessed at that time is buried in Indian Army files. A part of the assessment said:
"We had been launching expeditions and patrols onto the Siachen glacier since 1978. Pakistan launched protests against our activities in 1983 on the plea that our patrols have intruded into their territory. Their claim to the territory is part of their geostrategic scheme backed by the incorrect and unilateral marking of the imaginary extension of the LC on maps published in the USA. From the various intelligence reports received it was confirmed that Pak was sending an appropriately equipped force in the area to contest our patrol in 1984."
The assessment was based not only on the Army's own intelligence reports, since even RA&W (Research and Analysis Wing), India's external intelligence agency, had picked up information that suggested that the Pakistanis were shopping for Alpine clothing and equipment in thousands from Europe in the winter of 1983.
The former chief of RA&W, Vikram Sood, was the agency's Srinagar station head in those years. He remembers walking into the 15 Corps Commander Lt Gen PN Hoon's office in the Badami Bagh Cantonment, and passing on this and other inputs about increased Pakistani activity in the area. "That time, we knew Pakistanis were sending more and more civilian expeditions into Siachen, but its importance was not so apparent until we put two and two together and realised Pakistan was up to something far more serious than just sending mountaineering expeditions into the area. When we got reports of the large scale snow clothing and high altitude equipment purchase by Pakistan, there was enough urgency for me to go and share it with Prem (Lt Gen Hoon)," Vikram Sood recalled during an interview with me in 2013. "The Pakistanis were not buying all that for a picnic," he quipped.
In 2012, when the clamour for de-militarising Siachen following the death of 130 Pakistani soldiers in an avalanche accident was at its peak, Sood referred to the meeting with Lt Gen Hoon in an article.
"The venue: Badami Bagh, Srinagar, Headquarters of the Corps Commander 15 Corps, Lt Gen Prem Hoon
The year: 1983
The participants: The Corps Commander and the R&AW station chief.
The subject: Siachen and reported Pakistani activities in that region according to intelligence reports from across the LoC.
It would be untrue to suggest that this meeting led to the assault on the Soltoro Ridge which is actually west of the Siachen glacier, but the fact is, that the matter had assumed serious proportions and Indira Gandhi's government was deeply concerned.
The reports, that the Pakistanis were making probes ostensibly through tourism and mountaineering groups, were disturbing. The obvious aim of the Pakistanis appeared to be to cross the Saltoro heights and head for the Karakoram Pass on the Jammu and Kashmir border with Tibet (China)..."
Even Gen Chibber's note to Army HQ in 1983-84 justifying the need to launch an operation to occupy the passes on the Saltoro ridge had details of Pakistani activities and intentions in the area.
He told Army HQ: "Pakistan had inducted a column consisting of one Cdo(Commando) Coy (Company) and one NLI (Northern Light Infantry) Coy supported by a mor pl (Mortar platoon) to Sia La. Pakistan build up of this column was apparently delayed due to the late arrival from abroad of snow clothing and equipment."
The note continued: "Whilst we were planning and preparing for Operation Meghdoot, there were intelligence reports that indicted Pak had designs of launching a military operation in the area. Some of the pertinent indicators were as follows:
(a) Cancellation of leave: In Jan 84, it was learnt that the turnover of troops/units, as also leave of persons in Force Commander Northern Area (FCNA) had been suspended till Sept 84.
(b) Laying lines of communication: In Dec 1983, intelligence reported laying of line of communications ahead of Skardu. Later in Apr 84, reports pertaining to establishment of an exchange at Khapalu were also received.
(c) Procurement of high altitude equipment: Reports in November 1983 had indicated Pak procuring approximately 1000 sets of high altitude clothing and other related equipment."
The assessment of the Indian Army's Northern Command was later borne out by Lt. Gen Jahandad Khan (then Commander of Rawalpindi-based X Corps) in his book.
"When the SSG Company got across Bilafond La Pass (in 1983), the helicopter pilot reported an Indian location 1000 yards ahead in the Siachen area. After seeing our helicopter, the Indian troops, comprising Ladakh Scouts, left their location in a great hurry abandoning all their rations and tentage. The SSG Company stayed in this area for 10 days but was ordered to withdraw in the first week of September 1983 as it had started snowing and the company did not have equipment for survival in the winter season under thirty to forty feet of snow, which is normal snow range.
The withdrawal of the SSG Company was followed by many meetings in the GHQ to decide our plan of action for the summer of 1984 when the Indians were bound to come in greater numbers. Also taken into consideration was the fact that whoever succeeded in occupying the passes first would be able to hold them as it was impossible to dislodge them from these positions due to the terrain and the conditions. As Corps Commander, I gave the following assessment to the GHQ.
Next year (1984), India is most likely to pre-empt the occupation of the main passes of Saltoro Ridge with two battalion strength of occupation and a third battalion as reserve. It would need another brigade to provide them with logistics support. Maximum helicopter force will have to be utilised for logistics support. The air force will be available for air cover and also air drop of supplies and equipment.
