Siachen – Bravery Beyond Compare
As the sub continent heats up the debate over vacating Siachen, a candid peek into the struggles, sacrifices and heroism that have made history – a history soaked in a strategic perspective blended by saga of untold courage which can’t be frittered away for narrow gains. Pragmatic realism should dictate our future course of action.
Maj Gen Raj Mehta, AVSM,VSM(Retd)
The true, heart warming story of the capture against impossible odds of the Pakistani post, Quaid, the worlds highest battlefield post at 21153 feet (6749 metres) above sea level, from personnel of its elite commando force; the Special Services Group (SSG) by Naib Subedar (later Honorary Captain) Bana Singh, PVC, of 8 JAK LI and his brave hearts.
It was in the autumn of 1987 that I came in touch with the then Commander of the Siachen Brigade, the taciturn, supremely fit, wiry, sun-burnt Brig CS Nugyal (later Maj Gen CS Nugyal, PVSM, UYSM). We had assembled at the Rajputana Rifles Centre in Delhi Cantt to correct the tactics paper of the Army’s Promotion Examination Part ‘D’ that he had set. There were 12 of us; all Staff College qualified; young and high on self-esteem because we had been handpicked by Army Headquarters for this prestigious assignment. On top of that, we had, as Chief Examiner, a famous commander who was in the national news for masterminding the capture of a murderously effective Pakistani Post on the icy Saltoro Ridge called Quaid; a post that had caused us savage losses in lives and in infrastructure support.
We found soon enough that Brig Nugyal wasn’t easy to talk to. Reserved, dry, very Olive Green (OG), thorough and painstaking in all he did (to explain the correction process to us and oversee our work); this SIKH Regiment officer nevertheless commanded our collective awe and respect. In precise, surgical language he made it clear that he expected the highest integrity, professionalism and application of mind from us. We started off silently, determined to come up to his stringent expectations. It was only after several days that he unwound a bit, to talk about Naib Subedar Bana Singh and how Quaid got converted into Bana Post. He had got along an hour-long video cassette shot in VHS format which realistically replicated how the operation had taken place. He had just come after showing it to the then Raksha Mantri and Army Chief. We were held spell-bound watching it; stunned by the super human feat of arms in a manner that left us humbled by the daring and courage of Bana and his handful of deathless brave hearts.
In 1999, I was commanding a Rashtriya Rifles Sector in the Valley. The Kargil War was on, and, every few days, intimation would come to the Valley formations to send representatives to the JAK LI Centre to say farewell to the Kargil dead who were being airlifted to their homes. The dignified, pleasant Sub Maj Bana Singh, PVC, who was then posted at the Centre, was always present on the dozen odd occasions that I attended; solemn occasions which saddened all of us; even as we accepted that the loss of the soldiers was a price which the Army had to pay for preserving the country’s freedom. Back in the Valley in 2003 as a Division Commander, I invited Sub Maj Bana Singh to address the Division’s officers at Baramula about his death-defying feat on the icy wastes of the Saltoro Ridge. This slightly built, humble and charismatic man was heard with pin drop silence and deep respect.
Let us then examine what this extraordinarily courageous, god fearing JCO did to write the history of extreme high altitude warfare afresh in a manner that Pakistan for certain will never forget and military professionals laud for eternity.
See the illustration below. The name Siachen, in Balti, refers to a land abundant with black roses. Siachen glacier is located in the eastern Karakoram Range of the Himalayas, near the Line of Control betweenIndiaandPakistan.Indiacontrols the whole Siachen glacier complex. The main glacier is sandwiched between the Saltoro Ridge to its west, (occupied byIndia) and the mainKarakoram Rangeto its east.
Indian troops are deployed on the Actual Ground Position Line from the end of NJ 9842 to Indira Col. Pakistan claims the area from NJ 9842 to the Karakoram Pass. Source: Frontline Volume 23 – Issue 04: Feb. 25 – Mar. 10, 2006.
