Govt Flouts Procedure, Declares Siachen Soldier Dead While Still Alive
Rescue operations at Siachen
NEW DELHI: All protocol and procedure, civilian and military was violated, when the government moved to announce the death of the 10 Army soldiers buried under an avalanche on the heights of Siachen within 24 hours of the incident.
While the rescue teams were still at the spot, being reinforced gradually to 150 men, and had yet to start digging for the presumed dead bodies a tweet from the Prime Minister “"Demise of soldiers in Siachen is very tragic. I salute the brave soldiers who gave their lives to the nation. Condolences to their families” declared the men as dead on Feb 4. Earlier in the day the Ministry of Defence had said that the possibility of finding the soldiers was “very remote.”
Four days later the rescue team working in the snow bound high altitudes rescued Lance Naik Hanamanthappa alive. After battling against the odds he died today in hospital.
Sources said the that a radio set with the trapped soldiers continued transmitting from under the snow. And this led the rescue teams to the almost exact spot and dug through 30 odd feet of heavy snow to rescue the soldier who was still breathing, and later the bodies of the other nine men who had died. The transmitter alone should have stayed the government pronouncement of death, more so as under the Army procedure full effort is made to recover bodies in such situations and this, as the sources said, “can take days, often weeks”.
The government’s hurry threw Hanamanthappa’s family through the trauma of death, life, and now again the possibility of death as his condition worsen. The grinning young wife after news that he had been rescued certifies to the relief after the family was thrown into mourning by the government’s announcement. "We were going through a painful ordeal after the avalanche struck...The news of his survival brought smiles back on our faces. We were all crying and almost lost hope. I didn't know what to do — I have one-and-half-year-old girl child,” she told reporters at their village in Karnataka’s Dharwad district. The happiness again turned into deep traumatic sorrow after his death today.
Interestingly the soldiers cousin Eshwar told reporters at the time that Army soldiers had visited the family, that includes his ageing mother, and said “ 'don't worry, nothing will happen. The Army had said will find him out and retrieve him alive from the glacier."
The sources said that this was a first when the death of soldiers was announced even while the rescue teams had still to get into the work and were being moved to the area along with specialised heavy equipment to cut through the slabs of ice and burrow under at the spot from where the radio transmits were received. This process itself took far over 24 hours with the equipment flown to Leh and then moved from there to the inhospitable terrain of Siachen.
The avalanche hit the post situated at 19,600 feet in the Northern Glacier sector in the Ladakh region on February 3. A 800X400ft ice wall broke off and covered the Army post. The debris, including massive ice boulders, some the size of a small room, spread over 800x1000 metres, according to the Army officials. The rescue teams had the task of breaking through 25-30 feet of blue ice, which they said, is harder than concrete. Over 150 trained and acclimatized Army troops, including specialized teams trained in glaciated terrain, were moved into the avalanche site and round-the-clock rescue operations were carried out in extreme weather conditions where average day temperatures was minus 30 degrees celcius and night temperature below minus 55 degrees. Two dogs Dot and Misha aided the rescue work.
Sources said that in this case the Army had a grid reference for the bunker of course but the force of the avalanche must have moved the wreckage along with the bodies by several metres. The radio transmitter, the sources said, usually one or two to a bunker of this size helped in locating the exact spot to allow the rescue team to dig in the location so specified, and thereby rescue the soldier and recover the dead bodies. As the sources said, they could not understand why the government did not wait for the rescue work to be over, and rushed to pronounce the soldiers dead against all norms.
Ironically under the civilian law, a person including a soldier has to be missing for seven years before he is pronounced dead, and the financial emoluments proscribed under the law are then given to his surviving family. The defence services have been battling with the civilian authorities on this as the effort here is to seek closure as soon as possible in situations such as avalanche in Siachen now, or the mudslide in Ladakh earlier, so that the families of the deceased soldiers can get the financial relief that is theirs under the law. Several cases are being fought on this front by the relatives of dead or missing military personnel, with the civil authorities reluctant to pay the emoluments and insisting on following the Evidences Act setting out the seven year wait. The military follows a Standard Operating Procedure for those Missing in Action (MIA), where it allows for a years wait before declaring a missing soldier dead and thereby giving financial relief to his family. This wait has been necessitated by the fact---as in 1971---when soldiers are taken prisoner by the enemy and it takes time to verify this, or have deserted the services.
If the bodies are recovered either in a war situation, or again as in the case of natural disasters such as the avalanche, the death is announced and the families get closure. In this specific case no one is able to explain the “rush” as the sources put it, pointing out that silence is maintained by the government and the authorities while the rescue teams are at the spot, and it is only when they give up and are recalled, that such announcement is made and mourning declared.