|The book cover: Out in early April 2014
(For those who want to buy the book: Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Mountains and military fascinate me in equal measure.
May be because between 1983 and 2006, living in and reporting from India’s North-east, I dealt with them more frequently than anything else.
And then there was the summer of 1999.
That year, a combination of serendipity and a risk-taking editor in Outlook magazine took me to the mountains of Kargil. That’s when I first heard of Siachen, but only in passing.
During that 45-day assignment, reporting the mini war between India and Pakistan, I did occasionally hear a comment, ‘Pakistan’s ultimate aim was to isolate and cut off Siachen,’ but as a reporter concerned only with getting the next story right, one never gave enough thought that time to this ‘strategic’ aspect of the Kargil conflict.
Shifting to Delhi in 2006 and taking up a larger responsibility in NDTV, was an opportunity to widen the horizons.
|The Siachen saviours|
Within the first couple of months, the Siachen question popped up again in the context of searching for a lasting peace between India and Pakistan. Diplomats looking for a quick solution to the half- a-century old problem between India and Pakistan, identified Siachen and Sir Creek as ‘low hanging fruits’ to be plucked to initiate a larger peace process.
When the negotiations failed to make much headway, a convenient scapegoat was sought to be found in India’s Army Chief who had insisted that the respective deployments of the Indian and Pakistani troops be marked on the map before arriving at any ‘solution’ to Siachen, a position not acceptable to Pakistan. The ‘peaceniks’ accused the Indian military of exercising a veto on foreign policy; the military said it only gave a professional opinion.
The renewed focus on Siachen revived my passing interest in the area. As I started reading available material and simultaneously talking to people who had served there, the glacier beckoned. In July 2007, grabbing the first opportunity to visit Siachen, I spent four days on the Base Camp, talking to soldiers and pilots, observing their routine, the adjustments that they made physically and in their mind; the preparation that went into the three-month deployment at altitudes where humans are not supposed to stay for a prolonged period.
|At the Siachen War Memorial|
For the next six years, I kept going back to Ladakh, once for a fairly longish family holiday and at least half a dozen times on work, reporting trouble on the Chinese border, a natural calamity and celebrating a decade of victory in Kargil. Through all this Siachen remained a half mystery: I knew the official Indian position, the extent of deployment of the Indian Army in the area and the stupendous jobs that the air warriors do in sustaining the deployment at the forbidding heights. The personal stories were however missing. Which officers and men outsmarted the Pakistanis in occupying the key watershed of Saltoro to secure Siachen in the summer of 1984? Was it a political or a military decision? Or a combination of both? Who discovered Pakistan’s cartographic aggression in the Karakorams?
They would have remained questions in my mind but for a chance meeting with Mr Suresh Gopal of Bloomsbury India at a function to launch a book written by former Central Army Commander, Lt. Gen VK Ahluwalia. Over dinner a week later, we got talking. When Mr Gopal asked me what book would I be interested in writing, my instinctive answer was, “a comprehensive book on India’s North-east.” And I proceeded to tell him about my long association and affinity with the region. Sure, he said but how about something on the Indian military?
And at that moment, without thinking, I said “What about a book on Siachen?”
|Paying a silent tribute at the war memorial|
I don’t know why I said it. I was aware of at least four books on Siachen written previously; I had not done adequate research on the subject and I was not even sure of getting access to the Siachen area. So how was I to write a book? But Bloomsbury was eager. And I thought the time was right. April 2014 I knew, would mark 30 years of Operation Meghdoot, the Indian military’s longest continuous deployment. So in a way, a deadline was already set. If I had to write any book on Siachen, its release had to be timed with the 30thanniversary. That left me with less than six months to assemble the material and write the manuscript.
Prodded and cajoled by the publishers, I gradually began looking at the subject more closely. By October 2013, the Army came around and allowed me to visit the Siachen Base camp again and meet up with those posted there. As I warmed up to the subject and started tapping those who had formerly served on the glacier, the trickle of information became a torrent.
|The road to Siachen Base camp|
As the word spread about my attempt to chronicle the Siachen saga—and saga it is, unparalleled for the bravery, commitment and sacrifice by the Indian soldier—many soldiers and air warriors who had left service got in touch to share their stories. Many officers from the Army, the Air Force and the Army Medical Corps volunteered information, personal anecdotes and unreservedly shared their fears and triumphs; everyone went out of his way to rummage through forgotten albums to dig out old, frayed photographs and details of their stay on what is easily the most inhospitable battlefield. Everyone spared valuable time to sit down and allow me to record the conversations. It was as if all Siachen veterans I could reach out to, were undergoing a catharsis, unburdening themselves and their long suppressed memories.
Sifting through the material, it became clear to me what the book should not be: a dry, officious Sitrep (Situation Report) about a military operation. Instead, we decided to concentrate on the human element: the tragedies, the comradeship, the commitment and sheer bravery of soldiers on Siachen.
This book is not a definitive history of Operation Meghdoot. But it certainly is a slice of history seen through the eyes of those who had the opportunity to serve at Siachen. I have no pretensions of being a military analyst either. I am a journalist who has had the privilege of being trusted by officers and men in the Indian military, a trust I value far more than anything else in my profession.
Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga is a product of collective effort, bolstered by contributions from many, but the ultimate responsibility lies with me.
March 24, 2014 -
Great job Nitin Gokhale, even though I have not read the book.
March 29, 2014 -
Thanks. NG. I can't wait to relive a bit of my past there through your words! Eagerly waiting for the release.