The life of a soldier deployed at any operationally active frontline is never easy — but, in the cold deserts of Eastern Ladakh the soldier is pushed to the limits of physical and mental endurance
“Only the best of friends or the worst of enemies return to us” is an old saying one often hears in Ladakh. The sheer difficulty for people from the plains to survive, due to the extreme terrain and climatic conditions in Ladakh, is epitomised in this adage.
The 15,000-feet-plus high altitudes are unforgiving. The Indian Army soldier guards the eastern front in Ladakh overcoming inhuman challenges — challenges so extreme that many cannot even fathom it.
A small mistake in violation against the laid down standard operating procedures at these dizzying heights can result in serious health-related issues — and even can cause fatal casualties.
The lack of oxygen in the air can lead to blood clots in the vein and drastically reduces human efficiency. Added to this is the weather with sub-zero temperatures at night — this during winters could go as low as minus 30 degree Celsius. It’s at times like this that Ladakh reminds us why it’s called a cold desert.
It is in these conditions that the Indian Army soldiers are expected to carry out their duty. It involves patrolling inhospitable terrain, sometimes at heights above 17,000 feet so as to dominate the Line of Actual Control (LAC). While patrolling, they carry their personal weapons and other necessary loads too. It was during one such night on June 15/16 that a group of our soldiers were attacked by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at Galwan Valley.
As an officer who served in this area not so long ago, I have experienced the challenges our forces face to guard our eastern frontiers. The extreme elements demand that one be not only physical fit, but it also tests one’s mental resilience.
A soldier has to not just be strong to face the harsh elements—but also a hostile enemy on the other side of the divide. Difference in perceptions has meant that the LAC between India and China is disputed at some parts, and Indian soldiers guarding these points come in regular contact with their Chinese counterparts. These meetings at times lead to conflicts.
No soldier in any other part of the world has to defend his or her territory with so much of ambiguities. To many it is almost unbelievable that the borders between the two most-populous, nuclear-armed countries with large standing armies is yet to be settled. Both the sides have not agreed to a line on the map that delineates one side from the other.
Both the sides are trying to protect the integrity of their respective land, based on their perceptions of the border. In this grey zone conflicts are a natural consequence. The ordinary soldier at the front of the line has the unique task of being both a soldier and a diplomat, to maintain peace and tranquillity.
Another aspect which makes the India-China border unique is that though the soldiers carry weapons they are not to use it in honour of an agreement signed between the two nations to avoid escalation of border disputes.
Another aspect that makes it difficult here is the unpredictability of the Chinese PLA. As mentioned earlier, while patrolling troops from both the sides meet — at times it would be a friendly PLA patrol, and at times it would be a hostile one. It is almost impossible to know if the patrolling party on the other side is a friend or foe!
In addition to these psychological tests are the standoffs which are physically demanding. During long standoffs with the Chinese PLA, the Indian soldier is expected to brave the treacherous climate and stand facing his PLA counterpart for hours together. If this escalates into a prolonged one and both sides dig in their heels, the soldier is then expected to remain in the same place with bare minimum camping arrangements and resist all attempts made by the Chinese to advance any further. Finally, he has to be prepared at all times to thwart any physical violence unleashed upon him.
At times, when the standoffs get violent, as has happened in Galwan Valley, the soldier has to overcome the pain due to injuries sustained, and overcome anger and sorrow of losing fellow soldiers, and continue to defend the country.
In the midst of all these challenges there is the constant thought of one’s loved ones back home, where there are ailing parents, lonely spouses and growing children.
The life of a soldier deployed at the frontline of any operationally active area is never easy — but, here in the cold deserts of Eastern Ladakh the soldier is pushed to the limits of physical and mental endurance.Col S Dinny (Retd) commanded an Infantry Battalion in the Pangong Tso area till 2017. Views are personal.