The ‘Lost’ Operation Against Pakistan in Chorbat La

After Kargil, India secured an important peak and outwitted Pakistan. But officially, this operation never happened

WrittenBy:Lt Gen H S Panag
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When the Line of Control was demarcated after the Shimla Agreement, it was done with a “thick pen” on a small scale map – 1/4 inch to a mile or one centimetre to 2.5 kilometre scale. Once interpreted on a large scale map – one inch to a mile or one centimetre to 500 meters – the differences become glaring, with claims and counter claims by both sides on the ground. This problem came to the fore post-Kargil War as most of the area that was being secured now,  was earlier not physically held by both sides.

In the Batalik-Yaldor-Chorbatla Sector, which was under the command of my brigade, we had four such tactical features that needed to be secured. All of them were on the formidable Ladakh range and heights varied from 5,200-5,300 meters or 17,000 to 17,500 feet. Post the Kargil War, these features were not secured by either side due to initial errors of judgment and the onset of winter.  Out of the four, three features that were in the Batalik and Yaldor Sub Sectors were not a cause for concern as the approach from our side was easy and extremely difficult from the Pakistani side. Chorbat La Sub Sector had one feature, Point (Pt) 5310, which posed a peculiar problem. Pt 5310 was covered by the ‘thick pen’ used while demarcating the LOC, but the approach to it (particularly in winter) was arduous. The LOC beyond Pt 5310 took a ‘U’ turn of two kilometer towards us.

After that, the LOC ran along the base of the ‘U’ for six kilometres before turning north towards the Pakistani side for two kilometres. The area of the ‘U’ was known as Karubar Bowl (a nullah is known as a ‘bar’ in this area and a ‘bowl’ is the military term for a small valley) and a road from its northern end connected it to Siari on the Shyok River, opening an avenue to cut off Pakistani defences opposite the Turtok Sector. The feasible approach for us was over a glacier at the southern end of Karubar Bowl, but it involved a movement of two kilometres through Pakistani territory. Whoever controlled Pt 5310 also controlled the 12 square kilometres of Karubar Bowl – which meant that if we secured Pt 5310, we would also ‘tactically’ control 12 square kilometres of Pakistani territory. Domination of this area also threatened the Pakistani posts opposite Turtok Sector from the rear.

In this sector, posts can only be held and sustained in winter if adequate

Infrastructure is created and stocking is done in summer as the routes get cut off due to heavy snow in the winter months. It was decided that these features must be secured in end of the winter season as soon as the weather allowed it. In all likelihood, the Pakistanis were planning the same. The race was going to be won by the swift.

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Pt 5310 had an interesting background. During the Kargil War, 14 Sikh was moved post haste from Delhi by air to Leh and thereafter to Chorbat La Sub Sector. The unit under its dynamic Commanding Officer, Colonel K K Sinha (Recently retired as a Major General), secured the LOC which earlier had a solitary post manned by a platoon of the Border Security Force (BSF) at Chorbat La. Colonel K K Sinha also had a company less a platoon of Ladakh Scouts commanded by Major Sonam Wangchuk, under his command.  Pakistani troops made an unsuccessful attempt to get a foothold on the Ladakh Range on May 30, 1999, but were foiled in the nick of time by 10 soldiers of Ladakh Scouts, under Major Sonam Wangchuk. Five soldiers of Paskistan’s Northern Light Infantry (NLI) were killed – the first success and first identification of NLI in the Kargil War. This operation was coordinated by Colonel Sinha.

On noting the tactical significance of Pt 5310, Colonel Sinha sent a platoon-strong patrol under Captain Praveen Kumar, who, exploiting complete surprise, secured the feature in July 1999.

On one hand there was the ‘thick pen’ ambiguity regarding Pt 5310 and on the other hand, the route of maintenance traversed two kilometres over a glacier through Pakistan territory. At that time, in Chorbat La Sub Sector there were no roads or tracks and 14 Sikh was maintained by helicopters and porters/ponies from a road head 30km away. Pt 5310 could not be stocked for the winter and the post had to be vacated in Nov 1999 with the hope that it would be reoccupied in summer of 2000.

However, the Pakistanis showing exceptional enterprise had moved fresh troops into the Karubar Bowl in December 1999 and set up a number of posts in vicinity of Pt 5310. This was feasible as a motor-able track existed upto a distance of three kilometres from Pt 5310. There was no clarity with respect to the occupation of Pt 5310 by them.

Our planning for securing Pt 5310 began in a dramatic manner. Within two days of my taking over in January 2000, the Army Commander paid a visit to my brigade headquarters. Without much ado he came straight to the point: “In view of the Pakistani build up in Karubar, can we still capture Pt 5310 next summer?”

