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In Siachen tragedy, a tale of an officer's priceless faith

Faith is a Madrasi Gorkha.

  • Published 12.02.16
Hanamanthappa Koppad

New Delhi, Feb. 11: Faith is a Madrasi Gorkha.

In the collective shock of a country at the death, life and death of Lance Naik Hanamanthappa Koppad, one man stands tall: his commanding officer, Col Um Bahadur Gurung of the Indian Army's 19 Madras battalion.

Gurung kept hope alive and supervised the rescue and search at the post in Sonam after the wall of ice came down on his men on February 3. It was his faith that led the rescuers to Hanamanthappa and the others.

Hanamanthappa died a little before noon following multiple organ failure, three days after he was pulled out alive from the ice-and-snow debris and nine days after the avalanche that killed nine other soldiers.

"Lance Naik Hanamanthappa is no more. He breathed his last at 11.45am today," the Army Research and Referral Hospital said.

"We tried our level best to fight the death of the brave Siachen warrior but this morning his blood pressure dropped despite our best efforts and he had a cardiac arrest," Lt Gen. S.D. Duhan, the director and commandant of the hospital, said.

Gurung is a rare officer. A Nepali from Pokharan, he joined the Indian Army as a sepoy in the Gorkha Rifles. He was selected for the Army Cadet College through tough competition. The ACC in Dehradun trains personnel below officer rank to be commissioned as officers.

Following a stint in the Indian Military Academy, he was commissioned into the Intelligence Corps. He was sent on attachment to 19 Madras. His superiors found his skills were exceptional. They quarrelled with their commanders and finally convinced the military secretary in Army Headquarters that he should be retained in the infantry.

The Thambis (little brother in Tamil) - as the Madras Regiment is often called - have had their way so far. So it is that a Gorkha Thambi was born.

"I found a special spark in him, especially in man management," recalled Maj Gen. Virendra Kumar (retired) who commanded the battalion between 1997 and 1999. "He was a Gorkha but he was received very well by the Madrasis and after his excellent role in Mendhar on the Line of Control, everyone looked up to him."

Kumar recalls that Gurung was tasked to lead a squad that was hunting militants who had infiltrated through the LoC.

"I had left a report with successors that we should try to retain him, especially for his conduct in small team operations. It is not easy to make the transition from jawan to officer but he made it through the written test and the interview." Kumar said his transfer to the infantry required a lot of persuasion.

"Look what he has delivered today. Bodies have taken six to eight months to be found in the Glacier. There are many that are yet to be found," said Kumar who has also served as chief of staff in the Kashmir Valley (15) Corps.

"Demise of soldiers in Siachen is very tragic," Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on February 4. "I salute the brave soldiers who gave their lives to the nation. Condolences to their families."

The message all but conveyed that there was little hope of survivors. Indeed there were doubts on whether the bodies could be recovered at all. But a radio crackled sometime in the evening, static delivering a message from beneath the blinding whiteness of the ice and snow.

Col. Gurung told his men that nobody was to leave but that they should work in short bursts to both keep their bodies warm and continue the search. He called the base commander, at 10,500ft. He was between 19,600 and 20,000ft at all times, even through the nights.

Between the Siachen Brigade (102) commander, the Northern Command and Army Headquarters in Delhi, his calls stirred a whole chain into action. First, two short-range Doppler Radars from the base camp were moved up to Sonam. An additional seven deep search Doppler Radars were flown from the Northern Command headquarters in Udhampur and Sirsawan.

Two battalions of the Ladakh Scouts manning nearby posts were part of the rescue from the beginning. Ladakhis acclimatise faster in the heights. From the Siachen Battle School at the Brigade headquarters, four teams of instructors were sent up.

Gurung knew the post was roughly 20 metres by 20 metres, including the helipad. The wall of ice that had fallen on it and broken into pieces was about 800 metres by 1,200 metres. Using the Doppler Radars, the rescuers found seven spots that may be air bubbles under the ice and snow.

The rescuers started digging seven holes. Each hole was assigned three teams that would take turns in the digging along with the dogs, Dot and Misha.

"Gurung always had a never-say-die attitude," says Colonel Devdutt Patankar (retired). Gurung was his second-in-command when Patankar headed the battalion from 2007 to 2009.

Both Kumar and Patankar recalled Gurung's work during Operation Parakram - the full deployment of the Indian military following the attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001.

He was forward deployed in the Ajnala sector on the Punjab border. The terrain had tall grass, and mining the fields, in anticipation that war could be breaking out with Pakistan, was ordered. Kumar knew this was a dangerous task and did not want casualties.

In Op Parakram, about 500 Indian soldiers were killed during mining and de-mining - soldiers killed without going into a war that never broke out but for which they were deployed for more than a year.

Kumar entrusted the task to Gurung. He was involved in removing six minefields after Parakram was called off. That is because he was meticulous in keeping the record on how many mines were laid and where. Floods and natural phenomena often cause mines to shift and take the lives of soldiers and civilians alike.

Each of the minefields was 600 metres by 400 metres. Kumar said he completed the task and did not have a single casualty.

That same meticulous detailing has gone into finding the bodies of his soldiers through this week in the harshest of climes. He nearly saved one.

Hanamanthappa's death has served another notice on what it means to be an Indian Armyman even in peacetime. What it means for Gurung to lose a man is yet to be learnt.

In the tragedy of the death of Hanamanthappa and his comrades, it is also time to celebrate a hero. That hero is faith, a Madrasi Gorkha and a commanding officer.