We will need a brigade group with a battalion plus to occupy these passes and the rest of the force to provide relief and logistics support. We would also need maximum porter force to carry supplies and ammunition from Goma to the glacier positions. All our helicopter force, both Aloutte and Puma, will have to be mobilised for recce and logistics cover.. The PAF has to stand by to provide air cover. I had also cautioned GHQ that this operation will be very costly in logistics support. Our military intelligence must be alerted to keep us informed of all enemy movements beyond Leh to forestall their occupation of the glacier area.
A meeting was held in in December 1983, the GHQ Operation Room under the chairmanship of President Gen Zia ul- Haq. After listening to the 10 Corps Plan, the COAS thought that operations on both sides would be of a limited scale, involving not more than a brigade on the Indian side and a battalion on Pakistan side. The COAS had obviously underestimated the quantum of force required by both sides. He had also underestimated the logistics problem of this operation as presented to him by the logistics staff of the GHQ. In this meeting it was decided to incorporate the PAF in this operation and Maj Gen Pir Dad Khan (Commander of the Northern Areas) was given the task of pre-empting the occupation of the passes, reaching there not before May 1984, as weather conditions before that period would not allow the use of helicopters and the PAF. This decision was to be approved by the Defence Coordination Committee (DCC), attended by Chairman, Joint Staffs Committee and all service chiefs. So preparatory work was started on procurement of high altitude equipment and clothing, improvement of roads and tracks, recruitment of porters etc. All these preparations were to be completed by April 1984.
I handed over command of 10 Corps to Lt. Gen Zahid Ali Akbar Khan on 31 March 1984 after completing my tenure of four years. I gave him a detailed briefing about this operational plan and particularly stressed the importance of intelligence keeping a watch on Indian moves beyond Leh. However, I learned later that when our troops approached the SaltoroRidge passes during the third week of May 1984, the Indians were already in occupation of Gyong Pass in the south, strategically important because it could interfere with the enemy's line of logistics support. As it was impossible to dislodge the Indians, we had no option but to occupy the next highest feature opposite them. This was a great setback for Pakistan, although all plans, including the timing of the troop movement, had been laid down at the highest level. We had obviously failed to detect the movement of a brigade size force in this area. It was learnt that the Indians had moved up their troops from Leh in the second half of April 1984.
After the occupation of these positions by both sides, opposite each other, the border became active. Both sides started inducting heavy weapons including artillery guns, rocket launchers and anti-aircraft missiles. Fire duels, patrol clashes and engagement of helicopters through anti-aircraft guns became a daily affair. Both sides also brought up more troops to counter each other. Since then there has been no substantial change in the relative positions on both sides. It was in the winter of 1984 that the Pakistani troops first experienced operating at that altitude. But the troops were provided high altitude equipment and there was no abnormal loss of life due to weather conditions."
If further proof of Pakistani intentions in 1983-84 was required, it was provided in an article titled 'Geopolitics of the Siachen Glacier' published in the November 1985 issue of the Asian Defence Journal, written by Zulfikar A. Khan. It said, in parts: "To protect what is regards as its territory and prevent violation by Indian troops, Pakistan decided to establish a permanent picket at Siachen. To pre-empt this move, the Indians airlifted a Kumaon Battalion by helicopters..."
Of course it wasn't a battalion (1,000 men), but just a platoon plus strength (about 30 soldiers) of 4 Kumaon which commenced Operation Meghdoot!
Gen Chibber, who was associated with Siachen in one way or the other since 1978, was also aware of the possible violent reaction by Pakistan if Indian troops occupied Sia La and Bilafond La. "That our operation in the Siachen Glacier could result in a local conflict which may further escalate was a distinct possibility. I was aware that Operation Meghdoot had the potential for escalation ranging from a conflict of a local nature to one of major magnitude either along the LC in Kashmir, or along the whole of the international border with Pakistan," the then Northern Army Commander told Army HQ in an official note.
Despite the possibility of escalation, Army HQ in consultation with the Prime Minister's Office and particularly on the directive of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided to launch Operation Meghdoot. As Gen Chibber now recalls: "I gave an assessment to the highest quarters that if we were to prevent the Pakistani side from presenting us with a fait accompli, we had to act fast." He remembers telling Army HQ and the PMO: "If they (the Pakistanis) were to establish posts on the Siachen glacier it would be very costly to evict them. The probability that we may not be able to do so at all was also very high."
In retrospect, it can be safely said that intelligence provided by RA&W, Army's own assessment coupled with the tone and tenor of the Pakistani protest notes in 1983 hastened preparations for launching the operations on the glacier. They commenced soon after Patrol Polar Bear had returned in September 1983. According to official notes of the time, Gen Chibber had a number of discussions with Lt Gen PN Hoon and his staff between September and December 1983. He gave them broad guidelines to plan ahead for operations in a "deliberate and comprehensive manner".
Gen Chibber noted: "Our presence in this area till 1983 had been in the form of expeditions and patrols, which were considered inadequate to meet possible Pakistani reaction. It was, therefore decided to launch a sizeable force suitably equipped to operate in the Siachen glacier during 1984."
Operation Meghdoot was now just months away!
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(ISBN: 978-93-84052-05-8, pp 300 (est), Price: Rs 699, hardcover + dust jacket)
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