The remains of an Army jawan, Lance Naik Chandrashekhar Harbol, were found on the Siachen Glacier on Monday (August 15), more than 38 years after he went missing in an avalanche. The avalanche had claimed the lives of 18 soldiers of the 19th Battalion of the Kumaon Regiment while they were out on a mission.
What was this mission, for which the 18 soldiers had volunteered knowing fully well the risk they were running? What was the role that 19 Kumaon played in cementing India’s claim over the Siachen Glacier? We explain.
19 Kumaon and its foot march over Zoji la pass in winters
19 Kumaon, or ‘Unnis’ as it is better known in the Kumaon Regiment, was barely five years old when it was deployed in Operation Meghdoot. The operation had been mounted in April 1984 by the Indian Army to occupy certain features on the Siachen Glacier, in order to pre-empt the Pakistan Army which had been noticed to be advancing to occupy the same heights and features.
Raised in July 1979, at the Kumaon Regimental Centre in Ranikhet (now in Uttarakhand), the battalion had Lt Col VK Bogra as the first commanding officer. The unit had just seen a couple of peace and field tenures when it was stationed in Khrew in Jammu and Kashmir under the command of Lt Col (later Brigadier) DK Khanna. The jawans of the unit were moved 630 km from Khrew to Siachen, which included crossing the snow-covered Zoji La pass.
The unit has the singular honour of being the first and only battalion to have crossed the Zoji la pass in winters on foot with every soldier carrying an individual load of 35-40 kg, in over 40 feet of snow, without a single drop-out.
This amazing feat has been recorded in great detail by Brig Khanna in his book ‘Gorichen to Siachen: The Untold Saga of Hoisting the Tricolour on Saltoro’.
19 Kumaon’s role on Siachen Glacier
Brig Khanna’s book records how the troops had to put up with deteriorating winter clothing and resort to makeshift repairs in order to carry out all operational tasks. Despite the shortfalls in clothing and equipment in those early days of Operation Meghdoot, the morale of the jawans remained high.
Brig Khanna states in his book that the task given to ‘B’ Company of the battalion, under Major Ravi Negi and 2/Lt Anant Bhuyan as the Platoon Commander, was to ensure that no incursion takes place on the Lagongma and Layongma Glaciers from the west across the Saltoro ridgeline. A patrol of selected mountaineers under Capt Roshan Yadav of 19 Kumaon was given the task to link up with the forward patrol base and ultimately plant the national flag at Indira Col, notes the former CO.
The occupation of Saltoro Ridge and the fateful patrol
It was on May 6, 1984 that the Sector Commander of the area asked 19 Kumaon to occupy the Saltoro Ridge through all the glaciers on which 19 Kumaon was deployed. The Saltoro Ridge is around 15 km in length and ranges from 18,600 feet approximately at Gyong La to 22,000 feet at Gyong Kangri. The unit eventually hoisted the Tricolour at Point 5725, opposite, Gyong La, amidst firing from the Pakistan Army.
19 Kumaon was ordered by the GOC 3 Infantry Division and the Sector Commander on May 25, 1984 to occupy Point 5965 with a platoon. The CO faced a dilemma, as, with the resources he had at hand, this was a tough task. It was at this point that young 2/Lt PS Poondir volunteered. The officer had earlier led a patrol in Zoji La in snow-bound conditions and was confident he could manage the situation because of the lessons he had learnt earlier.
The CO, Lt Col Khanna, gave him a reluctant go-ahead. He writes in his book that he asked Poondir to choose 17 volunteers from the troops deployed on Gyong la and Russel Glaciers. “Everyone who volunteered was aware of the grave danger associated with the task,” writes Khanna.
The patrol eventually included 18 soldiers, including one officer, two Havildars, two Naiks, two Lance Naiks and the rest Sepoys. The Co records in his book that five of them were unmarried and some of them had not even gone on their first leave since joining the battalion. This patrol left on May 27 and the CO spoke to 2/Lt Poondir twice a day, morning and evening, to confirm his location. This communication did not take place on May 29.
A patrol along the same route that Poondir and his men had taken confirmed the worst, when it found several items, including sleeping bags, strewn on the snow. It was presumed that an avalanche had struck on the night of May 28, burying the patrol. The bodies of 13 soldiers were recovered over the next few weeks, while 2/Lt Poondir’s body was found two months later. Five soldiers remained missing, out of which Lance Naik Chandrashekhar Harbol’s remains have now been recovered.
Four soldiers of 19 Kumaon still lie buried where they fell in the line of duty. Their names, as per retired officers of Kumaon Regiment, are Havildar Govind Ballabh, Sepoy Mahender Pal Singh, Sepoy Jagat Singh, and Sepoy Narendra Singh.