The story of how the Siachen Glacier was won – As told by Narendra ‘Bull’ Kumar
Some say the advantage that accrues to India by the control of the 75-km-long Siachen Glacier located in the eastern Karakoram Range of the Himalayas is “mostly symbolic and political, not strategic or military”. But the fact is that the acquisition of the glacier (that is now considered the world’s highest battlefield) did rob Pakistan of the chance to pull off a cartographic invasion and playing of politics over the Siachen issue.
The man whose initial, brave expeditions enabled India to have this edge, (along with many others who contributed in different ways to the act) is Colonel (Retd) Narendra Kumar, also known as ‘Bull’ Kumar.
Siachen Glacier lies to the north of Point NJ 9842, the 1949 Karachi agreement between India and Pakistan had a vague demarcation of territories north of point NJ9842. However, on sensing Pakistan’s nefarious intentions, India launched Operation Meghdoot on 13 April 1984 and occupied the glacier. The importance of Siachen also owes it to the fact that the glacier is among the largest sources of fresh water in the Indian subcontinent.
Col Kumar holds the unique distinction of being the only person of his rank in all three services to have been awarded the Param Vishisht Seva Medal (PVSM). He is also a recipient of the prestigious MacGregor Medal besides the Padma Shri, the Kirti Chakra, the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal (ASVM), and the Arjuna Award, among other laurels. In a chat with Akrita Reyar and Ajith Vijay Kumar, Bull Kumar tells timesnownews.com about the exploits from the 1980s that give India the upper hand.
A chance discovery of a map that rang alarm bells
Akrita Reyar: It’s the highest battlefield in the world and critical to India’s interests. Tell us, how was Siachen won? We wanted to have a first-hand account from you…
Col Kumar: In 1975, two rafters from Germany went rafting down the Indus, from the inner line. They went to Sheikh Abdullah, the then CM of Kashmir, who sent for me. They came back again in 1977, they wanted to undertake the first descent of the Nubra river from its source at the snout of the glacier. When they returned, they brought with them a map which was published by the Americans. The ceasefire line of ours goes up to NJ 9842 and stops… it was not delimited further northwards. Now what they (the cartographers of these American maps) had done is that they had drawn back (the map) to the Karakoram Pass, giving about 10,000 sq km to Pakistan.
I found that amiss. I quickly asserted that it was a cartographic error and took the findings to the then Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) and he asked: :What can you do to help us?” I said, well, I can take an actuation. At that time, General OP Malhotra was the Chief of Army Staff, and he said: “We will let you go only when you do not go one inch west of that line – NJ9842.”
So, with my foot ruler, I drew a line and it came up to a peak called Teram Kangri, at 24,300 ft. And I went and climbed it. When I came back and told them that this is halfway and you can now control the glacier, I was also given the task that in case the cease-fire line has to be extended into the national border, what are the lines would I suggest? So, I suggested that line also.
The inaction coalition government of 1977-78 vis-a-vis Indira Gandhi’s quick decisions
Then, of course, the Janata Party government was in power at the Centre (after the notorious Emergency of 1975-77) but nobody could take a decision (on the Siachen issue).
Ajith Vijay Kumar: Janata Party government was there you said… that would have been between 1977 to around 1979. And what was the kind of activity being carried out by Pakistan in the region?
Col Kumar: Yes. But Janata government did not take any call. In 1981, Mrs (Indira) Gandhi came back to power. Now the source of the Siachen Glacier is called Indira Col (pass). (Thankfully,) this time when they (Army top brass) went to the government – they said yes.
I went to the then Army Chief General OP Malhotra and said: Sir, please don’t write any letter – (whether) secret or top secret. It should only be among a few people and only by word of mouth. He asked: Why?
I said, when in 1978 I was going for the task, I overheard one Army Major’s wife tell another: Don’t let your husband go with Col Kumar. He is crossing China border as well as Pakistan border. And truly enough, when in 1978, the helicopter from Pakistan came and took pictures and went back. You see, they (the Pakistanis) had apparently learnt of our mission and they tried to ask us to go back. He (the Army chief) asked how did the Pakistanis come to know it? I said: “Obviously, the information got leaked from somewhere.”
He (the Army Chief) this time said I can’t go unless being asked by the Army commander. However, Pakistan did not come to know of our activity on this occasion. Firstly, we went to Indira Col (pass) and placed a flag there.
Akrita Reyar: Tell us the story about Mount K2 and how you wanted to conquer it. Also, is Indira Col, the base point for Siachen expedition?
Col Kumar: Indira Col was the starting point. After the Shaksgam point which was ceded to China by Pakistan in 1963. After that, we went to Sia Kangri. We went up there and I found they had not flagged it and this is a very important thing. So, I got to the top myself. From there it was only one day’s journey from K2 and I asked the government to let me go there. I couldn’t climb it but at least they would say that an attempt had been made. They said: No way!
Now you see, if that was not there, the fight would not have been for Siachen, it would have been for K2. Siachen was not known, while K2 had been climbed from that side, there was world publicity and it was known as the world’s second highest peak.
