Sanjay Badri-Maharaj, Operation Meghdoot (Helion, 2021)
Of all the absurd, inhospitable places to fight a war, the Siachen glacier might take the biscuit. This strategically vital region in Kashmir is mostly at high altitude and blasted by unforgiving weather conditions. It is a place where a soldier is less likely to die in combat than be killed by his environment. Yet, India and Pakistan succeeded in turning the Siachen glacier into a war zone with sporadic but intense fighting and a continued armed occupation. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj’s magazine-style book is here to tell us what this was all about.
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Badri-Maharaj begins by describing the glacier at the centre of this long-running conflict. He notes that the extreme environment has been responsible for more casualties than any combat, but that the Indians will take that to preserve their control. There have been wars though, in 1948, 1965, and 1971, leading to the armed standoff since the 1980s. Having explained all that, the author discusses the rival forces involved in the region, beginning with the Indian army, looking at the organisation and equipment of the Indian Mountain Division, the Mountain Strike Corps, and their Special Forces units. The Pakistani army order of battle is given similar treatment. Badri-Maharaj also considers the use of air support by both sides, not just in combat but vital transportation services too. After all that, he gets into Operations Meghdoot and Ababeel.
When the war ended in 1971, according to Badri-Maharaj, some issues were not tidied up adequately, particularly the line of demarcation on the Siachen glacier. That led to ‘map-fixing’, which the Indians objected to, so they began small-scale operations on the glacier, which, in turn, led to an escalation of military activity, resulting in Operation Meghdoot in 1984. This was the Indian assault on the Siachen glacier, which was remarkably successful and got the drop on the Pakistanis, who were planning a similar operation, Ababeel, but they were too slow and lost the initiative. Artillery exchanges began on 25 April, then the Pakistanis attacked on 23 June, but were repulsed. More clashes took place in August to little effect and the build-up continued.
Pakistani failure in Siachen became a hot political issue, notes Badri-Maharaj. Pakistan attacked again in February 1985 but were again repulsed. India recognised, however, that they needed to maintain a permanent military presence in the region. In April 1987, Pakistan gained a toehold on the Bilafond La Pass at 21,184 feet! It took an extraordinary Indian mission to dislodge them. In September 1987, the Pakistanis launched Operation Quiadat, leading to heavy fighting and their withdrawal. They tried again in 1989, 1992, and 1995, and were defeated each time. In 1999, the Kargil War broke out, which was a well-conceived Pakistani incursion into Indian territory but ended in humiliating defeat. Badri-Maharaj concludes with a survey of the Siachen glacier region in the 21st Century with an emphasis on survival and medical care for the soldiers, and the development of equipment and logistical support. He closes on a sombre note that while there is no war, there is still no peace.
In Operation Meghdoot, Badri-Maharaj tells a fascinating story, although one very much from an Indian perspective. He highlights the extreme conditions of the glacier and the logistical effort required just to maintain a presence, let alone fight. The numerous photographs of men, weapons, and machines struggling to cope with the environment highlight those problems. The addition of colour artwork plates of artillery pieces, soldiers, and helicopters, and a helpful colour map of the region, all add up to an informative book that readers of modern warfare will find rewarding.