I vividly remember during one of the interaction Brig (then Col) Pushkar Chand Deputy Commandant HAWS telling us how he and his team set out to accomplish the assigned task to occupy Siachen Glacier (Saltoro Ridge) in 1984. He was given no time to prepare because it was a race against time and weather. The task force consisted of troops from Ladakh Scout, Kumaon Regiment and Special Frontier Force.
Troops had very limited glacier clothing and old pattern extreme cold climate clothing (ECC) was issued to these men. The task was to occupy Saltoro Ridge before Pakistani Army could do so.
Col Pushkara seasoned mountaineer and experienced soldier knew that every patrol had to be led by an officer; therefore, the existing strength of officers with the companies was inadequate. Volunteer young officers from Northern Command and from other commands were selected under High Risk Mission, because the enemy here was not only Pakistan Army but terrain and even extreme weather.
Troops had very limited glacier clothing and old pattern extreme cold climate clothing (ECC) was issued to these men. The task was to occupy Saltoro Ridge before Pakistani Army could do so. Pakistan had tasked its special forces to undertake this operation and were to occupy Siachen before the Indian Army could do so.
Teams were distributed and Partapur became the centre of activity. Troops started moving forward and small teams were constituted to reach the Saltoro Ridge fastest and earliest. Indian Army had beaten Pakistani Army by mere three days and in spite of long arduous route the gritty young officers led the troops to the highest battle ground on earth. What followed later is for the world to see. It redefined the human endeavour, gave new definition of bravery under extreme environment and redrew the Actual Line of Control. Never before and never after such a war will ever be fought in the history of mankind. One can’t even imagine what it takes to reach Siachen and living there is a unforgettable experience of life.
Havildar Sonam was part of a patrol that had an officer as a patrol leader. While approaching the given location the patrol leader who was leading the team fell in crevasse and injured himself badly. Injury in those icy conditions is sure recipe of losing life by cold injury. There was no way the officer could be evacuated by helicopter.
Sonam was in for another surprise when his small detachment came under heavy artillery firing. But from his location he was unable to see from where the fire was coming?
Therefore, Col Pushkar ordered that patrol be split and one party should evacuate the injured officer and second under Havildar Sonam to continue since the task can’t be abandoned.
Sonam a gritty Nunu (Ladalhi Soldier) led from the front and reached the designated location. He had few men and to save from the blistering cold he told his men that it may not be possible to survive in small snow tents and thus will have to dig tunnels in ice wall to protect from wind chill factor. Sonam was in for another surprise when his small detachment came under heavy artillery firing. But from his location he was unable to see from where the fire was coming? They worked day and night and dug ice tunnels and took position inside the tunnel.
He realized that it will not be a good idea to sit without retaliation. He along with two of his colleagues with the help of ropes moved to a vantage point and could make out from where the fire was coming. In the evening Col Pushkar spoke to him and asked him if all is well. He told him that he has seen the mortar position and requested if he could get artillery fire to engage the enemy position. The predicament was that Sonam had no clue how to control artillery fire. Any way Col Pushkar gave him some tips and Sonam with his common military knowledge and judgment was able to engage the enemy position.
Sonam and his men got stuck there because whenever they would attempt to move a party enemy would fire at them. As a result Sonam stayed back at the post for almost six months without relief. Change of troops had to take place during night for fear of avalanche and enemy fire.
He told him “Sonam whenever you give report from today onward you will say Sonam Post all ok”. That is how the post was established and name given in honour of a great soldier.
Brig Pushkar told how the name Sonam came about. When he asked Sonam what is the grid reference of his location? Sonam had no clue how to read the map and grid references. Brig Pushkar joked with him on radio set and told him, Sonam I am not worried if you are taken by enemy as prisoner, because you would reveal no information since you know nothing. But Pushkar new that this man can be weighed in gold. He told him “Sonam whenever you give report from today onward you will say Sonam Post all ok”. That is how the post was established and name given in honour of a great soldier.
Few years later Sonam was posted to High Altitude Warfare School Gulmarg as administrative Non Commissioned Officer. He was made in charge to run student officer’s mess. I as a young officer was the Mess Secretary. Every month there would be loss and me and Sonam had to pay up. I was annoyed with Sonam for his poor supervision and lack of ability to manage budget. I complained to Brig Pushkar that I do not want Sonam as my Mess Havildar because he doesn’t know basic accounting of rations and managing of funds.
Brig Pushkar asked me to call up this NCO. When Sonam entered his office, he was surprised to see him. His anger vanished and he got up from his chair and hugged him. I was aghast to see that here is a man who is making me pay every month for no fault of mine and the Dy Commandant is exchanging pleasantries with him. He forgot why he asked Sonam to come to his office and he asked him that did he know that he was the Dy Commandant of HAWS? He further scolded him, why he did not come to meet him? Sonam smiled and did not utter a word. It was end of my complaint and then he introduced Sonam to me.
After the demonstration when I was sipping tea, “Sonam walked up to me and told me that, “Sahib don’t show your speed on ice wall, it does not give you second chance…
He told me he is a legend. My anger turned into respect. The same very evening I went to the mess and called all student officers to be present in the mess lobby. I with great sense of pride introduced Sonam to young offciers and asked them to interact with him during the course of their stay to understand the practical part of soldiering in extreme weather and terrain conditions. It is indeed an honour for a NCO to be honoured in the officer’s mess. Every student rose after I finished introducing Sonam to them. Each one of them came forward and shook hands with him a true honour to a legend.
Later I would often see young officers surrounding Sonam and hearing his experience of Siachen. He would often say, “Sahib Lama Guru ke Land Main Gama NahinBanna”. Being an instructor in High Altitude Warfare School you are supposed to be class apart and best in business in the world. I was an arrogant professional and often use to challenge the limit of human endeavour.
One day while training on glacier, Sonam saw me rushing up the ice wall during a demonstration. After the demonstration when I was sipping tea, “Sonam walked up to me and told me that, “Sahib don’t show your speed on ice wall, it does not give you second chance and it also does not give you time to recover. Therefore, be like a “Ibex” sure footed”. It was a lifelong lesson that I still remember. Even today I utter these words “Thank you Sonam for saving my life” because I would have committed hara-kiri someday.
Inspite of the loss of nine soldiers, legacy of Sonam can’t be abandoned. There is no option but to reoccupy the post in near future. The cost is heavy but then nations have to pay the cost for its integrity.
Later Brig Farookh Balsara decided to put his portrait (dressed in full mountaineer gear) in the officer’s mess. When this ceremony was organised the entire staff and officers including families were present. Sonam was feeling shy like a bride. A short stocky man was standing between two legends of the Indian Army. On one side was Brig Pushkar and on other side was Brig Balsara. Pushakar was first task force commander who led his troops to Siachen and Brig Balsara Who led troops to (one of finest overseas operation by Indian Armed Forces) Maldives.
Thambi’s of 19 MADRAS laid down their lives in the line of duty carrying forward the legacy of Sonam. Sonam post is one of the most critical post on Saltoro Ridge between Amar, and Bana Post. Inspite of the loss of nine soldiers, legacy of Sonam can’t be abandoned. There is no option but to reoccupy the post in near future. The cost is heavy but then nations have to pay the cost for its integrity.