The above book ‘Soldier Mountaineer’ penned by me with inputs from Col Narender Kumar, highlights his physical, mental and soldierly prowesses was aptly christened ‘Bull’ in the Indian Military Academy by the Commandant during a boxing match against a senior cadet, Sunith Francis Rodrigues, later the Chief of the Army Staff.
Bull in his own ways later in the country became famous as ‘The Colonel who got us Siachen Glacier’. Besides his numerous mountain and river rafting expeditions, he trained many armed forces personnel in mountaineering, skiing and high altitude warfare. Bull not got India Barahoti from the Chinese strangulations but also pre-empted Siachen from the Pakistani occupation.
In 1961 barely with 6 years’ service, Bull was called by the Military Operation Directorate, Army Headquarters for special mission tasking of national importance. The Joint Secretary of the External Affairs Ministry explained the purpose of the mission. He said that China had occupied 40,000 sq Kms of Aksai Chin of Indian Territory and some parts of Arunachal land, then called NEFA, and also approximately 100 sq Kms of Barahoti plains in the Central Sector across Joshimath.
The Indian Government had decided to send a mission to Barahoti just to find out what would be the reaction of the Chinese forces if India occupies Barahoti before them as part of the ‘Forward Policy’ and Bull was tasked to establish posts in Barahoti- almost a suicidal task. Gen Kaul, then Chief of General Staff reiterated that if Capt Kumar who had been up to 28,300 feet on Everest could not do that then nobody else could.
Barahoti lies well inside Indian Territory in the Central Himalayas but every year the snow melted, the Chinese came and occupied that area. On the Chinese side, the terrain is gentle to reach Barahoti while from the Indian side, crossing 18,000 ft high Choroti Pass to reach Barahoti was a far more difficult proposition. The Chinese, claiming the area, during summers had been not only occupying Barahoti but had also been establishing their posts all along the Indian border.
Prime Minister Nehru called Kumar alone in his office and gave him a chance to withdraw from the mission if under the pressure of top brass. Kumar assured him that the mission could be possible if he got the required support. The team reached Barahoti via Joshimath and Malari. When they reached Barahoti, they had only a few days' rations left with them. They asked for their food to be dropped at Barahoti, and the Indian Air force Dakota full of supplies to be dropped at their location came to their rescue but unfortunately the plane on the wrong bearing could not drop and running low on fuel flew back.
A couple of days later the plane came back. They heard the roar of the Dakota engines and they were getting ready to receive the drop but suddenly the roaring engine noise vanished and sadly the aircraft crashed. For the next 3 days Bull’s searched the area across the Himalayan range without bothering where the border with China lay. In the meantime, the Dogra Regiment Company located at Malari also sent various search parties to all directions but couldn’t find the site of the crash. After the new supplies were dropped, Kumar requested the Army Headquarters to allow him to lead his Nilkantha expedition.
He was granted permission and was about to leave Malari when a signal came from the wife of the navigator of the crashed airplane, saying that there was no war on and therefore, she wanted the ashes of her husband to be brought back. More than 100 people had searched for many days and did not find any crash site and even aerial reconnaissance failed to locate the same but Kumar thought he was duty bound to make an attempt himself. So, the next day he along with his batman and another trusted porter of his earlier Trishul expedition left to search for the aircraft.
Even after 14 hours of struggling up and down the valleys, they didn’t find any signs of the crash. They decided to spend the night there to see all the valleys when someone spotted the crash site. The half burnt bodies and parts of the aircraft were scattered all over the place. They identified the bodies from uniform applets, cremated them as per Hindu customs, and brought their ashes home. For his successful expedition to Barahoti, Kumar was awarded Ati Vishisht Seva Medal (AVMS) as a Captain, which was usually given to senior ranking officers.
