I still vividly remember the exact moment the baton of Command of my infantry battalion of the SIKH Regiment passed to my hands. It was a very cold morning in the battalion head quarters at 12500 ft where we were deployed at the highest battlefield in the world but the smiles of the 300 brave boys who had assembled were warming our hearts. ‘Never a dull moment! I assure you Raj’ said Colonel PC Nair as he handed over the Commanding officer’s baton at the special ceremony called darbar ‘All the best, I am sure you will enjoy your command’.
His words ‘Never a dull Moment’ were soon to prove to be prophetic. Command of 800 exuberant Khalsas in one of the toughest sectors in the world was like a roller–coaster ride with many ups and downs. I learned along the way to take the good times with the bad; not to get carried away by success and remain calm and composed during times of crisis. What was great, was that when there was a difficult task to be done, the brave SIKH soldiers rose to the occasion and fought all odds to get it done.
As I look back on those two and half years a few memorable moments linger in my thoughts.
Topsy turvy Truck
Within a few days of taking over, on a cold Sunday morning I was looking forward to a slightly relaxed time after what had been a hectic week. It was snowing lightly at the forward post above 18000 ft and I was just finishing the morning reports from the border outposts. Soon the post Commander of one of the lower posts, called me up and said in Punjabi, ‘Saabji maadi ji gal ho gayi’. (sir, there is a small issue) Expecting the worst I asked him the gory details and he said Saabji gaddi palat gayi’. ( sir, a vehicle has overturned). That was the only post at 15,500 feet where a vehicle could go with great difficulty up a sleep rocking path. A truck could take upto 1 hour to cover the 5 km to the post. I remembered that the previous night a vehicle had gone there but as it was late, it was told to come back in the morning.
I sent an officer to the post to take stock of the situation and bring me photos. It was a miracle how the driver had survived because after skidding on the ice and hitting a stone, the vehicle had turned turtle with all four wheels towards the sky. The driver had managed to crawl out unhurt from a crushed cabin. I thanked “Wahe Guru” and picked up the phone to break the ‘good’ news to my superior, the Brigade Commander. He was obviously not happy but I told him it could have been much worse if the driver had been hurt or killed.
Many calls to the army workshop finally brought a recovery truck to the battalion headquarters. The supervisor whose bones had been rattled in the bumpy ride to the place was gasping for breath while walking to my office. I pinned no great hopes on him. He started explaining as to why the recovery truck could no go to the post. I said ‘ Ok, then, we shall go together in your recovery truck’ that shut his mouth. He had never had a full Colonel sharing his driver’s cabin and was stumped. We started off in his vehicle. Very soon the steep gradient was too much for the vintage vehicle and it gave up its ghost. I dismounted and walked avoiding the man who was figuring out how to recover the recovery truck.
The next day the Commando platoon incharge, Bhulla Singh came to me and said, ‘Saab ji mein Ghatak pl de nall gaddi chak deanga.’ “ Sir, I will recover the vehicle with the Commando platoon”. I had seen the post and my main worry was that the vehicle would fall into the deep gorge nearby if the men tried something. ‘Tusi ja ke check karo lekin meri permission to bina kuch nahi karna’ – “ You just go and check but don’t do anything without my orders,” I told him. At 1200 hr Bhulla called me and said that it seemed difficult but he wanted to try to recover the vehicle with the ghatak boys. When I asked him how, he could not convince me with his plan. I told him to come back and not attempt anything stupid.
It was around 1330hrs that he rang me up again. 'Saabji asi gaddi chak ke seedhi kar ditti’. “ Sir, we managed to put the vehicle on its wheels”I was amazed as to how the ten boys of ghatak could turn around a heavy truck on an icy slope. It was actually disobedience of my orders but that time I was happy that the vehicle was recovered and the man had taken the initiative in true Sikh Regiment style. The ghatak( Commando) pl even managed to start the vehicle and with the driver hunched inside a crushed cabin they drove the vehicle back- the five km route taking about three hours. When I reported the matter to the Cdr, he was greatly surprised and impressed. ‘Only your battalion can do this’ was his reply. My next worry was how to regularize the damage. Subedar Harbhajan Singh the commander of transport platoon already had a plan for it. ‘Sir ji please don’t worry, I will manage to change the cabin with neighbouring battalion’. The neighbouring SIKH Light Infantry battalion had a great relationship with us. After a week he called me to the place where he had lined up five 2.5 tonne vehicles. I asked him about the accident one, he said, ‘Saab woh to ithe hi khadi hai, tusi pehchan lo’ – “Its standing here sir, please recognize the one” Needless to say the boys had done such a wonderful job on it that I could not recognize it at all. Thus was the accident sorted out SHAMSHEER style.