Anyway, they did not allow me. So, I came back… (But during that expedition) after climbing back, we went to all the passes – Sia La, Turkistan la and all that. And then I came back to Saltoro Kangri, which is the highest peak in Siachen. We were attempting to climb it too. We sent the first party but they missed the peak and there was one peak that seems to stand higher than that but it is actually 250 ft lower.
Avalanches are a threat & glaciers are treacherous terrains: How Bull Kumar led with bravado not overshadowing judgement & caution
After a debriefing, I came to know that Saltoro Kangri still remained unconquered. Then, after some time I saw the hanging glacier which (I realised and calculated) could come down anytime. So, we waited and that wait turned into 10 days. The glacier finally broke off and it sounded as loud as 6 trains arriving at the same time and luckily, we were under the ridge and we were saved. We were just 100-ft above and then I sent a second party up and then it snowed very heavily and it got 3-feet-high snow. So, I called them down.
As it was dangerous, they came down. There was one hawaldar talking to another hawaldar in Punjabi, saying: “Col sahab ko kuch pata nahi hain, kabhi kehte hain ki upar jao, kabhi kehte niche aao. Mission kab khatam hoga?” When they came back, that’s when the avalanche came and it buried the camp under 20 feet of snow. Then, it took a great 48 hours for the avalanche to settle down. Once we settled down, we conquered that peak too. Pakistan did not know till I wrote an article in the Illustrated Weekly. Khushwant Singh was the editor then.
India beats Pakistan to the post by just a week: The intel input that led to the victory:
Akrita Reyar: Yes, Khushwant Singh was the editor, he had talked to me about the incident in late 1990s. Coming to the race for Siachen, how was that India realised that Pakistan was eyeing the glacier?
Col Kumar: When they wrapped that up in 1983, I suggested sending patrols, if not occupy the place. Pakistani troops spotted our patrol and complained that India’s patrol was crossing the cease-fire line. And of course, the (Indian) Army said no one ever crossed the cease-fire line. General Chibber was the DGMO and in 1984, he was an Army Commander and at that time we had sent General Holmes to London to buy specialised mountain equipment for the troops.
We found that Pakistan was buying from the same shop — a large amount of equipment, 1,000 sets and all that.
Somehow, Gen Chibber went in time – just a week before Pakistan – and on 13 April 1984 (Baisakhi day), Operation Meghdoot finally got underway. Being a Punjabi (Baisakhi is a key festival and considered auspicious), Gen Chibber chose that day to achieve this.
Seven days later, they (the Pakistani troops) tried to come and dislodge us. General Pervez Musharraf was the commander of the Pakistani troops at that time and was in charge. He tried his best but couldn’t dislodge our troops. But there were a lot of casualties on both sides and that’s why the rattled Musharraf started the Kargil War.
Akrita Reyar: I was going to ask you that when you mentioned General Musharraf, everybody says that it hurt him deeply – losing the Siachen point and that’s why he started Kargil.
Col Kumar: But well, he lost Kargil also! And, that was our short story.
First Indian atop the Mt Everest and the controversy regarding the Neelkanth expedition
Akrita Reyar: Mount Everest – you were the first Indian to reach.
Col Kumar: First Indian yes, and the seventh in the world. Anyway, after that, we went to the Neelkanth expedition where due to frostbite, I lost my toes. I was in the hospital getting my toes ready and that was in 1964 and then Mr Khera (SS Khera — 15/04/1962 to 18/11/1964), who was the cabinet secretary of India and HC Sarin who was the Joint Secretary (Defence), came to meet me. They asked me to select a team of 65 and said that we are sending three expeditions to Nanda Devi East, Annapurna and Nanda Devi Main, the highest peaks in India at that time, which were till then unclimbed by Indians.
They selected one school teacher, Gurdial Singh, to lead. He had already written an article in the Times of India and they were supposed to give us Rs 5 lakh for the expedition. Gurdial Singh was quite an idealistic man and when he saw the equipment, he said: “I am not going to risk my climbers’ life with this equipment” and he tendered his resignation. They came to me and I said: “Look, I am told that I am a Category C, not to be posted at high altitude – at 7,000 ft.”
They said: “No, we just want you to go to the base camp at Nanda Devi and see everything from there.” I said it is the most difficult task and it had taken 100 years for people to go to base camp, how do I go? Then, the Defence Secretary said, we will send helicopters. And then they took me up and I landed at the base camp. I was trying to protect my toes but slowly I went to Camp-3 also to help with the summit. And there was a little confusion. Now, when we were climbing Neelkanth, because of the clouds, we could not take any pictures to bolster our claim. When we came down, a lot of people doubted that an all-Indian team could climb Neelkanth. Then we had an inquiry. I didn’t climb Neelkanth – there were these two chaps, they came and said they did, so I had put that in the report.
