Despite the nation’s collective prayers, Lance Naik Hanumanthappa Koppad passed away at Delhi’s RR Hospital on Thursday morning, four days after he was discovered alive in what was a miraculous rescue from Siachen. On February 3, an ice wall measuring 800x400ft broke off and buried an Army post in the northern glacier of Siachen, the world’s highest battlefield. Among the debris stand massive ice boulders that are spread over 800x1000 metres. Ten army personnel were trapped in that mass of ice. After the national media caught onto the story, the Indian public has been a witness to a story of steely courage, immense determination and an unbreakable bond of camaraderie among fellow soldiers of the Indian Army. On the one hand, it is a story of Lance Naik Hanumanthappa, who miraculously survived till help arrived in the form of his brave colleagues, despite being buried under 25 feet of ice for six days at an altitude of over 19,000 feet above sea level with temperatures hovering below minus 40 degrees Celsius. The soldier showed immense mental fortitude, despite being trapped under sub-human conditions. On the other hand, it is the story of the dogged determination shown by over 150 soldiers, aided by two canines, who eventually located Hanumanthappa. They used earth-penetrating radars and special ice-cutting equipment to locate the soldier and cut through the 25-30 feet of ice. Despite the sub-human conditions, his fellow soldiers in the unit did not give up and after five gruelling days, they found him. Credit for the miraculous rescue operations must also be given to the pilots for daring to fly in the middle of a snow blizzard through narrow mountain features, despite the turbulence and poor visibility. Reports indicate that it took some 300 sorties by specially trained army helicopters for six days, and relay teams of some of the best-trained rescues experts in the world to rescue the lone survivor. Relay teams are required primarily because Siachen stands at an altitude of over 19,000 feet above sea level. At that altitude, oxygen is in short supply, making breathing very difficult. After every 30 minutes, even the most well-trained and altitude-adapted rescuers had to take a break due to the exhaustion levels involved. Unfortunately, these valiant efforts went in vain, after Hanumanthappa succumbed to the medical complications that arose from his six-day ordeal under 25 feet of ice. But let us not forget the other nine soldiers of Hanumanthappa ’s regiment, who died in the avalanche. Their bodies are still up on the snowy heights. In a poignant show of respect, the Indian Army conducted an impressive ceremony to honour Hanumanthappa. Let’s hope that the Indian Army and the nation will accord the same honour to the other nine soldiers.
In the midst of national mourning, it is imperative for the reader to understand why the Indian Army continues to station troops in such sub-human conditions. In 1984, the Indian Army went into Siachen during Operation Meghdoot and established control over the glacier. In an impressive column for a popular English-language website, Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hussain, who had once commanded an Indian Army unit at Siachen, details the strategic significance of the region. “Most Indians are unaware that Pakistan has never officially told its people that it is India which is holding the strategic Saltoro ridge on the west of the glacier which affords us the tactical advantage over the Pakistan Army,” the Lieutenant General wrote. However, in the context of where it is located, India’s position on Siachen holds great significance. “Siachen is the northern most deployment that we have which flanks and, in fact, juts into the Gilgit-Baltistan area. With the China-Pakistan strategic relationship ignoring norms and going ahead with the construction of joint infrastructure in this area that belongs to India – or, even by Pakistan’s claims, is at the least disputed – the glacier assumes even more strategic significance. Holding it becomes a dire necessity. The Nubra Valley adjacent to Siachen, north of the Ladakh range, provides depth to the crucial Leh Valley. If that was not held by India, we would virtually have Pakistan and China in collusion sitting almost on the Ladakh range, with Leh within earshot,” he added. However, in the 30 years since the Indian Army took control of Siachen, India has lost more than 1000 troops in the area. Reports indicate that there have been more deaths in Siachen due to the vagaries of nature than battle-related incidents. Although the facilities for our soldiers have improved markedly since 1984, the region remains deeply inhospitable, with the vagaries of nature playing havoc. India has spent crores to maintain troops in the high-latitude war zone, with expenditure on building infrastructure, developing suitable high-altitude clothing and research on developing nutritious food items with a longer shelf life.