(My battalion was nick named SHAMSHEER after the famous double edged sword of Guru Gobind Singh)
Mule trouble on the double
Brig Jai Singh, Commander of Siachen Bde rang me up and said ‘Raj, we are inducting 20 army mules to your post for Advance winter stocking. They are a very precious commodity in this area. Be very careful – the last unit lost two mules while inducting to the post. They are not used to these high altitudes and have to be handled very carefully. There will be a big problem if any thing happens to them.’ I said “Sir do not worry. Anybody coming to Shamsheer battalion is well looked after. We shall look after them too – nothing will happen to them.” The next afternoon the mules arrived in vehicles to our location and I personally went and supervised their preparation for induction.
The induction of the mule column was completed without any incident and I heaved a sigh of relief. Daily calls to the ‘mule NCO’ as our men called the seargent from Remount Veterinary Corps at the post kept me informed that all was well.
It was on the third day morning that the bombshell was dropped. The post JCO rang me up and said, ‘Saabji – baki post da all okay hai, maadi ji gal ho gayi’. “sir, all is well at the post, there is a small issue” After many years with the Sikhs I know that even the worst catastrophe was only ‘maadi ji gal’ or “small issue” So I waited fearing the worst. ‘Saab ji ek khotta mar gaya’. “ Sir, one mule has died” Further enquires could not solicit any worthwhile information and the ‘mule NCO’ revealed that the pony had died due to colic which is a common ailment in high–altitude. I had to inform the Commander and obviously he was not very happy. ‘I told you so and still you chaps could not look after the animals’ was his dry retort. Well, good liason with the RVC doctors ensured that the matter was not reported as an unusual death and no Court of Inquiry was ordered.
The sigh of relief I breathed was not to last very long. Just about a day or so. The next day, we had the sudden visit of the General to the battalion. The news was told to us at 1830 hr the previous day when we were enjoying our evening game of badminton. I decided to complete the games and only packed off at 1930 hr to prepare my briefing. My previous Commanding Officer used to say- ‘Never get worried with visits of senior officers. As the man on ground you would know much more than the visiting officer and if you don’t know, then as it is, one does not deserve to be in command’. Having walked to all posts and knowing the ground well, I did not worry much about the visit and slept off at 2230 hrs after preparing my briefing.
It was around six in the morning and as I was getting ready for the visit of the General that I again got a call from the NCO at Zungpal, the post where the mules were stationed. Fearing the worst, I picked the phone. Havildar Surender informed me ‘Saab ji ek hor Khotta mar gaya’. “ Sir, one more mule has died” A bolt from the blue it sure was - as if one mule’s death was not enough, here were two gone in three days. Enquires with the puzzled mule NCO at the post only revealed that one moment the mule was fine and walking in the column and the second moment he fell to one side and gave up his ghost.
I decided to be cool and focus on the visit. As far as reporting the matter, I decided to wait till the visit was over. The General was an impatient man who would want everything in a jiffy. However I persuaded him to sit down and listen to my briefings. I even laid out all my innovations and the visit went off very well. The helicopters started up and the General was seen off.
As the Comander started moving to his helicopter I dropped my bomb-shell ‘Sir, One more mule has met his maker today morning’. For a second, the Cdr did not understand – when he did, he was quite upset. The chopper blades were now at full speed, he could not wait any longer so I said ‘Sir, shall tell you full details on the phone.’ This time again, the good relations with RVC offrs came to our rescue and the mule was declared as having had a ‘heart attack’. ‘Never heard of a mule having a heart attack. At this rate we will soon have no mules left at all’ was the Cdr’s dry retort which I thought fair not to reply at all. Luckily for me the mules settled down and thereafter no more decided to kick the bucket to trouble me.
High drama at Twenty thousand feet.
