The call came through late one February evening, on the shouting-volume-only wireless phone that links a tiny patch of land just above the mess tent to the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited network, and through it, to India.
Amit Bhatkande’s father had died — and the young soldier was needed at home in Kolhapur. For his boss, Subedar Dattasahib Patil, this wasn’t bad news: infiltration through the northern reaches of the Line of Control (LoC) falls to nothing in the winter, and one soldier on leave is one man fewer to keep warm.
Patil’s problem was different: to get Bhatkande back home meant despatching dozens of his comrades on a journey that might have led them straight to their own funeral pyres.
Imagine a soldier on the LoC, and more likely than not television images of the Siachen glacier will kick in: soldiers kitted out in state-of-the-art ski boots and imported clothes that keep out minus 50º winds. The men who guard the defensive wall along the LoC, though, are fighting a less sexy war — one about which India just doesn’t seem to care.
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“I loved my time on Siachen,” says Subedar Patil. “The first thing I did before I came here was buy myself a pair of decent shoes from the market, and a good jacket.”
LIFE ON THE ‘WALL’
Earlier this month, just after the troops at Khanabal Post had finished repairing the giant stretches of LoC fencing brought down by winter avalanches, they set to work preparing for the most important winter challenge: staying alive. Each company needs 30,000 litres of kerosene to survive the winter, hauled up the mountain by porters and ponies, one 10-litre can at a time. Food and ammunition have to be hoarded, enough to last for the six months that posts in the northern LoC have been known to be cut off.
The second-most important job is making sure that those who need to get out, can do so — and at 16,700 feet, with up to 30 feet of snow at minus 25º, that isn’t easy.
Long, thin poles driven into the ground mark the least avalanche-prone routes down the valley to the nearest road a four-wheel drive can struggle over, linking the supply base at Macchel to the headquarters of the 53 Brigade at Zamindar Khan Gali.
“The valley fills up with more than 25 feet of snow,” Patil says, “so we tie ropes from one pole to the other to mark the way. It takes at least 10 men, with avalanche rods and spades, five hours to beat a path through the snow to get to Katwar, down the valley. Then, the post there takes over. It takes them another five hours to Dapal — and a third party then takes five more hours to Dudhi. Finally, the party at Dudhi marches the last stretch, to Macchel”.
Naik Srikrishna Chavan says the Army is very good at getting in a helicopter, “even if just one man needs it”. The problem, he says, is the weather. “The clouds only clear perhaps one day in 15 through the winter. Last year, when soldier Fakhruddin Patil fell ill, he had to be hauled to the helipad, an hour from his post, every day for 12 days — only to hear the helicopter come, and go back without being able to land.”
There is no reliable phone link from the Khanabal Post to the soldiers’ homes and, for that, most soldiers seem grateful. “I heard about this guy who committed suicide this winter because his wife and mother were calling him threatening to file police cases against each other, and he was stuck at the post unable to do anything,” says Patil. “Me, the less news I get, the happier I am. It means all is well.”
The poor kit, though, can’t be wished away. The standard winter snow shoes provided to the troops — which the Army is obliged to procure from public sector providers — fall apart in weeks, several soldiers told The Indian Express. The summer boots aren’t much better, leaking ice-cold slush before they disintegrate. The jackets provided for winter and summer use are waterproof only in theory, and the dank never seems to dry out of the sleeping bags.
“Every man here with any sense spends Rs 850 on their own pair of shoes,” says Chavan. “And another Rs 800 or Rs 1,000 on a decent jacket. Our regiments have some funds of their own, and they help us out whenever possible.”
The problem lies in history — and bureaucracy. In the late 1990s, when the media began to drive public outrage over the awful conditions of troops stationed in Siachen and then Kargil, there were few permanent high-altitude posts on the northern stretches of the LoC in Kashmir. Following the 1999 war, the 8 Mountain Division was given the job of ensuring the Line was manned through the winter — but it never received the kind of equipment that was given to troops in Siachen, Kargil or Drass.
Now, military sources have told The Indian Express, improved kit has been sanctioned for all posts higher than 12,000 feet. But delays at the Ministry of Defence have meant there just isn’t enough equipment. Even troops in the high-altitude Ladakh-based XIV Corps are short of sleeping bags — equipment available off the shelf, but subject to cumbersome import rules.
“I am really proud of what I do,” says Patil, “as is every man here. A decent pair of shoes would be nice, though”.