The Siachen glacier is 76 km long, with its width varying from 1000-2500 metres. It falls from an altitude of 18,875 ft (5,753 m) at its head at Indira Col, down to 11,875 ft (3,620 m) at its terminus. The average winter snowfall is 35 feet, with temperatures in the upper reaches ranging from minus 30 degrees to minus 80 degrees centigrade. The crest of the dominating Saltoro Ridge which the Indian Army holds, and where Bana won his PVC, ranges in height from 17,880 to 25,330 feet (5,450 to 7,720 m). The major passes on this ridge are Sia La, Bilafond La and Gyong La.The Indian Army pickets are reachable only after a murderous climb and then a suicidal frontal assault, a near-hopeless task in such rarified, oxygen depleted air.
Let us now speak of our hero. Bana was born on 6 January 1949 into a Punjabi Sikh family, at Kadyal, a border village located in RS Pura, the famous Basmati rice-growing belt outside Jammu. He enrolled in the Indian Army on 6 January 1969 into 8 JAK LI. He was considered a keen and enterprising, intelligent soldier by his officers, handling diverse responsibilities such as being company clerk and handling quarter master duties as an NCO normally tenable by a senior JCO . He had also been trained in mountain warfare by the High Altitude Warfare School in Gulmarg and Sonamarg and was eminently combat fit; in other words he was, at a young age, an all round combat soldier whom his officers and peers respected; the peers and immediate seniors albeit with some form of healthy competitive envy.
On 20 April, 1987, Bana’s battalion was deployed, after due acclimatization, in the Siachen area. In a later interview with the famous author and Tibetologist, Claude Arpi, Bana stated that Quaid Post was already under occupation of the Pakistanis when the battalion arrived in the glacier. Named after Mohamed Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan, it was the most important and highest post in the area; one of the few occupied by Pakistan during it’s all out assault in 1987 on Saltoro Ridge under the command of then Brig Pervez Musharraf (later President of Pakistan), before they were beaten back from all but this post.
From Quaid Post, as the Indians would later find out, one could see 80 km around; indeed, almost the entire Saltoro Range including Indian posts like Amar and Sonam, which could only be supplied by helicopter. The Pakistanis could therefore prevent the supply of these posts as well as interdict any movement by accurate fire. In fact, on 18 April, 1987, firing from Quaid resulted in the death of a JCO and five soldiers at Sonam. It wasn’t just that. Sensing that a new battalion had come in, the Pakistanis carried out incessant shelling, causing casualties to the battalion in terms of precious lives lost. It thus became necessary to capture this post for the safety of our men and supporting helicopters.
The CO of 8 JAK LI, Col AP Rai, UYSM, (now deceased) proactively decided to send a patrol to find out the strength and disposition of the Pakistanis. On May 29, a 10 man patrol under the extraordinarily brave, resourceful and gutsy 2/Lt Rajiv Pande departed. Facing this dynamic young officer was a 90 degree climb on slippery ice walls that were 1500 feet in height which had to be negotiated to reach Quaid Post. On top of that, the weather was abysmal and visibility more so. This young man’s bravery has never really been given its military due. It was his tenacity, cold courage, high morale in sub-zero conditions where every step was an ordeal, especially when it came to fixing ropes against a vertical ice wall under intense shelling; surviving for over 48 hours without water and food, that really laid the foundations of the success that eventually followed. Unfortunately, nearing Quaid, they were detected by the SSG commandos and eight, including Lt Pande and his JCO killed. The officer was posthumously awarded a Vir Chakra.
Though the death of 2/Lt Rajiv and his men was tragic, the CO was now even more determined to succeed. What rankled the officers and men of the battalion was that the bodies of the dead lay for three weeks in front of them; unrecoverable because of the shelling and Pakistani visual domination. In effect this desire for revenging their death acted as a key spur in launching (with the approval of Brig Nugyal), “Operation Rajiv” to capture Quaid Post. A total of 62 people participated to the final operation; two officers, three JCO’s and 57 jawans. The operation was conducted in three phases on 23, 25 and 26 June, 1987. The platoon sent on 23 June under Major Varinder Singh, Bana’s aggressive and bold company commander, had to unfortunately come back half way, losing two soldiers in the bargain. Lt Pande had managed to fix ropes, but due to heavy snow fall, the ropes were not traceable. The ropes had therefore to be fixed all over again. The second platoon led by Subedar Sansar Singh with 10 jawans, made an attempt on 25 June. This time, there was no problem with the ropes, but due to a communication gap with the controlling headquarters; the mission had to be aborted. Col Rai, determined to succeed at all costs, had conveyed his determination to his command: “I don’t care what sacrifices we have to pay, but Quaid will be captured!” Naib Subedar Bana Singh, hand-picked by his CO for the challenging assignment, led the last attack, along with Riflemen Chunni Lal, Laxman Das, Om Raj and Kashmir Chand. It was exactly at eleven minutes after noon on 26 June 1987, when this final phase of “Operation Rajiv” was launched in heavily snowing conditions and gathering darkness.
