It is an absolute miracle that Lance Naik Hanumanthappa Koppad of 19 Madras Regiment was found alive by his colleagues, after a six-day ordeal at temperatures below minus 45 degrees Celsius on the Siachen glacier.
Ten soldiers at Sonam Post had got buried under 25 feet of ice during an avalanche on February 3. The 20,400ft-high post is the lifeline to Bana Top post along the Saltoro ridge, about 1,000 feet above. The indomitable spirit of Koppad and the rescue teams deserve admiration. Such grit is a reflection of that mystical word—izzat (honour)—which drives an individual beyond the imaginable human endurance. Izzat for colleagues, the unit and, most importantly, the nation.
On February 8, Lt Gen D.S. Hooda, the general officer commanding-in-chief of the northern command, said only five bodies had been recovered, and search and rescue missions were on. Having personally experienced such difficult moments during my service in Siachen, Drass and other high-altitude areas, my heart is emotionally charged for the battalion, the families of the dead soldiers and the family of the lone survivor.
The emotions swelled further when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an inspiring visit to the Army's R&R Hospital in Delhi, where Koppad is battling for life as I write these words. It sent a strong message that the nation cares for its soldiers.
However, I often quiz myself on the outcome of such avoidable casualties as, perhaps, it is just another exercise of adding nine names to the list of casualties on the glacier (879 + 9). This appalling figure of 888 (plus the numbers on the Pakistanis side) of which 95 per cent are because of environmental hazards—and not 'in combat'—makes the question ‘why’ significant.
India and Pakistan need to introspect and come out with workable options to minimise the mess, and engage in a pragmatic and sustainable dialogue. In the book The Long Road to Siachen—The Question Why, which I co-authored, I have listed harsh realities on the glacier and addressed the issues of life and death at such heights.
I should be the last person to suggest a dialogue between India and Pakistan on Siachen, especially since my Battalion 8, Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry, inflicted and suffered heavy casualties during its six-month tenure on the glacier.
The 'in combat' casualties occurred when the battalion captured Pakistan's Quaid Post (renamed Bana Top in honour of Naib Subedar Bana Singh, who led the mission) at an altitude of 21,153ft in June 1987. Three months later, we repulsed a Pakistani brigade-sized attack on Bilafond La pass, which was led by General (then Brigadier) Pervez Musharraf.
Yet, I am of the opinion that we need to reduce troop deployment in Siachen and withdraw to manageable lines behind the Saltoro ridge, which delineates boundaries of India and Pakistan—the Actual Ground Position Line.
Surveillance, troop mobility, availability of long-distance firepower and the ‘will’ call for reconsideration of the forward deployment policy. Many people may argue that Pakistan cannot be trusted and, hence, a withdrawal may be counterproductive. But from a standpoint of reducing environmental casualties and preservation of the glacier, safer security options must be explored through a process of dialogue.