Friday April 2, 8:01 PM
Kalam charms troops in freezing Siachen (NIGHTLEADS)
By Indo-Asian News Service http://in.news.yahoo.com/040402/43/2ccso.html
Siachen, Apr 2 (IANS) President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Friday charmed troops stationed on Siachen glacier, scene of high-altitude battles between Indian and Pakistani troops for years, as he became the first head of state to visit the inhospitable Himalayan terrain.
Defying his age and the rarefied Himalayan atmosphere, Kalam, 72, donning special gear and a thick woollen cap, freely interacted with the delighted troops and personally served them food at a 'bara khana' (grand feast) organized at the base camp here to mark the first presidential visit to Siachen.
The 42-km-long and 2 to 4-km-wide glacier has in some ways come to symbolise the protracted territorial conflict between India and Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir.
Adverse weather conditions -- including temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius -- at posts located at heights of 20,000 feet has claimed the lives of more Indian and Pakistani soldiers than the exchange of fire.
"Eat, eat, you need strength," the president told the soldiers as the smiling men held out their plates to be served by the supreme commander of the Indian armed forces.
Some shot questions at the president about his job, about his hobbies, as Kalam smilingly engaged them in conversation.
The president, accompanied by army chief Gen. N.C. Vij and other senior officials, addressed the troops at the air force station at Thoise, the base camp in Siachen and another camp at Kumar on the glacier.
"When I see you all in your uniform you look very smart, you look combat-ready and you look confident to face any situation and win," he eulogized one group.
"I am fully aware of the inhospitable environment in which you have been operating and carrying out your duties meticulously to support the army operations in this sector," he said.
"The entire nation is with you and leads you to modernize and force multiply all your aerial platforms and ground support systems, so that you will excel in the aerial mountain warfare. Air force is indeed the angels for our mountain troops," he told the applauding airmen. He spoke about the geo-strategic importance of the glacier in his address at the base camp.
"When I was flying from Thoise to Kumar and back, I was witnessing the challenge of snowy terrain with fast winds. Now I am with you. Your Brigade has a tremendous responsibility for defending the Siachen sector in varied seasons under heavy snow fall and against incessant gun firings some times."
He told the soldiers: "The nation realises that you are encountering not one adversary but two. One across the border and the other inhospitable nature.
"We recognise that you are fighting a battle at the highest altitude in the world. It is the duty of the nation to ensure your welfare and happiness and the happiness of your families at all times.
He also urged them to ensure that Siachen remained pristine.
"Survival of the Siachen glacier is very important for the nation since it is our water reservoir. I would like the army to take this up as a mission and keep the glacier ecologically safe," he said, adding any deterioration of the glacier will be detrimental to the country's water resource and ecology.
He noted that two important rivers, Shyok and its tributary Nubra, originated in the Siachen.
Turning philosophical, "in this divine Himalayan ambience," the president said: "I believe god creates every living being with a mission and specific purpose. You are fortunate to have been blessed to be in a position to perform a noble mission of defending the nation as soldiers."
"When I see you, you all look very smart, you look combat ready and through gracious smile in your faces you look winning," he said.
Though this was his first visit to the glacier as president, Kalam had visited the region as the scientific adviser to the defence minister in 1998. And he referred to that visit in his speeches.
Though Defence Minister George Fernandes has made over 30 trips to Siachen, this was the first time an Indian president was visiting the harsh, snow-bound glacier where Indian and Pakistani troops exchanged fire regularly before the two countries declared a ceasefire in November last year.
Kalam flew from Delhi by an Indian Air Force VIP Boeing plane to Thoise air force base, located at 10,066 feet, and proceeded from there to the Siachen army base camp in a helicopter.
A brigade-strength of troops, or about 5,000 soldiers, is based in Siachen, though not all were there to hear Kalam, who hoped his message would reach the entire 102 Brigade deployed there.
"For me it is the most important discussion that I am having with you," Kalam said.