Operation Meghdoot: Capturing Siachen

Hrishabh Tiwari



Siachen glacier located in the eastern Karakoram ranges in the Himalayas and just north to the disputed Line of Control between India and Pakistan has been seen as a goldmine by both countries. Siachen meaning "Rose garden" in local Balti language serves as a watchtower for India to keep an eye over PoK and Gilgit Baltistan, its immense potential as freshwater resource has always kept Pakistan in a hunt to overtake its hold from India.

In the year 1984, Pakistan's uncanny attempt to capture Siachen was foiled by Indian Army under the codenamed 'Operation Meghdoot' at world's highest and costliest battlefield.

Map of J&K showing Siachen glacier

In Siachen the rifles are defrosted, machine guns primed with boiling water, vegetables become rock hard, soldiers patrol in sub-zero frostbiting condition yet Indian Army and government has been adamant to the occupation of this 78 kms of glacier. In the Shimla Agreement of 1972, the Siachen area was termed as "barren and useless" and no lines were demarcated, Pakistan however tried to employ its army to take charge of Siachen and adjoining areas that has led to a major brawl between both countries. Prior to 1984, neither India nor Pakistan had any permanent presence in the Siachen.

Indian government spends approximately ₹6 crore daily and roughly ₹2,200 crore per year to ensure that the peace prevails, Indian Army's brave soldiers have to undergo a special high altitude warfare training in order to sustain in the bone freezing conditions.

Indian government recently spent about ₹7,500 crore to procure special clothing and mountaineering equipment for soldiers inhabiting in Siachen.

The question however arises how and why such a major dispute emerged between the two nation that led to a glacier being turned into a battlefield?


Map of J&K showing NJ-980420 as end of LOC

In the U.N. mediated Karachi Agreement of 1949, military representatives of India and Pakistan signed an agreement to establish a ceasefire line between both countries in Kashmir following the war in 1947, however the line was marked only up to NJ-980420 point because U.N. official thought that no country would dispute over such a barren land of Siachen. The Shimla Agreement after the 1971 war changed the ceasefire line to Line of Control(LOC) between both countries and it was agreed that "neither side shall seek to alter it unilaterally, irrespective of mutual differences and legal interpretations".

In the Pakistani and U.S. map of Jammu and Kashmir in 1970s and 1980s, the end of the ceasefire line between India and Pakistan also know as LOC(marked with dotted line in above map) was shown way north-east to the Karakoram Pass which India believed to be a cartographic error and in violation with the Shimla Agreement. India was adamant that the map used by US and Pakistan showed wrong ending of the ceasefire line and the actual end of LOC was at Point NJ-980420(also known as NJ-98042) and thence to the glacier is India's territory. The end of the Line of Control(LOC) now further leads to the start of Actual Ground Position Line(AGPL) that runs from the NJ-980420 up to Indira ridge at the Line of Actual Control(LAC) tripoint between India, China & Pakistan.

By 1978, Pakistan started to take advantage of the altered map and began to claim control over the Siachen area. Pakistan started to increase the mountaineering activities, expeditions and trekking for foreign mountaineers from their side of the territory into the Karakoram.

Colonel Narendra Kumar

In the late 1970s a German mountaineer brought the US drawn map of the LOC to Colonel Narendra Kumar who took to notice the cartographic error in the map and organised an expedition to that area to correct the map.

"I bought the German's map and sent it straight to the director general of military operations," says Col Kumar

It was Colonel Narendra Kumar also popularly known as "Bull" who was quick-witted and allowed mountaineer to start expeditions from the Indian side and hence started a mountaineering contest between the two militaries. Exchange of protest notes followed with each side complaining of other intruding into their territory.

India's Expedition in Siachen in the year 1981

The legendary soldier mountaineer Colonel Narendra "Bull" Kumar was the pillar of the Siachen Operations, apart from this he was also the first to climb 'Nandadevi'(1964), first to put India on Everest(1965) and first to climb Kanchenjunga(1976) from the toughest north-east face. Col Kumar has entered the oxygen-depleted death zone more than 20 times, In fact each time he did so, he had to sign a no-liability certificate saying that government is absolved from all his responsibilities.

In the years to follow a key army post was also named after Col Kumar making him the only living officer to have a post named after. He is also the only Colonel to be awarded with 'Param Vishist Seva Medal'(PVSM). Colonel Kumar has been honored with the Padma Shri, the Arjuna award, the Kirti Chakra, the Ati Vishist Seva Medal(AVSM) and also Indian Mountaineering Foundation(IMF) gold medal.

The first expedition led by Colonel Kumar to Teram Kangri(group of mountain massif in remote Siachen Muztagh) unveiled Pakistani army's infiltration in west side of the glacier. Intelligence received by Indian Army in January 1984, unearthed all the doubts about Pakistani military's intention to occupy Siachen. Just over a decade earlier in 1971 Pakistan Army was made to surrender with 93,000 of its personnel, however they didn't learn a lesson and had the audacity to take on Indian Army, just to face humiliation once again.

By April 17, 1984 Pakistan had planned to take over Siachen and with this intention they had placed an order for 150 'Arctic Gears' for its troops from a London based supplier. This was probably the bizarre mistake that Pakistani Army could commit because the same London outfitter supplied the clothing to Indian Army. India's intelligence agency RAW(Research & Analysis Wing) got whiff about this development and India purchased about 300 'Arctic Gears' and RAW ensured that the Indian Army receives the shipment before Pakistan. Due to RAW's efforts Indian Army hurried to foil Pakistan's attempt to capture Siachen. IA was given a period between April 10 to April 30 to occupy Saltoro Ridge and IA planned to capture Siachen and adjoining passes by April 13, 1984 because it was Baisakhi on that day and Pakistan would expect an attack the least on a festive day. The first phase of the Operation Meghdoot was launched in March 1984 with the march on foot, the name of the mission was taken from Kalidas's play Meghdootam.

