'Siachen, 1987: Battle for the Frozen Frontier' review: Living With the Enemy

A rare insider’s view of life in the treacherous terrains of the Siachen Glacier
Indian soldiers at the Siachen Glacier
Indian soldiers at the Siachen Glacier

On April 13, 1987, the Indian Army landed on the Siachen Glacier to prevent what was ostensibly a Pakistani climbing expedition from claiming the glacier as their own. What ensued was a tale of ‘guns and roses’ on the toughest battlefield in the world (sia in Baltic means ‘rose’), as the glacier witnessed bitter fighting to the accompaniment of the boom of artillery guns.

Siachen, 1987: Battle for the Frozen Frontier is Lt Gen. Ramesh Kulkarni’s story of his 22-month-long tenure as the commander of an infantry division, offering an insider’s view. “From the air, it was awe-inspiring, alluring and mammoth, but on the ground, it was brutal, gruelling and life-threatening. Every single soldier, hailing from different parts of the country, took on the job,” writes Kulkarni, who became the commander of 28 Infantry Division in 1987. His job was “to take care of the vast border region starting from Zoji La in the west and extending over the Siachen sector right up to the Karakoram Pass”.

He has complemented his experiences with research formulated by his mountaineer and author brother-in-law Harish Kapadia, offering a much-needed historical background to Kulkarni’s tales of a soldier in Siachen. The book offers a blow-by-blow account of combat operations like Operation Rajiv, in which the Quaid Post held by Pakistan was captured and Operation Vajr Shakti, which thwarted Pakistan’s attempt to capture Bilafond La. What makes it an even more meaningful addition to the literature on the armed forces, however, is not merely the detailed military accounts, but also how it captures the human cost of the Siachen conflict.

In a battle where there may be no enemy to be seen face-to-face, except occasionally, it shows how the mountains and the harsh environment play the constant adversary. India’s base camp is at 11,811 feet. With some army posts at 21,981 feet, the book points out that “97 per cent of all casualties are due to “weather and terrain, and only 3 per cent fall in combat”, in the place where “temperature ranges from minus 10 degrees Centigrade in the daytime in summer to below 60 at night”.

Deep-diving into the specifics of the challenges faced by the soldiers, Kulkarni elaborates on various aspects of survival in a region marked by rarefied air and sans any sign of life for miles on end. He writes about the preparation undertaken by soldiers before induction, ground-based logistics support, the role of helicopters, as well as the workings of the medical staff, the religious beliefs of soldiers, myths and self-imposed dietary restrictions.

The author also redirects the spotlight on the abysmal levels of awareness and interest that the public and the media has had over the years about the region, something, he admits, has driven him to the “edge of impatience”. He writes, “Minor stirrings of tension had been noted on the glacier where Pakistan had reportedly established a post on the left shoulder of Bilafond La. Disconnected from the rest of the country as this glacier region has been, most people had not even heard the word ‘Siachen’ and the fact that the media hardly covered this was all the more reason for this state of ignorance.”

Dedicated to the Indian soldiers, Siachen, 1987: Battle for the Frozen Frontier is the tale of survival in treacherous terrain where the environment conspires to claim numberless lives, vindicating why certain ordinary mortals deserve to have superhuman status.

Siachen, 1987: Battle for the Frozen Frontier

By: Lt Gen. Ramesh Kulkarni, Anjali Karpe

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 276

Price: Rs 499

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