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Braving the heights

Braving the heights

Author: Claude Arpi
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: February 28, 2007

While India's political leaders are busy negotiating a 'deal' to demilitarise Siachen, its people are showing utmost respect to one of the bravest soldiers who rescued the glacier from Pakistani hands. Recently, I attended a function at the district headquarters of Villipuram in Tamil Nadu to felicitate Captain Bana Singh, one of the three living recipients of the Param Vir Chakra. Captain Singh had captured the 'Quaid' (Jinnah) post dominating the Saltoro range in Siachen on June 26, 1987. If this peak had remained with Pakistan, a very large chunk of Indian territory would have today been under Islamabad's control.

What touched me was the spontaneity of hundreds of school children in Villipuram expressing their gratitude to a hero of our time. The next day, children of Puducherry showed similar sentiments and gave a tumultuous reception to Bana Singh.

The problem in India is that such lofty feelings do not rule the hearts of politicians who, in order to leave their names to posterity, are ready to give away what has been so painfully achieved. Ultimately, they may not even leave their names in history books.

A few decades back, in July 1949, a cease-fire line (CFL) was accepted by India and Pakistan. The CFL stopped in Ladakh at a point code-named NJ9842. The agreement mentioned that the line continued "thence north to the glaciers".

It was demarcated on a clear principle: If a territory was no-man's land and not occupied by any of the two armies, it was deemed a part of India. This was implicitly accepted by the UN Commission for India and Pakistan in the August 1948 UN Resolutions which acknowledged that the State of Jammu & Kashmir had legally acceded to India through the Instrument of Accession signed by Maharaja Hari Singh.

To India's surprise, in 1984, Pakistan began sponsoring mountaineering expeditions in Siachen and showing the glacier as its territory. The situation worsened in early 1987 when Pakistan established a post on a feature overlooking the Indian defence positions located near the Bilafond Pass on the Saltoro ridge. The post was so prestigious for Islamabad that it was named after Jinnah as the 'Quaid Post'. When Pakistan started sniping at Indian helicopters, some of the Indian posts maintained by air suddenly became untenable.

In April, New Delhi decided that the Quaid Post had to be retaken. The Army prepared to deploy 8 Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry (8 JAK-LI) on Saltoro. For Subedar Bana Singh, a native of Kadyal in Jammu, who belonged to this regiment, the glacier was his first experience at such a high altitude; though he had just been trained at the High Altitude Warfare School in Gulmarg, the Saltoro range was altogether another experience: In summer the temperatures come down to minus 35 degrees Celsius while in winter it could get minus 70.

On May 29, 1987, a patrol of 8 JAK-LI was sent for the reconnaissance of possible approaches to Quaid post. Till that day, nobody knew how to reach the post. The patrol leader, Second Lieutenant Rajiv Pande and his men nearly made it to the post. Unfortunately, 30 metres to the post, they were sighted by Pakistani commandos who opened heavy fire. While Rajiv Pande and five of his men were killed, three survived to return and report about the approach. The patrol had also managed to lay a rope till the top. Cold fury caught the hearts of Indian jawans; the loss of Pande's life should not be in vain. A month later, on June 23, a task force under Major Varinder Singh launched a new assault: The objective was to dislodge intruders. It was code-named Operation Rajiv in honour of Pande. Due to bad weather, the jawans were not able to locate the rope; they had no other alternative but to postpone the assault. The next day, having finally found the rope, another team led by Subedar Harnam Singh climbed the ice wall and established a base. They also found the bodies of their fellow soldiers. But once again, they were detected and fired upon. They had to return to the base.

The same night, another attack was repulsed by Pakistan; most Indian weapons had jammed in the biting cold. Bana Singh was one of the 62 selected for the attack by the commanding officer. Though they had the choice to opt out of the suicidal operation, all of them chose to do their duty.

That night some anguish entered Bana Singh's heart; he was depressed. He prayed to the gurus and for the first (and only time) in his life, he clearly heard Guru Gobind Singh's voice: "I wanted to test you, Bana." All fear evaporated, he was ready for the daytime frontal attack.

At noon on June 26, 1987, the Subedar launched a most audacious assault. Due to falling snow, it was so dark that there was no difference between night and day, remembers Subedar Singh. He managed to lob a grenade into the Pakistani makeshift bunker and closed the door. As some of the elite troops of the Pakistani Shaheen Company of 3 Commando Battalion of the Special Services Group (SSG) were outside, Bana Singh had to fight a hand-to-hand battle; finally, the three or four remaining intruders were bayoneted. When I asked him if he felt tired or could stand the cold, he retorted, laughing: "In those moments, when it is 'my life or his life', you don't think and there is no question of tiredness or cold".

After silence had fallen on the post, his first thought was for the gurus. He offered his deepest gratitude. Thanks to Bana Singh's exploit, India is today in control of the Saltoro range and the Siachen glacier. Bana Singh was later awarded the Param Vir Chakra and the post was renamed "Bana Post".

But even as Bana Singh is felicitated by children all over India, he has been forgotten by his own State who gives him a meagre allowance of Rs 160 per month for his heroic exploit. Srinagar does not care for him.

Captain Bana Singh refused to comment on the political developments in Delhi and Islamabad and the 'impending' deal with Pakistan, but one can feel that like many in the Army, he would find it terribly unfair if Gen Musharraf's plan to demilitarise Siachen is accepted by New Delhi.

Finally, the irony: Who was commanding the SSG when Bana Singh captured the Quaid Post in June 1987? A certain Brigadier Musharraf! He and his Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto were so upset by the loss of the Jinnah Post that they launched a frontal attack on the Saltoro range in September 1987: It is said that they lost 1,000 elite troops in the misadventure.

Many believe that the Kargil episode was a way for Gen Musharraf, then Chief of Army Staff, to avenge the insult of June 1987. Again, the General lost face. What he was not able to grab by force, he would like to get by ruse today, the glacier having a much easier access from the Pakistani side. It would then be possible for the General to recapture what he lost in 1987.

One can only hope that the leaders in New Delhi will not fall into the trap. It would be a new stab in the back of Bana Singh and all those who perished to defend India's territory.

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