Beyond civilisation

Published : Apr 09, 2004 00:00 IST

Indian soldiers battle winter on the Line of Control.

Praveen Swami

La Rinconada, a village in Peru at 5,099 metres, records the May 2003 issue of National Geographic, is the highest permanent human habitation. Above this altitude, the magazine records, "there are no permanent settlements" and "civilisation stops". India has many posts much higher than that in the Siachen glacier, and its troops have fought at upwards of 7,000 m. In Siachen, however, all-volunteer troops stay for just three months. No one has a choice about serving in Dras, and the troops spend two entire years inhabiting posts higher than La Rinconada. That is, until, and if, India and Pakistan learn to live in peace.

LAXMI KANT SONTAKE had wanted to see the Himalayas most of his life. From up on top of the Dras range, he had been told, you could see all the way to K2 on Karakoram, if the weather was clear. When he was finally sent up to Gurkha Post in the autumn, he mostly saw the inside of his bunker. All that Sontake remembers of that time is the dull whoosh of artillery shells going off on 20 feet of snow, the sound of Indian guns in the Dras valley going off in response - and the tyrannical boredom of a bunker-bound life.

Sipahi Sontake's life has changed only partly after the ceasefire. He still has to get up well before dawn and make sure the cook-house has lit up its stoves. Cooking breakfast takes hours, because of the snow and cold. Then, through much of the day, there is snow to be shovelled, weapons to be cleaned, and sentry duties to be tended to. If the sun is out, the soldiers take the opportunity to give their clothes an airing. When he finally gets a break, Sontake plays cards - or watches a movie. Many of the soldiers on Gurkha Post seem to be tired of the Hindi movies available to them, and some recently tried out The Full Monty. The gentle tale of working-class British men surviving the odds, as translated live by Captain Arvind Kondal, has been this year's surprise hit.

No one seems to have watched the recent welter of Kargil War films - for the jawans on Gurkha Post, war is bitter reality, not evening entertainment. A small cement plaque on Gurkha Post reminds officers and men just why they are there. Put up by 18 Grenadiers Regiment, the unit which led the celebrated final assault on the 5,020-metre-high Tiger Hill during the Kargil War, the plaque commemorates the construction of the first rock Sangar, or bunker, on Gurkha Post. Ever since that bunker was built, just after the end of the Kargil War, both the numbers of soldiers and the infrastructure to support them have grown relentlessly. Today, Over-Snow Vehicles, 200-horse-power tracked trucks first tested by the Indian Army in the Antarctic, keep a road open all the way from Dras to the Sando Base Camp right through the winter. Imported jackets and snow shoes allow soldiers to stay warm at altitudes at which helicopter pilots keep their engines on at full power and never turn off the rotor blades. Perhaps most important of all, there is a ring of electronic motion sensors: no one has forgotten how the Kargil War began.

It might all seem like a horrific waste of men and money, but the forward deployment on the Line of Control (LoC) does serve a military purpose. Consider, for example, the case of Point 5353, named for its height in metres above sea level, from the summit of which the LoC takes a gentle southeastern turn. In the wake of the Kargil War, a series of local tactical errors allowed Pakistan to occupy the southern face of Point 5353, allowing enemy forces a clear view of Sando Top, an important post. When Operation Parakram began a little over three years ago, both the Indian and Pakistani armies began trading ferocious artillery fire up and down the LoC. In the high mountains, sudden winds and unpredictable atmospheric conditions ensure that shells rarely land where the gunners intend them to. But, with their direct line of observation, Pakistani forces on Point 5353 should have been able to pass on corrections which could have enabled their artillery to obliterate Sando Top.

If, that is, the Pakistani troops on Point 5353 had been given the chance. Indian soldiers on three posts, Point 5165, Point 5240 and Point 5100, guided their superior 155-millimetre Bofors howitzers with devastating accuracy. Pakistani troops on Point 5353 were first hit with smoke-filled mortar shells, to flush them out of their bunkers, and then with air-burst artillery, which showered down shards of metal at supersonic speed. Well over 40 Pakistanis are believed to have died on Point 5353, troops who could not be reinforced since the Indian soldiers on Point 5165 and Point 5240 could hit their supply lines. India lost little other than an ammunition dump at Dras. Although each shell costs up to Rs.100,000, cash is, contrary to public impression, considered as less valuable than human life. Pakistan believed that India intended to take Point 5353. Indian planners probably considered the option, but decided against it. "What is the point?" says one top officer who served in the area at the time. "Mountain warfare sucks in never ending numbers of men for the occupation of the next height. Where does it end? At Point 5353? The Marpo-La pass? Olthingthang? Gilgit? Skardu?"