I had done my homework and told him that we will never be able to capture it in summer as the Pakistanis will preempt us, but it can be done in the winter. The Army Commander had known me from before and sarcastically remarked, “HS, you have spent too much time with Mechanised Forces and you need to understand High Altitude Warfare.” I reminded him of my infantry background, my Command of the pioneer Combat Group in Eastern Ladakh at similar heights and as a clincher I said, “The Pakistanis did it in Kargil, why should not we do it here?” I rubbed in the point by emphasising that if we do not do it in the winter, then the Pakistanis will be there in strength in summer, waiting for us. The Army Commander gave the go ahead in principle, subject to final decision, keeping in view the ambiguity with respect to Pt 5310.

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My visit to Pt 5310 on May 20, 2000.

The acclimatisation period in high altitude is six days for heights upto 12,000 feet, another 4 days for heights upto 15,000 feet and another four days for heights beyond 15,000 feet. I had been in the sector for only two days when I managed a helicopter and landed at the base of our Takpochand Post. The base was at 15,000 feet and Takpochand was at 17,500 feet. The 2,500 feet climb over 1.5kms took nearly four hours.

Takpochand gave a bird’s eye view of Karubar Bowl and of Pt 5310, exactly two kilometres away on its western flank. Between Takpochand and Pt 5310 was a glacier with deep crevasses at an average height of 5,000 meters. The northern and eastern face of Pt 5310 had sheer cliffs. To the west, the terrain was higher and equally difficult, leading on to our Chorbat La post. The only suitable approach was along the glacier, hugging the Ladakh Range.

There was no movement on Pt 5310, but in battle, one can never be sure. Colonel Sinha and I made a rough outline plan for the operation. The plan was based on surprise and on the assumption that the feature was not held or lightly-held. The operation would be carried out by a 30-soldier strong Ghatak ( Commando) platoon, led by Captain Praveen Kumar and backed by another 30 soldiers to carry loads and act as reserve.

Training began in right earnest a week later. Three issues were critical. First: being the traversing of the glacier. Advise and help was sought from Siachen Brigade, which was readily given and a similar glacier was chosen on our side for training. Snow Shoes Trugger – an oversize shoe 1.5 feet long and one foot wide meant for walking on snow – were made available. Techniques of moving roped up and negotiating crevasses were practiced until perfected. Avalanche avoidance and rescue were also practiced. By the end of February 2000, we were confident that we can do it.

Second: the timing had to be perfect. Till about 20th March, it was extremely cold, with temperatures as low as minus 35 to 40 degrees Celsius. At this temperature, troops could not survive without shelters and heating. As the weather warmed up towards end-March and early-April, and temperatures rose to minus 15 to 20 degrees Celsius, the danger of avalanches increased. The openings of the crevasses also widened. Moreover, the probability of the enemy preempting us increased. After a lot deliberation, we decided that the operation could not be launched before March 25 but it could not be later than April 10.

Third: would Pt 5310 be held or not? We decided to keep Pt 5310 under 24-hour surveillance. Thermal night sights were moved to Takpochand. Every day, helicopter surveillance was carried out, flying at 20,000 feet on our side of the LOC. As part of deception, this was done over the entire sector. Satellite imagery of one metre resolution was obtained periodically depending on the satellite orbit.

I personally went to meet the troops many times and was very impressed with the high morale. The confidence of Capt Pravin Kumar, his second-in-command Naib  Subedar Satnam Singh, Havaldar Devinder Singh and Havaldar Raghbir Singh was infectious. On my misgivings about traversing the glacier, all four of them volunteered to personally lead the Ghatak Platoon based  on their knowledge of the route used in the earlier operation.

There was one more problem. From Takpochand to the glacier there was a sheer convex-shaped cliff of 100 metres. A boom, like the ones on cranes, had to be constructed to lower the Ghataks on to the glacier. The forward slopes were under the observation of the enemy and we decided to do it just before the operation in hours of darkness.

Takpochand post itself was just 25 – 30 feet wide. The construction of the boom posed a major problem. The Officer Commanding of our Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Workshop, Major Haridas, had a solution: dismantling the boom of a recovery vehicle and fabricating anchors that had to be put in place using a mechanical drill. Silent registration was done by the artillery and fire support of 100 guns was coordinated. The fire plan was to be used in event of a loss of surprise.

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Planning at Takpochand Feb 2000. Colonel Sinha is on my left.

We estimated that it would take us the whole night to traverse the glacier and the time for the final assault was fixed as 0400 hours. Logistic loads were ferried up and broken down to 20 kilograms for carriage by the reserve soldiers. D Day was fixed for April 4, 2000. Operations were to commence after last light.

Now began the dithering at higher headquarters. There were genuine apprehensions about terrain difficulties, the enemy surprising us and even international implications. Every day I got direct queries about every aspect of the operation. Three times the operation was called off just an hour before the time of launch by headquarters. I protested that time was running out – after April 10, the probability of Pakistanis preempting us would be much higher. Finally on April 7, we got the go ahead.