One of our forward posts on the line of control was on the knife edge on top of a very high mountain close to twenty thousand feet. One evening it was snowing very heavily when Capt Vineet the post cdr of that post rang me up. ‘Sir, there is a man in my post with very severe abdomen pain. He is shouting and crying with pain and has to be evacuated at the earliest.” The only route to the post was blocked with very heavy snowfall and movement from the post threatened by about ten avalanche sites. The route would not be open for at least next ten days and no-one could get him out from there. I was in a fix as to what to do. I just told Vineet to gave him painkiller injections and hold on till further orders. The paramedic at the post told me that possibly the chap had severe pain due to gall – bladder stone. Now that post had only two fibre glass huts in very poor condition. In one, the two officers shared space with four boys and in the other, the balance ten boys used to stay. The sick man was shouting and crying and making life miserable for all the others. He was also in grave danger as he had to be shot with a pain-killer every six hours. The post had only six such injections and so he could hold only for 36 hours after which he was likely to go into shock due to intense pain. Also if nothing was done he could die at the post. At the same time knowing the dangerous route and the grave avalanche threat I could not risk six more personnel. In any case at that altitude and on that cliff-hanger of a route the casualty could not be carried by anybody else.
The next day I tried to use my aviation links and organized a drop of medicines to the post containing injections but the helicopters could not come due to bad weather. The crisis on the post could not be solved and I told Vineet to shoot him with a pain-killer only once every twelve hours to buy some more time. On the third night we decided to do a night movement down from the post with the casualty and Vineet volunteered to lead the party. I was on the radio monitoring the move and we were all very tense. The party started at about 2000 hr. Three hours into the move and the party had only covered about 800 meters down with the sick man; at this rate I estimated about twenty hours for the whole move which would mean great avalanche threat. Disaster struck earlier than that. The leading boy and Vineet were hit by an avalanche at 2350 hr. Both of them were buried neck-deep in snow and narrowly missed going down the slope. The party was shaken up and could recover the two of them after great efforts. The casualty was dumped on the snow to fight the new danger. A coughing Vineet came on the radio and he reported that it was not possible to go any further as the snow was even more dangerous down below. I was very worried about the balance party and ordered the evacuation to be abandoned. The party reached back in more than four hours but at least they were safe. Now the sick man was back to square one after an adventure at night. Having gone through the near-death ordeal the chap decided that dying on the post would be less painful than dying out in the snow and decided to reduce his shouting and crying.
The crisis was worsening and as CO I thought I must go to the scene of action for moral support. It was easier said than done as I was at the headquarters and that post would take almost ten days to reach with acclimatization. I climbed for two nights without acclimatization and reached the lower post which was 16500 feet. We planned to climb the next day early morning with medicines and injections. To dissipate the tension I played carom-board with the Company Commander and another officer who were stuck on the post waiting for induction.By midnight it started snowing and we could not move out for our climb at the planned time of 3 AM.
It was the helicopters which came to our rescue. I pulled all strings and activated my old friends at Leh aviation squadron to launch a daring rescue op. At 1300 hr we got a call that the choppers were coming. The leading one landed at our post and picked me up. As an ex-army aviation pilot myself I could guide the helicopters as I also knew the layout of the ground. The second one was to hover over the bunkers at the post and pick up the casualty at hover as there was no space to land. The boys at the post had worked day and night and created a make-shift helipad on top of two old bunkers. It was the most difficult casualty evacuation I had ever seen and the brave pilots hovered the helicopter in a very limited space at 20000 feet. It seemed that at any moment the blades of the chopper would touch the mountain. From the leading helicopter, I was guiding the other pilots on radio and my heart was in my mouth. Vineet stood on top of the bunker and picked up the casualty and threw him into the helicopter. The sick man was finally evacuated. All personnel at the post and I breathed a sigh of relief.
There were many such incidents where the SHAMSHEER offrs, JCOs and men rose to the occasion and performed the near impossible. Many times it was the SIKH humour and the liaison and initiative which saw us through along with the most important benign hand of Wahe-Guru on the SHAMSHEER Bn.
The memories of those momentous days shall remain in our hearts forever.
Author : Col. P. Rajgopalan
Colonel P. Rajgopalan was commissioned in the Indian Army in 1988. The officer is a veteran
of Kargil war and fought militants in Kashmir for many years. He commanded his infantry
battalion in the Siachen Glacier where he was nominated for meritorious service award. He is
also a Combat Army Aviation pilot and has flown army helicopters in battle. After pre-mature retirement from the army he now pursues his passion of flying and training