19 Feb 2015

Siachen Glacier : Not Just Another Battlefield !!

It was early April 1984 and winter of Siachen had gradually started to recede. The temperature would settle around at -60 degree Celsius. Even at this relatively high temperature by Siachen standards, an Indian soldier manning the 70 KM long Siachen glacier could lose any part of body that was in contact with gun metal for merely 15 seconds because of extreme cold conditions. The soldiers were facing two pronged adversaries – at one hand was the most difficult living condition known to mankind and at other hand was constant threat of a Pakistani attempt to reclaim these high posts of Siachen.  It was then that a Pakistani armed contingent of SSG (lead by Gen Pervez Musharraf- later president of Pakistan and Kargil conflict mastermind) launched the biggest Pakistani mission witnessed in the region so far. Pakistani SSGs were trained and supported by US special ops forces. Short term goal of the mission was to capture Bilafond La, one of the western passes leading to Siachen glacier. After an intensely fought battle that sometimes involved hand to hand combat, Indian outposts defended their position of strength and most serious Pakistani threat to the Indian occupation was successfully thwarted.

Siachen Glacier : Not Just Another Battlefield

This is the story of conflict in a region that was supposed to be beyond any human or strategic interest. At an average height of 20,000 feet, the world’s second largest non-polar glacier Siachen is planet’s highest and costliest conflict zone. It sits at the confluence point of three mightiest mountain ranges in the world - the Himalayas, Karakorum and the Hindu Kush. Living conditions in this region are so adverse that according to a popular folklore only the best of friends or most bitter of enemies pay you a visit here. Buried with unfathomable layer of snow that wears a grim silence of death, only punctuated by hostile avalanches that can last for three days and hit you at a speed of 300 KMPH, Siachen was considered such an irrelevant territory that nether India nor Pakistan bothered to get into its specifics during 1972 Shimla pact. Giving a shorthand to the matter with a signature diplomatic clumsiness that would prove costly to both side in decades to come – from the NJ9842 location the boundary would proceed “thence north to the glaciers.”
Siachen Glacier : Not Just Another Battlefield
Source : siachenglacier.com
After 1972, however, dynamics in this region added a new dimension to the strategic warfare in south-east Asian region. After US defense mapping agency showed this region exclusively inside Pakistan and other global cartographers followed the suit – Pakistan identified the opportunity and started issuing permits to mountaineers who went for expedition in the glacier region. This exercise of allowing mountaineering to assert a strategic interest came to be known as Oropolitics. Once Indian Army got a sniff of the development it moved its focus to the region and launched occasional riposte to counter claim its stake at the region.

Siachen Glacier : Not Just Another Battlefield
Source : timesofindia.indiatimes.com
These scattered incidents always had the makings of an escalated conflict in the region and the tipping point came in 1984. Indian Army was informed that its Pakistani counterpart was ordering Arctic-weather gears from a UK based supplier. It didn’t take Army to put two and two together and it moved swiftly to position its personnel at all strategic points under an operation code named Meghdoot. Indian Army occupied all of 70 KMs of Siachen glacier and all three western passes to the glacier - Sia La, Bilafond La, and Gyong La. When Pakistani Army arrived at the Glacier it realized that it was beaten by Indian Army to this point by at least four weeks. And thus began a tale of conflict between two neighbors to occupy this region.

Siachen Glacier : Not Just Another Battlefield

Cost and returns of this conflict have often been questioned by international commentators and sometimes even by Army personnel at either sides. Stephen P. Cohen, a South Asian expert, famously termed the conflict as “a struggle of two bald men over a comb” elaborating that there was nothing to fight over there “beside rock and ice”. India and Pakistan spend $300M and $200M respectively to maintain their outposts along the frontiers of conflict. More than 2700 Army men have lost their lives in this region ever since conflict began in 1984. Many more of these losses are attributed to treacherous living conditions in the region than to actual combat related losses. Indian government – after acknowledging extreme terrains and weather conditions, decided to recognize climate related deaths as combat deaths. Siachen is the only reason to get this exception.

Siachen Glacier : Not Just Another Battlefield
An Indian army mountaineer on Indira Col above Siachen glacier in 1981. " (Souce : bbc.com)
Indian army has conventionally occupied higher points and so its supply routes are longer and more inaccessible. Adding to what is already a challenging and costly occupation. Weather conditions are extreme. Human body is simply not capable of staying at these heights and temperature beyond certain duration – and Army men staying here often suffer from nausea and weight loss. Snowfall can reach up to four to five feet in one go and soldiers have to keep shoveling the snow during the snowfall lest they be buried inside it. Army helicopters have to routinely fly beyond their operational safe limits to drop ration and reinforcement to these outposts. Pakistan Army has similar challenges, if not worse, to negotiate as well. On 7th April 2012, Pakistani side witnessed worst weather related calamity when 129 of its Army personnel and 11 civilians were buried alive under a violent avalanche. None of the bodies could be recovered after four weeks of digging operation jointly conducted by Pakistani and Indian sides. Some estimates put the depth of snow piled up due to the avalanche at over 80 feet.

Siachen Glacier : Not Just Another Battlefield

These terrible losses of human lives – mostly because of extraneous reasons – has caused both sides to revisit their occupation of the region. Indian side is sitting atop a strategically advantageous position and is generally reluctant to withdraw mutually after getting a rude shock in Kargil. Given that any such negotiation is one of the moving pieces of larger geo-political positioning, and how Indian and Pakistani relationship is driven by deep distrust rather than mutual assurance for official declarations, nobody expects a definitive retreat from either side in the near future. But what stands out amid all these sordid and unnecessary defense hedging is the loyalty and courage displayed by Army personnel deployed in these outposts. Fighting the fury of nature and hostility of enemies, their commitment is the centerpiece of country’s security narrative.

We salute their supreme dedication and sacrifice for fellow citizens. (Watch this video)

What is your view for Siachen Glacier? How India and Pakistan should move forward for larger interests of the citizens and the country?

What is the best practical solution for Siachen?

(Written by Manish Jha, an Alumnus of IIIT Hyderabad and currently working with Microsoft as Program Manager. He is also associated with a social initiative 'Joy of Reading')



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