HOW MY SOLDIERS AND I OVERCAME TOTAL ISOLATION IN SIACHEN (1992)
A blizzard that lasted 45 days, depleting rations for the soldiers and the remains of a colleague in the same tent. This is what it means to be isolated in the Siachen Glacier.
Sometimes one wonders whether the Corona pandemic is even real or has a Robin Cook medical thriller come to life? What used to be in the pages of a novel has now become a part of our lives, with medical teams walking around in protective suits, huge isolation wards covered in miles of plastic, people dying in huge numbers, sanitisers being sprayed everywhere. It’s like a bad dream. And what of the economic impact of the Coronavirus outbreak on the world? Suddenly, there are no flights, trains or buses. The malls and market places are closed, so are other places of entertainment. It is the same story with educational institutions and amid the nationwide lockdown all one can see are deserted roads and service lanes, social distancing and the accompanying silence. Though these are necessary measures to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.
Ultimately, at the personal level, it means one thing and that is isolation.
The present situation takes me back to the year 1992. I was a young Major, just out from the Defence Services Staff College and instead of going on a staff appointment as is generally the policy after the course, I went back to my battalion, as it was going for a tenure in the Siachen glacier. I was to command a Company in the glacier in one of the most challenging picquets. The altitude was around 19,000 feet and recorded temperature around minus 45°C, with a wind chill effect going to around minus 65 °C. The picquet was on top of an ice wall and due to various factors, it was impossible for helicopters to come there. This, therefore, led to a big challenge, that of getting our daily survival rations from the closest helipad.
It was the month of February and a few days after taking over from the relieving Unit, the weather got nasty. Once the weather worsens there, it is a completely white-out condition.
Visibility becomes so limited that if you stretch your hand, you can’t see your fingers. The snow blizzards are so strong that if you are not well grounded, you can just be blown off. Under such conditions, movement from one place to another means certain death. Therefore, it’s total isolation.
The challenge was further accentuated because the poor weather conditions continued for a long period, nearly 45 days. With no movement of men possible, rations started diminishing steadily and I had to severely restrict our meals so that we could last longer. We came down to one meal a day which consisted of only one or two tablespoons of rice and nothing else.
Our survival depended entirely on kerosene oil because, not only was it required for cooking, we needed it most for melting blue ice into water, without which we would have got completely dehydrated. The stocks of kerosene oil and other items were at a critical stage which would last only a few days, even with rationing. And nobody could predict when the weather would clear up.
At this stage, another tragedy befell us, when one of our colleagues, a Sepoy, attained martyrdom, falling to one of the extreme high-altitude complications. With the weather still nasty, we could not even send his mortal remains down to the Base Camp. Hence, his remains were kept with us in our tent.
Now, you can imagine the situation — blizzard outside, no movement possible, rations down to a bare minimum, the mortal remains of our colleague with us in the tent and most importantly, we were completely cut off not only from the battalion at Base Camp but also from our families and loved ones. In those days, we had no mobile phones or SAT phones to stay connected with our families or entertain ourselves to while long hours of boredom away. We knew that if anything happened to us, nobody could help because it was just not physically possible to do that. And we still had about two months more of our scheduled tenure to complete. We, therefore, had to be at our mental and physical best.
Can there be any greater form of isolation than what we went through in 1992? However, we overcame all challenges and came out successful. At the end of our tenure, my men and I de-inducted without another casualty.
As I look back, first, it was our will to overcome all challenges. We knew the gravity of the situation but never let it affect us adversely. It only strengthened our will-power and our camaraderie grew as our difficulties increased.
Second, our strong belief that our organisation was firmly with us. I used to talk to my Commanding Officer once a day (who was in the Battalion headquarters at the Base) and we both knew that, physically, it was impossible to help us in that situation. But his reassurances were enough for me and my men to know that whenever it would be possible, they would do anything to help us.
Third was planning for the eventuality. Though I never expected the situation to turn out the way it did, I did expect disruptions due to the weather. Accordingly, we had prepared mentally and I had controlled the rations. It was because of this planning that we could last out with our 'one-tablespoon rice meal a day.'
Fourth, resolute leadership. Personal example had to be set by doing exactly what everyone else was expected to do, including having the same rations, irrespective of rank. Also, such extreme conditions needed certain precautions, otherwise, within hours one could lose a limb or one’s life. One such example was that after you went out (even to relieve yourself, even if for a few seconds), it was mandatory to wash your feet in warm water on coming back. Not doing so would result in frost-bite. I observed the initial signs of frost-bite on one soldier who was not adhering to the directions. When I noticed his lackadaisical attitude on the second day, I had to literally kick him. It saved his limb and life in the end.
Lastly, one had to find inner peace. Once a day we would collectively pray and sing hymns — out of tune, rustic but from the heart. My lifeline was my Walkman and a cassette of Anup Jalota’s bhajans. The batteries of the Walkman were the most precious and I used to keep them in the inner pocket of my down-feather jacket which we used to wear 24x7. The body temperature kept the batteries alive, otherwise within hours they would have got discharged in such weather conditions. There is one thing I still have to do — to thank Anup Jalota for my life.
All the soldiers of my Company have since retired but even now, these brave soldiers enquire about my welfare over a phone call and that makes my day.
Old soldiers are supposed to 'fade away.' I was happy doing that after retirement — participating in some voluntary events and diligently listening to my wife. However, today, the country is facing an extraordinary situation and I thought I must share my story with my countrymen/women, especially in relation to isolation.
All the factors that made us come out successful from our tenure in the glacier, exist in our country today. Our strong will-power, which we have displayed many times under different circumstances and during wars, exemplary leadership and the organising capability of our country and our deep spiritual understanding, irrespective of whichever religion or faith we follow.
The isolation that we will face now is much simpler as compared to what we experienced in the glacier. Today, with so many facilities available, this is an opportunity to spend quality time with family, to read, to catch up on various hobbies, to contemplate and to meditate.
We also need to care about those affected by the virus and their families, within the permitted rules. We need not hug them physically but can show them our sympathy in any feasible manner so that we can share their trauma.
As I understand, the challenge is not going to end soon and therefore, we have to bank entirely on our capabilities to see us through — our example will be followed by the world.
As the situation improves, which, with our engaged commitment I’m certain it will, we, of course, need to look inwards. There could be many, but I would like to focus on two aspects — first, nature versus virtual world and second, ‘The world has enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.’
Does that sound familiar? It is going to be a longish battle.....and we will win.
(Lt Gen Aniruddha Chakravarty is an Indian military commander and the director general of India's National Cadet Corps, a position he has held since December 2013. He is a graduate of Defence Services Staff College, Wellington.
Chakravarty has held various staff and regimental appointments during his career. He commanded 3 Rajput company at the Siachen Glacier from 1996–99, commanded a brigade on the Line of Control, and was the GOC of 15 Infantry Division in 2011-2012.
He was awarded Vishisht Seva Medal for his distinguished service in preparation of the AV Singh Committee Report, while serving as a Colonel in the Integrated HQ of MoD (Army) in 2000-2003).