Brigadier Vijay Channa was given the task to occupy the Saltoro Ridge in Sector 26. The main pass in Saltoro Ridge was Bilafond La and Sia La which was non-negotiable as Pakistan was using them to crossover. The transport helicopter of those times could not reach to the heights of these passes which towered at over 18,000 to 20,000 feet. Therefore a full battalion of Kumaon Regiment(highest decorated regiment) marched shouting their war cry "Kalika Mata ki Jai"(victory to great Mata Kali) along with soldiers from Ladakh Scouts for more than 6 days to cross the dreaded ice-packed Zoji La Pass with full battle backpacks. Pakistan went ahead and launched "Operation Ababeel" to capture the Saltoro Ridge in April, 1984 however Indian Army had already captured the heights of Saltoro just 48 hrs prior to Pakistan's assault. Thanks to Indian Army's swiftness, Intelligence links of RAW and 4 Kumaon led by Captain Sanjay Kulkarni(now Lt Gen Rtd), Indian Flag was fluttered at Bilafond La and Saltoro Ridge. Indian Air Force was also helping the Indian Army and paramilitary forces in disputed Northern borders, IL-76s, AN-12s, AN-32s transported stores and troops, airdropped supplies to high altitude airfields while Mi-17s, Mi-8s, Chetaks and Cheetahs ferried men and material to dizzy heights far above the limits set by the helicopter manufacturers.

On 13 April, a Pakistani helicopter flew overhead and found that the Indian troops were already present in Siachen. Lt General Prem Nath Hoon leading the Srinagar based 15 Corps of the Indian Army also know as 'Chinar Corps' was very instrumental in the Operation Meghdoot. Lt Gen ML Chibber the then Commander of the Northern Command of IA wrote in a letter:

The enemy was taken completely by surprise & an area of approximately 3300 sq. km, illegally shown as part of PoK was now under our control.

Operation Meghdoot had ensured that the Indian Army gets an advantage of height and would make Siachen its watchtower over PoK and China. This was an operation which provided tactical advantage to Indian Army and till the date IA continues to defend Siachen base. Pakistan tried twice to recapture Siachen once in 1987 and second in 1989, Pakistani Army were beaten back both the times. Parvez Musharraf who was Brigadier-General led the first attempt of Pakistani troops to capture some passes but were pushed back by the valorous soldier of Indian Army. But since 2003, the ceasefire line(LOC) has remained same.

Operation Meghdoot

Its been 37 years to the Operation Meghdoot and Indian Army's brave soldier still remain firm in Siachen's drastically changing climate, the life however hard in these sub-zero terrains the morale of troops always remains sky high seeing the fluttering Tiranga. The ground situation however takes a toll physically as well as mentally, if emergency arises the patient has to be airlifted to the nearby 92 Base Hospital in Srinagar and delay in airlifting via choppers due stormy weather sometimes cost with the life of the soldiers in these extreme climates. Over 3000 troops of both sides mark their presence in the glaciers and as many as 900 Indian Soldiers have lost their lives while more than 1000 have died from Pakistani side since 1984 mainly due to frostbite and cardiac issues. In Siachen nature is more lethal than bullets.

The irony however arises when the bravehearts of the Indian Army who regardless to their life fight the enemy as well as the harsh nature don't get their dues. Major Navdeep Singh, a High court Judge and a retired Territorial Army officer has been fighting for the veterans of the Siachen. The families of the soldiers who receive Veergati or those who are disabled have to fight yet another battle with the pension disbursing authorities. Harjinder Singh whose son Lance Naik Gurjant Singh of Sikh Light Infantry died in 2008 was refused the liberalized family pension on the pretext that the soldier had died due to extreme climate and not in actual battle. The pension however was later disbursed but the UPA government had the audacity to appeal against it in the Supreme Court. Many such examples of the kin of soldiers fighting for their rights to receive monthly pension, money can't and would never fulfill the voids in their life but it will surely help them to get food on their plate, take care of children's education but the government authorities take a complete toll on these families.

The soldier who volunteer or those who are sent to the Siachen Base are aware of the hardships they would face in those extreme climates. The long list of necessities missing in glacier include waste management, bathing is a luxury here, fresh food(they mostly receive packaged food from airdrops). There is no guarantee that after completing his tenure the soldier would be fit to serve, as seen most of the time the high altitude oxygen deprived climate has adverse affect on brain and heart terming the soldier unfit but even then they stand tall defending our territory.

We salute Colonel Narendra Kumar, Lt Gen PN Hoon, Lt Gen Sanjay Kulkarni and many other officers and soldiers of the Indian Army and Air Force who helped India take control of this "third pole". Op Meghdoot also paved way for Operation Rajiv in June 1987 in which high points along Actual Ground Position Line(AGPL) in Siachen which were under Pakistani control were captured. The Op Rajiv hero Subedar Bana Singh was honored with Param Vir Chakra. April 13, 2021 marks 37 years of Operation Meghdoot's success, let us remember all those soldier who have given their all to serve this great nation.

KnowYourHeroes. Lest we forget them


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