Painting of Naib Subedar Bana Singh, PVC
In personal interaction with Honorary Captain Bana Singh, PVC, on the sidelines of a well attended public function organized at Jhansi on 16 April 2011 by the Society for Valour and Cultural Renaissance (SVCR); the brain child of a 75-year-old fiery lady nationalist-cum-author called Ms Shyam Kumari, this writer, who was also invited (he was wounded as a Brig in an encounter with Pakistani terrorists in South Kashmir in January 1998), Bana recalled the complete operation with exceptional clarity, humility and warm recall of his subordinates, peers and seniors. He remembered that, tossing and turning in uneasy sleep, because of the losses the paltan had suffered, and because he had to succeed in his mission, Bana suddenly sat up bolt upright from his troubled sleep, with his mind and body strangely charged for action. He felt he had heard Guru Gobind Singh say to him, “Bana, I want to test you” That was all the inspiration that this deeply religious man needed to go ahead. His soldiers were equally inspired and determined to win all or lose all: The die was cast. There would be no turning back.
Another incident he recalled involved his much respected company commander, Maj (later Brig) Varinder Singh, had been shot through the chest and stomach in the earlier phase of the operation and is believed to have resisted evacuation. (He received four bullets and was later awarded the Vir Chakra). He advised Bana to capture the Pakistanis alive when Quaid was attacked. Bana vehemently disagreed, saying in choice Punjabi, “Sir, eh… (edited) meri maasi de putt thori na haege! (Sir, these… [Edited] chaps are hardly my blessed aunt’s children!). Bana recalled that Virender’s face broke into a broad smile, in spite of all the prevailing tension.
All the starting signs of the final portion of “Operation Vijay” were of grim portent. It was literally darkness at noon, Bana recalled. The heavy, persistent snow fall and the poor ambient light conditions made you wonder if it was day or night. On top of that, the Pakistanis knew something was going on because of the artillery shelling that we had started from the gun areas in the base camp to make them put their heads down and also to divert their attention. Quaid, as Bana and his men well knew, was an impregnable glacier fortress with ice walls 1500 feet high on two sides. Naib Subedar Bana Singh led his men through an extremely difficult and hazardous route, climbing in near darkness through a snowstorm. He inspired them by his indomitable courage and leadership. Every pore of his body strained and yearned to reach that single bunker at the top. He was, after all, under test; a test pitched at the limits of human endurance and set by his beloved Guru Sahib. His men; inspired his raw determination and never-say-die spirit, followed their leader.
There was a single, deep bunker on the top, Bana recalled. The Pakistanis must have become complacent because of the foul weather; the heavy snowfall; their success in warding off the previous two efforts by the Indians to capture the post, and, not the least, the psychological feeling of superiority that the Pakistani soldiers, particularly the SSG under their boastful Brigade commander had come to believe in, that they were ten feet tall. He and his men were therefore able to close up to the bunker. Bana opened the entrance door, threw his grenades inside and closed the doors… His men set up their Light Machine Gun on single shot. In that extreme climate, the automatic weapon could fire only single shot… After the short but intense close quarter battle that took place, a total of six Pakistanis were killed, with two or three having been bayoneted. Perhaps there were more SSG personnel who may have fallen to their deaths in their effort to escape the Indians bullets, grenades and bayonets. Too much was happening for anyone to have a clear recall. What Bana recalled with a personal sense of loss still readable on his face 21 years after the operation, was that the Pakistanis, on realizing that the post was lost, started shelling it with their viciously effective air-burst ammunition. One of Bana’s brave hearts, Sepoy Om Raj had his hand blown off; surgically amputated by the shelling In spite of Bana’s best efforts to save his life, bad weather and visibility as well as the intense shelling colluded. Sepoy Om Raj passed away, being awarded a Vir Chakra posthumously. Bana recalls that, following the protocol and ethos of the Indian Army towards the dead, the bodies of the six SSG personnel were brought back by him and later handed over to Pakistan during a flag meeting at Kargil.