Of course, the Court of Inquiry proved that the plane was sent and found out the proof. Since I didn’t want the same thing to happen, I said please take an aerial picture, the plane came and saw the flag flying. In Times of India carried the report. It was a huge thing – Nanda Devi was climbed and there was our flag there. That’s why I was kept for 30 days there – in charge of the logistics. At end of April 1965, our team’s leader MS Kohli (Captain (retd.) Manmohan Singh Kohli, the Indian Navy officer who led India’s maiden climb to Mount Everest in 1965) put a summit party. After we failed, he wrote an apologetic note to Khera (Chairman of IMF SS Khera who was also the cabinet secretary of Govt of India), that we had failed and stuff like that. I wrote a letter to them and I said, don’t worry, logistically we are prepared to put 11 on the top, it is just a matter of luck – if the weather is clear we will succeed.
And sure enough, we put 9 on the top, even though the tenth man dropped some 200 ft below, and the 11th man fell sick at South Col.
Bull Kumar’s association with Tenzing Norgay, the Everest legend
Ajith Vijay Kumar: Would you like to talk about Tenzing Norgay? You had an association with him.
Col Kumar: Well, after we climbed the Everest, I was made the principal of Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI). Tenzing worked under me for about four years. He was a great gentleman. So, one day we were going up to the base camp and Tenzing said, “You know, we should have this course open for ladies also.” I said, why not? If the Sherpanis (lady Sherpas) can climb, then why can’t other women. So, we opened the HMI course for ladies. He was the one who got me into mountaineering. I did a basic course under him and when we got to base camp, he (Norgay) and the then principal were not getting along well – simply because of an ego problem.
The funny episode that led to a law
So, Tenzing came to the then prime minister Pandit Nehru and said that he did not want to work under him (the principal that he did not see eye-to-eye with). Panditji asked, why not? So, he (Tenzing Norgay) said that he (the principal) is (always) with a different girl (each time) at the Mall Road and that the people look at Norgay and ask: Oh, you work under that chap? That is when Panditji wrote that all principals (of climbing schools) should be married and that’s how I too got married!
And they (Norgay and the principal) used to talk against each other so much and I had to change the subject. And to change the subject I said, brother I want to take an expedition, please suggest the mountain. So, he suggested a mountain – Trishul. Later, he took out something from his pocket – a pair of socks. He said, Bhaiya, this is for you, made from Lhasa-Apso dog wool and knitted by my wife (Dakku). Then, all the problem of money for the expedition came in – where do we get the money from?
He said don’t worry, you just have to come to my house at 4 0’clock. It was not the time for whiskey or beer. So, he said: Let’s open a bottle of champagne. So, there I celebrated. At that time, my budget was Rs 20,000. He thought of offering a visiting New York Times reporter exclusive coverage in return for funds. He said, “You give us Rs 1 lakh and the rest to Norgay cancer fund.”
I came back and told the principal, Major Gyan Singh, about the need for funds and the possible solution entailing that offer. He rang up the DGMO, who in turn, cited the Army rules that state that we cannot take money from foreigners and that too a correspondent as was the case here.
After that, Gyan rang up the Chief of Army Staff and he was from my regiment. He called up the centre at Ranikhet, and said – you give him Rs 10,000.
Now what happened while going on a course, I asked my Col and he said don’t do this course. You should be doing MMG, JNM etc. So, I told them that I needed two months official leave. Now, not only did they have to give me two months leave, but also money. So, they decided that I was persona non-grata. I went for the climb, nevertheless. But when I came back after the climb, at Nainital lake club, we met three girls from the Times Of India (TOI) and the next day in the paper the headline read: Indian climbed Trishul! Now, suddenly I became a hero.
Ajith Vijay Kumar: Have you been to Kumar base, the base that was named after you, after the naming?
Col Kumar: No, No. I did not go after that. But well, a few years back, we sent an expedition to Kumar base and I saw foreigners could go there. But now they don’t allow foreigners to go. I went with them up to Leh only.
Akrita Reyar: If you were to compare mountaineering with life. How would you compare?
Col Kumar: When people asked Gurdial Singh, who was a bachelor, that why did you not marry – he said I am married to the mountains. Actually, I didn’t get married until I climbed Mount Everest. Because there is risk involved and if one is married, the wife and children suffer immensely if you do not return.
Ajith Vijay Kumar: You are famously known Bull Kumar. How did that happen?
Col Kumar: I was in the academy and had a boxing match with my senior Sunith Francis Rodrigues, who later became the Chief of Army Staff. He was six inches taller than me and was a heavyweight. And I came from Sanatan Dharam High School and played gilli danda. But I kept charging on and during one of the charges, I knocked him out. So, the commandant said, you charged him like a bull and then the name stayed on. So, later when my parents came to see me and asked for Narender, everyone said we don’t know any Narender… as my name had now been changed to Bull Kumar.
Akrita Reyar: I was reading somewhere that either the mountains allow you to climb or do not allow you to climb. Even mountaineers say that.
Col Kumar: I feel sorry that a lot of people die in attempted climbs because of the treacherous weather – or due to starvation because they ran out of food during the expedition and all that. The weather can turn so bad that they fail to come back. It saddens me.
Source:- Times Now