While Col Kumar was Commandant of High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) in 1977, he met two Germans with whom he had done the Indus Boat expedition earlier. They suggested another expedition down the Nubra River. They held an American map which gave 10,000 sq kms of Indian Territory to Pakistan. This was clearly marked as Pakistan territory. One look at the map, Kumar knew that there was a ‘Cartographic Error’.
Kumar approached the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) and studied all the treaties with Pakistan. The details of the cease fire line drawn in 1948 showed that it was drawn up to NJ 9842 and thereafter northwards to the glaciers. But the American map showed the line from NJ 9842 going towards Karakoram Pass. This cartographical error was brought to the notice of Atal Behari Vajpayee, the External Affairs Minister in the Government of India and the Army was given clearance for an expedition to the Siachen Glacier. It was decided that the Advance Mountaineering Course from HAWS would be taken on this expedition as part of their training programme.
Apart from the polar glaciers, the Siachen Glacier is the longest and widest glacier in the world. It is formed by hundreds of side glaciers joining it on its long journey. The glacier consists of huge yawning crevasses. The top portions of some crevasses are covered with fresh snow and are real booby traps. There are many canals running under the glacier. All these canals merge together to form the Snout of the Nubra River. Some canals have become blocked and their water now flows to other canals leaving the canal empty. These empty canals form caves which Kumar’s team was able to use to their advantage.
Once on the glacier, Kumar’s team proceeded to climb Teram Kangri II. This was the first time that anybody had approached Siachen Glacier from the Nubra Valley. Till now many expeditions had accessed Siachen Glacier from Bilafond La, through Pakistan occupied Kashmir.
To open the route, the team had to climb many ridges and follow troughs, cross glacial streams and go through tunnels. But in order to reach Teram Kangri, they had to cross another big glacier-the Teram Shehr Glacier. Slowly the team advanced and got to a place where there was a small lake with lots of grass around. Here they found a lot of garbage left behind by the earlier expeditions which had come from Bilafond La. Several items in the garbage had Pakistani, German and Japanese markings. Kumar’s team brought back some pieces to show to the authorities as proof of Pakistan sending expeditions to Siachen Glacier.
The moment Kumar and his party reached the snout of Siachen Glacier, Pakistani planes started showing their presence by spraying green smoke. At every stage the team went, they were observed by Pakistani planes. Kumar’s team was not carrying any weapons, so they were convinced that this was not a military operation, but only a mountaineering expedition. On 13 Oct 1978, Kumar’s team was successful in scaling Teran Kangril II peak on the main crest of Karakoram Range with snow under their feet with different destinies- while on one side it formed into stream of Yarkand River wandering through KunLun Mountains and fabled city of Yarkand lost in Gobi desert while the snow on their side of the greatest watershed of the world would merge with Indian Ocean via Nubra, Shyok and Indus Rivers.
During the 1978 Expedition to Siachen, Kumar was given two tasks by the Government of India. One was to find the presence of any Pakistani activity in the area and secondly to suggest a line for an international border. Kumar suggested that the international border should start from NJ 9842, run along the Saltoro Ridge and extend up to the Shaksgam Valley. Shaksgam Valley had already been illegally ceded by Pakistan to China. He further suggested that another expedition be sent to Siachen to reconnoiter the area beyond Teram Kangri, along the Saltoro Ridge. There are two Col in this region; one is eastern and another is western. Eastern Col was named Indira Col in 1912 by Bullock Workman, after one of the names of the goddess Lakshmi.
Kumar also led the second expedition to Siachen Glacier in 1981. divided his team into three parties – one for Saltoro Kangri, second for Sia Kangri and the third party led by himself to reconnoiter all the passes coming into Siachen Glacier from Pakistan and China.
Kumar’s party reconnoitered Bilafond La, Sia La, Indira Col, Turkistan La, Pass Italia and the pass going to North of Karakoram Pass in China. He went on to support the Sia Kangri party and reached the last camp on the day the summit party was coming down. But after the debriefing, he found that the summit of Sia Kangri had not been climbed. To establish the claim, the very next day, Kumar led another party and successfully planted the tricolor on the summit of Sia Kangri. Sia Kangri forms the tri junction where Pakistan occupied Kashmir, China occupied Kashmir and India meet.