On the morning of 27 June 1987, the Brigade Commander, Brig CS Nugyal who had intimately been involved with the planning and execution of the operation, arrived by helicopter at the battalions launch base. Fiercely hugging Bana and his soldiers, he announced that hereafter, the 21153 feet (6749 metres) above sea level post so brazenly taken away from Pakistan by Naib Subedar Bana Singh and his men, would be called Bana Top in his honour; a decision that a grateful nation and a very proud Army indeed, have accepted for posterity.
Naib Subedar Bana Singh was awarded the Param Vir Chakra, the highest wartime gallantry medal in India, for conspicuous bravery and leadership under most adverse conditions. “Operation Rajiv” overall resulted in award of one MVC (for Subedar Sansar Singh), seven Vir Chakra’s and one Sena Medal, besides the PVC. The CO and the Commander were awarded UYSM’s. 8 JAK LI and 102 Infantry Brigade had reason to be proud; very proud indeed, for their stupendous skill at arms in the toughest high altitude terrain the world has ever known so far.
THE VICTOR OF “QUAID” POST – NAIB SUBEDAR BANA SINGH, PVC, 8 JAK LI.
NB SUB BANA SINGH, 8 JAK LI (JC-155825)
Naib Subedar Bana Singh volunteered to be a member of a task force constituted in June 1987 to clear an intrusion by an adversary in the Siachen Glacier area at an altitude of 21,000 feet. The post was virtually an impregnable glacier fortress with ice walls, 1500 feet high, on both sides. Naib Subedar Bana Singh led his men through an extremely difficult and hazardous route. He inspired them by his indomitable courage and leadership. The brave Naib Subedar and his men crawled and closed in on the adversary. Moving from trench to trench, lobbing hand grenades, and charging with the bayonet, he cleared the post of all intruders. Naib Subedar Bana Singh displayed the most conspicuous gallantry and leadership under the most adverse conditions.
In March 2008, the son of Honorary Capt Bana Singh, PVC, passed out from the JAK LI Regimental Centre, with his proud father watching.
Srinagar: Two decades after his inspiring heroism in the shuddering heights of Siachen, Subedar Major (Honorary Captain) Bana Singh, Param Vir Chakra (PVC), of the 8th Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JAKLI) has sent his son to defend the frontiers in Kashmir
Subedar Major (Honorary Captain) Bana Singh was awarded the PVC for his heroism in the recapturing of a post from the Pakistan Army on June 23, 1987, in the Siachen Glacier (Jammu and Kashmir). He was a Naib Subedar at the time of the military operation.
The post was named after him as Bana Post and now he is his son’s idol as the 18-year old, Rajinder Singh, gets ready to defend India’s border.
And Subedar Major (Honorary Captain) Bana Singh, PVC, was present at his son’s passing out parade at JAKLI Regimental Centre on the outskirts of Srinagar.
“If you serve the nation with aan, baan and shaan (honour, pride and distinction), you have made the cut. I told my son, Rajinder, to join the army and serve with honesty and dedication, and I am glad he did,” was the statement made by this bravest of brave men. Rajinder will, in the coming years, no doubt look to redeeming his iconic father’s faith and pride in him.
Siachen has taken many lives of brave soldiers of the Indian Army in this highest battle zone in the world. An inscription on the memorial for the war dead at Siachen Base camp reads:
“Quartered in snow,
Silent to remain,
When the bugle calls,
They shall rise and march again”…
India has enough brave hearts like Honorary Captain Bana Singh, PVC, to make sure that, whenever the Bugle calls, soldiers like him will indeed rise and march again.
- Pakistan working out details for Siachen talks with India: FO (dawn.com)
- General wants glacier demilitarisation after avalanche (abc.net.au)
- Pakistan Army Chief Calls for Demilitarization of World Highest Battleground (voanews.com)
- General calls for Kashmir withdrawal (scotsman.com)
- Pakistan Interior Minister Slams Opposition Call to Withdraw From Siachen (news.antiwar.com)