• Friday, December 02, 2022

Interview with LT GEN. Ramesh Kulkarni and Anjali Karpe, Author of "Siachen 1987"

Siachen, 1987: Battle for the Frozen Frontier tells the story of Lt Gen. Ramesh Kulkarni’s command of this infantry division, giving readers the rare opportunity to view the Siachen glacier and the army’s involvement in the region through the lens of a commander.
on Nov 21, 2022
Siachen 1987

Lt Gen. Ramesh Kulkarni was commissioned in the Garhwal Rifles Infantry in June 1956. Gen. Kulkarni commanded a battalion of the Garhwal Rifles in high altitude areas of Arunachal Pradesh in 1971-73 and was the Commandant of the Garhwal Rifles Regimental Centre from 1979-81. He then commanded an Infantry Brigade in the northern areas of Nagaland during the counterinsurgency from 1981-83. He went on to command an Infantry Division from 1987-89.

In the course of his tenure, Gen Kulkarni was the recipient of the Param Vishisht Seva Medal, the Uttam Yudh Seva Medal and the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal. 

Anjali Karpe is the Deputy Head and Head of student life at the Bombay International School in Mumbai. She teaches English literature and history to secondary and high school students. 

Frontlist: Do you regret any decision that you made during the operation? In what instances do you believe better decisions could have helped the operation?

Ramesh & Anjali: I have no regrets whatsoever for any of the decisions taken by me during the tenure and this is not a sweeping, dramatic statement. In fact, appropriate and timely decision-making is crucial to the success of any mission. My sense of achievement is in being able to think on my feet, navigate challenges that were thrown at me, forcing me to take tough decisions. I would go so far as to say that if there is regret for any decision that is made, it is invariably because of a mission failing. That is something that did not happen during the tenure of my command of the division. 

Frontlist: “It’s the man behind the weapon, not the weapon itself”. Your battalion must have performed gracefully, considering the terrain. Please provide us some background on the types of artillery used back then and how they have evolved.

Ramesh & Anjali: Success in battle is ensured by men who are capable of employing every possible weapon system available in the sector. In this case the men of my division facing the brunt of enemy attack, used their personal and automatic weapons like machine guns and they were supported by artillery guns that were available on call. The artillery support on the glacier was provided by the tried and tested 130 mm artillery guns and these would prove invaluable to us in every engagement with the enemy. The credit for providing this intimate artillery support goes in a large part to the gunners manning these guns. They had to fire incessantly day after day, night after night to support the forward troops and we knew we could depend on them. 

Over a period of time newer weapon systems have certainly come into use, but even today, the 130 mm artillery guns continue to be in use in the Indian army.

Frotnlist: What were the most critical moments of Operation Rajiv and Operation Vajra Shakti? What factors contributed to the missions’ success?

Ramesh & Anjali: Operation Rajiv and Operation Vajr Shakti were very different in nature - the first was offensive and the latter was defensive. For OP Rajiv we undertook detailed planning to the best possible extent, catering for various eventualities before the mission was undertaken. But for Op Vajr Shakti we were taken by surprise in terms of the timing as well as the force levels that were employed by the Pakistanis. While we had foreseen the possibility of a threat emerging on the main glacier and planned for it by pre-positioning reserves appropriate for reinforcement, the actual attack when it came our way was sudden and intense. 

For Op Rajiv the most critical moments came up as a result of deciding to launch an attack in broad daylight. On the glacier this was the highest risk because the troops would be fully exposed without the cover of darkness to camouflage movements. But we also had no choice given that for two nights our troops had been unsuccessful in dislodging the Pakistani forces. 

For Op Vajr Shakti, the decisive moment was when we were reeling after three successive waves of attack by the Pakistanis. Radio intercepts had come in during the dead of the night that one of our forward posts had been compromised and captured by the Pakistanis. There was no way of responding to this. By the next morning the more sinister news revealed by the intercepts was of an additional battalion being inducted, since the earlier battalion had run out of steam. It was also a rough realisation that we had run out of artillery ammunition and there was no way of getting replenishments immediately.

Having said this, there is one significant aspect that  guarantees the success of any mission - loyalty and commitment. And I don’t mean loyalty to the country or the flag - because that is almost assumed in the armed forces when you swear that oath. I am talking about loyalty to the mission that is given and loyalty to your troops. Loyalty to the mission indicates that its success becomes your raison-d’etre and for this a commander must ensure that he is loyal to his troops by providing them every possible support.

Both Op Rajiv and Op Vajr Shakti were successful because of this - my troops were assured of my support - material and emotional - to see through the mission of safeguarding the country.

Frontlist: Military life has its hurdles, but it also has its rewards. Looking back, what key moments in your life shaped you?

Ramesh & Anjali: I believe that rewards far outweigh perceived hurdles and what remains is an enduring and abiding emotional connect with this service. At every stage there have been individuals and experiences that defined my growth and I matured as an individual, capable of handling a range of responsibilities that grew in their scope and expanse. My military life took me to places that were unheard of, we made friends who shared our home and heart, we strengthened bonds with troops in peacetime as well as periods of conflict and we truly placed our duty above the self. In a service that spanned nearly 37 years, it is impossible to put down names of individuals who impacted me in myriad ways - some of them came to life in ‘Siachen 1987’; but countless others came and touched our lives and left us with lasting memories.

The decision to join the army was momentous; but so also were key postings of command and learning. Over and above the Siachen tenure, my time in the north-east as brigade commander, the Director General of the Assam Rifles and finally as the Chairman of the Ceasefire Monitoring group remain strong and lasting.

Frontlist: What are your thoughts on India’s current military strength? What are some related threats looming over us, and how can we prevent or protect ourselves from them?

Ramesh & Anjali:India’s military strength comes from the values that have been embedded in soldiery and the seeds of this are encapsulated in a few key words - naam, nishaan, namak and izzat. These values are hard to translate into single words; in fact they represent “a matter of honour” that drives the Indian troops to achieve against all odds. Continuing to hold on to these values will ensure India’s military strength. I have personally experienced this and elaborated on this at length in the several missions during my tenure on the glacier, like OP Rajiv and Op Vajr Shakti, described in ‘Siachen 1987: Battle for the Frozen Frontier’.

The threats to national security are multidimensional and not necessarily restricted to the security of the border areas. These continue to evolve and require constant review. Some of these are historical in nature and some of these take new dimensions. Geo-political situations have a direct influence on the security environment and this is what we need to be vigilant about on an ongoing basis. The army has adequate structures and systems in place to assess these threats on a regular and continual basis and appropriate measures are taken to deal with them.

Frontlist: Would you like to relive your military career if given a chance? Are there any specific memories you would like to share that you could not include in the book?

Ramesh & Anjali: The book - ‘Siachen 1987: Battle for the Frozen Frontier’ is but a brief 22 month tenure in my army career that spanned nearly 37 years. And given all the choices possible, I would unquestionably relive my army career. Why? Because I have had a chance to see other careers alongside my own journey and I have interacted with so many who follow other vocations. And there is no other service that inspires or drives you to place your life on the line for a cause or a person. The fact that you are ready to give up something so precious because it keeps another safe and protected says a lot about the values that define this service. Without sounding immodest, I think it elevates you to a selfless level of living. It makes you a better human being in many ways.

‘Siachen 1987’ is just the beginning. I hope to go on to write and share more because the world needs to take a closer look at all that makes the military so special. There are life lessons to be shared here and I hope that my next piece of writing opens the doors to my experiences in high insurgency Nagaland and the period of ceasefire that enabled peace in the region.

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