The Indian post at Hot Springs is the centre-piece of discussions in the India-China confabulations to lower the temperature in Eastern Ladakh. In the 13th round of talks held in October 2021, the Chinese had refused to discuss any further disengagement, saying that “India should be happy with what has been achieved.” Many commentaries have opined that New Delhi lost its upper hand by bartering away the heights over south Pangong Tso that were taken over in a move that caught the Chinese by surprise. To compensate for the disadvantage, satellite pictures of the past week show that the Chinese are building a bridge across Pangong Tso in ‘their’ territory.
The 14th round of talks being held on January 12 will, hopefully, result in a breakthrough in the impasse — though knowing the Chinese, they would play up the advantage that their bridge would bring to their tactical positioning on ground.
Be that as it may, Hot Springs has a chequered history of the wrong kind – it would be worth recounting that we observe Police Commemoration Day on October 21 for it was on this day in 1959 that 10 policemen lost their lives there while opposing a Chinese incursion; a poignantly sombre memorial stands at Hot Springs honouring the braves (where this writer had the privilege to pay his homage).
In this sombre narrative, it would not be out of place to add a touch of light-hearted banter to bring home the fact that our uniformed men up there have a ‘normal’ side too. This story is about a logistics post, Tsogtsalu, located just behind Hot Springs from where material would be stocked and moved to outlying posts in the 1970s – and one suspects that this would be the case even now.
Located on a flat area adjoining the Chang Chenmo river, it was a dropping zone for Indian Air Force’s Packet aircraft, and later An-32s. Being so close to the LAC, the bigger An-12s (and later IL-76) could not be used due their faster speeds and higher radius of turn. We helicopter pilots, positioned at Leh, would fly a weekly Chetak helicopter sortie taking mail and fresh rations to Tsogtsalu, as it was cut off from the rest of India due to closure of the Marsimik La pass.
Tsogtsalu was reached skirting the Pangong lake and going over a quaint village named Phobrang. Then commenced a climb in which our Chetak clawed its way up through the rarified air, with the pilot desperately trying to get lift by seeking thermals on the side of hills heated by the sun. And if it was cloudy, it was touch and go. Crossing Marsimik La, where centuries ago caravans would have traversed and rested in still-discernible stone shelters, we would descend to Tsogtsalu and land on a big helipad, which was a rarity in Ladakh.
It so happened that due to extensive bad weather, we could not go to Tsogtsalu for almost two months and so the mail to Tsogtsalu, Hot Springs and other posts kept piling up. Next to food, perhaps the most valuable item for a soldier on the frontier was mail (remember there was no phone line, unlike now when there is cell phone connectivity at some places), and so when the weather cleared, we got airborne, loaded with the khaki jute bags of the Army Postal Service.
On landing, an expectant group of jawans greeted us at the helipad and when the mailbags were offloaded, they were just whisked away to the field post office for segregation and distribution.
As we were having our piping hot cup of tea and pakoras, two items that always greeted us on helipads, a young officer of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police approached us and asked if we could post some letters at Leh. While I was a bit surprised because our task was to carry back mail, I said yes. Off he ran to his tent and came back with two thick stacks of letters – the purple inland letters that were supplied free in field areas.
I asked him if they were of his men at the border post, to which he sheepishly said that they were just his. It so happened that the young man would write one letter a day to his fiancée, and since we had come after two months there were 60 of them in my hand that later winged their way from Leh to some town in UP that day.
Can you imagine the joy on the face of that girl when she had these bunch of love letters in her hands?
As you read news despatches, and see television reports of our jawans guarding those inhospitable borders, do spare a thought for their emotional well-being and their families back home yearning for their safe return – and hope that the 14th round of talks at the Chushul-Moldo meeting point have a positive outcome. Meanwhile, our jawan continues to stand guard.
Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur is a veteran of IAF’s helicopter fleet. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.