It had started snowing. Col Sinha requested that the operation be launched at 1500 hrs instead of 1800 hrs, to gain time. I readily agreed as apart from gaining time it would preempt any last minute cancellation. Up went the boom and the Ghataks began their descent, 100 metre down to the glacier. Colonel Sinha personally supervised the launch at Takpochand. Despite adrenaline pumping, after meeting the troops at mid-day, I had returned to the unit base to avoid, difficult to resist, higher commander interference.

By 1600 hours, all the bravehearts were on the glacier. A blizzard had started, but there was no turning back now. Praveen, Satnam, Devinder and Raghbir alternately led the column. Movement was painfully slow. Eight crevasses had to be bridged and two crevasse rescues had to be organised. Every 100 meters, the troops had to rest. Temperature gauges were reading minus 20 degrees Celsius. Since radio silence had been imposed, we had no idea of the ongoing battle of human endurance, on the glacier.

At 0300 hours on 8th April, disaster struck when the attacking troops were still 600 metres from Pt 5310. Satnam was leading the way when suddenly, he fell into a narrow crevasse. The fall dragged the second Ghatak too, but the rest anchored themselves to prevent the entire ‘rope’ going down. During the rescue, Satnam yelled his last words before losing consciousness: “Mission poora karo.”  It took an hour to rescue them. Both were suffering from extreme hypothermia. Stoves were lit under raincoats and resuscitation began. Unfortunately, Satnam was martyred but the second Ghatak survived.

Dawn was breaking and the setback notwithstanding, Praveen galvanised his men into action. Bad weather continued and the Ghataks were in the shadow of Pt 5310, safe from the observation of the Pakistani posts and the likely enemy on top of Pt 5310. At 0500 hours, Pravin and the 30 Ghataks started clawing their way towards the top. Praveen along with Devinder Singh and Raghbir Singh led from the front. The reserve troops were left at the base. Artillery gun crews were ready to open up in event of a loss of surprise. Messages were being relayed by pressing the handsets of the radio sets. We all were very tense.

It took nearly two hours to tactically move towards the top. The enemy still had not opened fire. Were they waiting? Suddenly, the weather opened up and Pravin found himself staring down at a Pakistani post one kilometre away, across a deep valley with cliffs. We had beaten the enemy in the race to Pt 5310!

The success signal was passed on the radio. Celebrations began at the base and right up to the Army Headquarters. But the work of the bravehearts had just begun. Immediately, defences were organised. The reserve troops were called up. Tents were pitched on reverse slopes. Weapons were sited. At 1500 hrs the troops had a cup of tea and khoya pinnies ( reduced milk, wheat flour and sugar balls), the staple survival ration of the Sikh Regiment. It was their first meal after they had taken the ‘prasad’ before launch, 24 hours ago.

After last light Colonel Sinha started lowering more soldiers carrying logistic loads. The route, though still dangerous, was now well marked. In the next 48 hours, the defences were in reasonable shape and the strength had been built upto one company. The enemy still did not have a clue that Pt 5310 had been secured.

Elsewhere in the brigade, simultaneously, all other ‘thick pen’ features had been secured by 3 Punjab and 1 Bihar in Batalik and Yaldor Sub Sectors. The demons of surprise at Kargil had been buried for good.

It’s a sad reflection on our selection system that Colonel Sinha, one of the most dynamic Commanding Officers of the Indian Army, suffered professionally in terms of promotions in later years due to egotist senior officers. He had to represent to become a Brigadier. I was still in service and supported his case. Again as a Major General, he was superseded for promotion to the rank of Lieutenant General despite a favourable and unambiguous order by the Armed Forces Tribunal upheld by the Supreme Court. Soldier that he always was, he decided to fade away!

On 10th May, along with Col Sinha, I traversed the glacier to reach Pt 5310. The defences were in very good shape and the morale was high. By third week of May as the snow melted, the enemy discovered us, but could do very little about it. On 20th May 2000, Pakistani troops, tried to get observation over us by climbing the slopes of Dolmi Barak, a peak 20,000 feet high on eastern flank of Karubar Bowl, to set up a post. I arranged a Konkurs Missile Launcher with a range of four kilometres from the Mechanised Infantry unit and personally supervised the firing to bring this post down. That same day, we mounted the tiranga and I ordered all weapons of the brigade to fire a volley to salute the bravehearts.

By October, before the onset of winter, we had built a jeep-able track upto Takpochand and a single-span two-kilometre long ropeway had been laid to maintain the logistic link in winter.

Because of ambiguity with respect to the status of Pt 5310, this operation is ‘lost’ in the files of Army Headquarters. Both the 1999 and 2000 operations to secure Pt 5310 received no official recognition and no gallantry awards. The remarkable achievement of a ‘reverse Kargil’ remains an unsung saga of bravery and dynamic leadership, displayed by the Commanding Officer and junior leadership of 14 Sikh.

Now that the nation has rediscovered our lost territories – POK and Gilgit Baltistan – it is time to make amends and recognise this operation done against all odds.


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