Probably not, but no one is counting on peace. Drums of kerosene and extreme-cold diesel have been stocked at 100-metre intervals around Gurkha Post, along with vital rations. It takes an enormous amount of effort to haul what is needed up to where it is needed, but everyone knows that careless dumping could mean the next shell, if and when it lands, could take out all that that lets Gurkha Post survive.

I thought I could wash up and shave this morning, but have discovered the exercise is not as simple as it seems. Naik Subedar Prahlad Yadav is cheerfully holding up a bucket, the very bucket I had left in the bathroom attached to my fibre-reinforced plastic hut last night. At first, I do not understand what he is laughing about - and then, I realise. Last night, there was perfectly liquid water in it. Now, it is a solid block of ice. The bucket, he tells me, will take an hour to turn to water; and another hour to turn into anything usable. It is going to be a while before I can have a shave. Most of the soldiers outside, I find, are impeccably turned out. The Indian Army does not relax its standards, no matter what the temperature is like.

GALE-force winds blasting across the Marpo-La pass, just across the LoC in Pakistan, have brought the evening temperature to -30C. The visibility is down to zero. For the next two hours, Army jawan Sudhir Desai has to stare out at the blank expanse that stretches out to the LoC. It is unlikely that Pakistani troops will be insane enough to launch a winter assault at 5,000 metres across 20 feet (6 m) of snow, which the least movement might turn into an avalanche. But armies do not take chances. The scouts who led the Pakistani assault in 1999 did, after all, make it across in similar conditions, and the Indian Army has done similar things dozens of times on the Siachen glacier and elsewhere. Desai does not even expect a cup of tea to relieve his vigil: it would turn to ice long before making its way from the cook-house.

Up here, the altitude, cold and snow have always been more ferocious enemies than the Pakistani armed forces. Two men from the unit replaced by the 17 Maratha Light Infantry at Gurkha Post died last year after an avalanche buried their outpost. By contrast, not one soldier at the Post was killed in months of relentless Pakistani mortar and artillery fire. A solitary metal door retrieved from the ruins of the avalanche-hit position has been dumped near a new bunker, built near the Gurkha Post Helipad. No one seems to pay much attention to it. Most of the men on Gurkha Post have trained at the Kargil Battle School, or the High Altitude Warfare School in Gulmarg, and know at least as much about avalanches, mountain sickness, and survival as any mountaineer - enough to know that no amount of technique can save lives when the weather turns bad or the snow starts to slide.

For jawans like Desai, soldiering in the high mountains is an act of sheer will unmatched by soldiers anywhere, except perhaps the troops of Pakistan's Bhaluch Regiment, posted across the valley on Marpo-La. "I had never seen snow until October," says Desai, the son of a Mumbai factory worker made redundant when Khatau Mills shut down a decade ago. His parents, now tenant farmers, grow peanuts near Sangli in Maharashtra. "My dream is to buy a little land of our own," he says, "so that my parents do not have to struggle as they do, and so that my sister can have a decent wedding." During his time at Gurkha Post, Desai will have little contact with his family. Avalanches have severed the fixed line that connects the forward post with the satellite phone facility at Sando Post, the base camp that feeds forward positions.

Helicopters bring in mail and fresh food, but only if the weather permits. Fresh food is the most welcome gift, a relief from healthy but tasteless canned rations stocked during the summer. Each flight, carrying a maximum of 100 kg, costs Rs.79,000 an hour. "Keep these carefully," says Havildar Deepak Waikare, passing a box, "they are the most expensive matches you'll ever use." Posts where helicopters cannot land, because the snow is too deep or the LoC too close, pose special problems - and not just because troops must survive only on tinned food. For 17 Maratha Light Infantry's commanding officer Colonel K.S. Rajagopalan, the isolation sometimes presents horrible ethical dilemmas. "The father of one of my troops has passed away," he says sadly, "but should I tell him what has happened, knowing I have no way of getting him off his post until snow conditions are better? I've done what I would have liked my commanding officer to do if I was in his position. I hope he will understand when I give him the bad news."

Great effort goes into ensuring that bad news does not flow from Gurkha Post to families waiting down in the plains. Each day, soldiers are subject to what is called a "feet-and-fingers" parade, a thorough check for frostbite. Tests are also conducted for High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACO), the leakage of blood plasma through capillary walls that pushes up pressure in the skull to fatal levels, and High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPO), the constriction of lung capillaries that leads to victims drowning in their own body fluids. Although the Indian Army has learned lessons from its Siachen experience and minimised casualties due to mountain sickness, sometimes it is just down to chance. A few days before my visit to Gurkha Post, a fit young officer who had served three uneventful months on a nearby position was hit by HAPO. Doctors had given him up for dead before a miraculous break in the weather allowed Army aviators to move the officer to a hospital in the plains.

