Disaster struck an Indian Army post at 19,350 feet on the icy heights of the Siachen glacier on 3rd February 2016 in the form of an avalanche, burying the ten soldiers manning it under 35 feet of snow. The nation took but a few hours to assume the worst, and social media was abuzz offering homage to the ten ‘dead’ martyrs. This included the Prime Minister and Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, both of who tweeted their condolences. Yet there was a band of brave warriors from the Madras battalion the trapped soldiers belonged to who doggedly refused to give up. The weather continued to be bad, with blizzards adding to the already inhospitable environment. Postponing the search operation till the weather improved didn’t even occur to them. They would gladly risk their own life and limbs to seize even the slimmest of chance of any of their comrades out there being alive.
A rescue team of 150 men and two rescue dogs toiled tirelessly under the most difficult working conditions imaginable – minus thirty degrees temperature, with frequent bouts of blizzards reducing visibility to near zero. Yet the men persisted, goaded on by hope based on faint radar signals indicating at least one soldier was still alive under the snow. In an environment where cold makes it impossible to operate even the simplest of equipment like a camera, they wielded motorized ice axes to cut through 30 feet of blue ice, which is harder than concrete. Unmindful of the biting cold, impervious to fear of frostbite on their exposed hands operating the machinery, they struggled on. Their painstaking efforts were rewarded on the sixth day, when Lance Naik Hanamanthappa was found – in extremely critical condition, but still alive. The bodies of the rest of the soldiers were also recovered and retrieved.
The dogged determination exhibited by the men and officers of this battalion exemplifies an unwritten but equally inviolable code of Indian Army – No man left behind. Dead or alive, the thought of abandoning a comrade at the mercy of an adversary – be it the enemy or nature – is an anathema. The list of bravehearts who have received gallantry awards for daring acts to rescue their fallen or trapped comrades is long – the latest amongst them Lance Naik Mohan Nath Goswami who was awarded the Ashok Chakra, country’s highest peace time gallantry award on the Republic day just gone by for laying down his life while saving those of two of his wounded comrades.
This, and similar honour codes, may be difficult for an outsider to appreciate in their fullness, but are the basis of what makes our army one of the finest fighting forces in the world. To say that every man who joins the forces does so out of an exceptional sense of patriotism would be not be correct. As also to attribute a soldier’s undying love for country the sheer motivation for risking and sacrificing his life. Irrespective of the reasons for which he has joined up, on becoming the part of an organisation like a battalion or regiment, his life starts being dictated by these honour codes. The unit becomes his second family, one in which he spends nine months of the year as compared to three months with his own family back home. Shared sorrows and joys, and more importantly, dangers and hardships faced together, forge an undying bond between them.
This bond, and the implicit trust in each other, is what turns ordinary men from diverse backgrounds into a cohesive fighting team. It propels them to face enemy bullets without ever considering backing down and letting his comrades down. The assurance that the others wouldn’t hesitate to risk their own lives for him makes him put his own life on the line for them. He knows that, dead or alive, his comrades will never leave him behind.
By living up to this honour code, the sterling battalion has lived up to the finest traditions of the army, and deserves to be feted.