Kumar also went on to support the Saltoro Kangri team. Saltoro Kangri has two summits. The southern summit has a rocky tower and the northern summit has a gradual slope up to the summit. Visually the southern rocky summit looks higher, though it is 250 ft lower than the northern summit. The team reached the bottom of the rocky tower leading to the southern summit and found the tower impossible to climb. So Kumar decided to send the second summit party to the northern summit. When the second summit party reached Camp–III, it snowed heavily.
Kumar was afraid that an avalanche might hit the camp, so he brought the party down. The very next morning, the inevitable happened and Camp-III was buried under 20 ft of snow. Hence Kumar decided to take an alternate route which unfortunately passed under hanging glaciers. It was evident that an ice avalanche was likely to come. The team decided to wait for some days. After 10 days the avalanche came down with a deafening noise. Being now satisfied that the mountain had fired its last fury, Kumar sent up the 3rd party which successfully climbed the summit of Saltoro Kangri.
This time, Pakistan did not come to know about the expedition. The entire mission was highly secret and no written orders had been issued. Apart from Kumar and the Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi, only three other people were in the know about the mission. Kumar was awarded the Kirti Chakra and MacGregor Medal. MacGregor Medal is the only British Medal still being awarded in India for reconnaissance of unknown territories. 70 other awards were given to the team for their exceptional and outstanding service to the nation.
In around 90 days long mission, Kumar with his team carried topographical, tactically and strategically important reconnaissance, mapping the entire Siachen Glacier region along with going, access routes and on his return briefed Director (General Military Operations (DGMO) forcefully suggesting that the natural boundary between India and Pakistan at Saltoro ridge should run along the line joining NJ 9842 along the Saltoro Ridge and extend up to the Shaksgam Valley and troops should be permanently positioned to dominate heights, denying enemy all possible enemy approaches to the glacier.
He was also of the firm view that if India wants to dominate this region for times to come then it has to move beyond the glacier itself and occupy the Saltoro Heights, thereby controlling the access to the glacier from the enemy sides. The rest, as they say, is history. On 13 April 1984, Capt Sanjay Kulkarni 4 Kumaon (later Lt Gen Sanjay Kulkarni, PVSM, AVSM, SC, SM, VSM) the Platoon Commander, was among the first a few dropped by Cheetah helicopter at Siachen in Operation Meghdoot who lead his platoon to unfurl the National Flag on Bilafond La and was decorated with Shaurya Chakra, helping Indian Army in establishing full control on the glacier.It has been a little over a year, Col Kumar suddenly left for his heavenly abode.
It is never too late for grateful country to honour and immortalised his services to the nation and indomitable spirits that the ‘Line joining NJ 9842 along the Saltoro Ridge, extended up to the Shaksgam Valley toward the K2 Peak, forming the most practical and natural boundary between the two countries is named as ‘Kumar Line’ to honour our legendary ‘Soldier Mountaineer’ and bestow on him posthumously with Padma Bhushan/Padma Vibhushan award for his exceptionally highest order military service, disregarding personal safety and security against deadliest odds, that will inspire posterity for generations to come.
About The Author
Col NN Bhatia was commissioned into the 13 Kumaon in 1963. He commanded 2 Kumaon (Berar), which is one of the oldest Indian Army Battalions. Upon his retirement from the army, he went on to work in intelligence, specializing in industrial security, going on to conduct security audits of vital installations.
Presently he is a freelance Industrial Security Consultant and a prolific writer on military and industrial security. He is deeply involved in the release of 54 Indian POWs languishing in Pakistani jails since the 1971 War. He can be contacted at Email: [email protected]
(Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)