"Men are often reluctant to report life-threatening symptoms," says Dr. Nikhil Bhardwaj, who left a comfortable hospital job in Bangalore to serve in the Indian Army. No soldier wants to be seen as malingering, and none wants to be the one for whom his brothers-in-arms attempted ground evacuation across the snow, which could lead to dozens of lives being lost to save one.

A shrine commemorating a pir, or Sufi mystic, stands in the shadows of Tiger Hill, on the ridge above the Sando base camp. No one seems to know who the pir was, or who first built the shrine. The current home of the pir's grave, a tin hut painted in military olive-green, was built by Muslim troops from the Grenadiers Regiment after the Kargil War. At one time, the pir must have blessed traders who made the journey up the Sando river to Marpo-La, and on to Olthingthang, or Gilgit and Skardu. They may have carried salt, textiles, and livestock. Dogs would have followed the traders' caravans, perhaps scaring away Marmots, Himalayan bears and foxes who still come to scavenge what pickings can be found after soldiers on Gurkha Post have finished their meals. The soldiers believe the pir now blesses and protects them, as he did the trade caravans.

SOLDIERS are not the only ones living up on the LoC. Dogs are present everywhere, and so are porters, some from as far away as Nepal. In this sense, the LoC is still a place where livelihoods are made - from war now, if not trade.

Each day at 8-30 p.m., Gurkha Post's canine courier Rani sets out with military precision to Tri Junction, another post perched on a mountain peak a few hundred metres away. She carries sweets, mail, fresh vegetables and meat snuggled inside a cloth pouch slung under her belly. The journey to Tri Junction is hazardous, for even the smallest error can trigger an avalanche. Rani, however, seems to have an intuitive idea of where she can step safely. Even the timing of her journey seems planned, for snow is at its least stable when the sun is beating down. No one actually trained Rani to make her journey from Gurkha Post to Tri Junction. "One fine day," recalls Captain Kondal, "she decided to spend her nights at Tri Junction. Then, someone tried slinging a bag under her belly. It worked." For soldiers at Tri-Junction, where no helipad can be built because the snow is too deep, Rani is more than a friend. Avalanches and blizzards may cut communications, but neither deter the dog from doing her duty.

Rani started learning her job during the summer, when supplies are stocked to last troops through the several months when snow will cut them off from the rest of the world. From April to September, thousands of soldiers and porters haul goods up the mountains from Sando Post, the base camp, to forward positions. It is hard work, but pays well. A porter can earn upwards of Rs.13,000 a month during the summer, and more if he decides to stay on at a forward post through the winter. Payments are made depending on the altitude and the difficulty of the climb. Exact figures on how many porters now come to Dras to work are not available, but enough obviously arrive to sustain the town's Nepali roadside restaurant and two shops selling goods to the migrants. Porters complain that the district authorities, through whom the Army is legally obliged to route payments, demand bribes to put their names on the list of labourers available to the military. "It's still a lot better," says Limbu Ram, "than working on a construction site somewhere, or not working at all."

Like the porters, many dogs also stay on through the winter, rather than fight with the packs of canines over limited food down in Dras. Up at Gurkha Post, at least one dog feels secure enough about her status not to work at all. Tai has never been known to do anything but lounge near the cook-house, soaking in the warmth and waiting for scraps to be thrown her way. Tai, like Rani, does bark ferociously at night, when wild animals near the position. The marmot, however, poses no threat to men with guns, and Tai's actions seem driven mainly by her desire to keep poachers away from her food stocks. Still, the work ethic seems to be catching on. Another dog - also named Rani - has started ferrying goods up to Point 5240, a critical post. Troops in the Siachen glacier had noticed this kind of behaviour some years ago. One dog there had even won a commendation from the Chief of the Army Staff after a Pakistani sniper brought it down.

If calls to open up the LoC to trade and commerce ever fructify, Marpo-La could turn into an axis for small-scale economic activity. Both militaries, for one, have built roads up to as close to their forward positions as possible. It is unlikely, of course, that such trade would be anywhere near the scale of activity elsewhere along the LoC, like Uri or Poonch or Jammu, but it would provide some impetus to the local economy. Dras and adjoining Kargil have, in a sense, been transformed by the military's presence. The Army now runs a massive public contact programme, called Operation Sadbhavana, which offers residents of the region access to a welter of services. Army-run women's empowerment centres, equipped with everything from craft classes to high-speed Internet access, dot the belt, along with schools, facilities for mentally challenged children, orphanages, and medical clinics. Peace could let this infrastructure be put to productive use. On the other side of the LoC lies one of the least-developed regions of Pakistan, which an open frontier would give a real shot at progress.

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