Digging the snow and burying the dead in Siachen

Author- Maanvi Agarwal

“Let weapons do the talking, the missiles the digging,

How is it that we are stuck in snow and now earth becomes the enemy?

A war cannot end as long as humanity holds onto its pride,

and while some languish at the hands of human follies, rest perish at the cost of underestimating nature.”


  

 

The recent incident at Siachen where 10 soldiers lost their lives due to an avalanche was not an event in solidarity. The harsh weather conditions and the ongoing war between Pakistan and India had taken more than 4,000 lives in the region since 1984.

The Siachen Glacier is located in the eastern Karakoram Range in the Himalaya Mountains at about 5,400 m from the sea level, just northeast to the point NJ9842 where the Line of Control between India and Pakistan ends. The region was left untouched and non-demarcated as per the 1949 Karachi Agreement and 1972 Shimla Agreement. Despite the belief that there would be no disputes over the harsh and barren land, the outcome proved to be different.

Start of the War- Antecedent factors

 

The Rise of the Siachen Conflict

The game of oropolitics began with the early seeding by Pakistan. It permitted mountaineering expeditions to the Siachen glacier starting by the western expedition in 1967, led by Eric Shipton to Siachen through the Bilafond La, and recce Saltoro Kangri. With the increasing number of permits being given directly by the Government of Pakistan for the expeditions, the latter fortified their claim on the region.

When Indian government noticed, they protested the cartography and feeling indignant by the international expeditions the then commanding officer of the Indian Army’s High Altitude Warfare School, Colonel Narendra Kumar, led a 70 man team of climbers and porters to the glacier in 1977. They climbed several peaks and walked the length of Siachen until 1981; the pictures and news of the expedition were published in The Illustrated Weekly of India.

The growing malignancy came to a front in 1984, when Pakistan in an attempt to secure Siachen before India, made a tactical error by purchasing mountain clothing from the same London specialists as India does. A now retired Pakistani army colonel says, “They ordered Arctic-weather gear from a London outfitter who also supplied the Indians,” says the colonel. “Once the Indians got wind of it, they ordered 300 outfits—twice as many as we had—and rushed their men up to Siachen”.

Operation Meghdoot led by the Indian Army under Lt. General M.L Chibber, Lt. General P.N Hoon and Major General Shiv Sharma beat Pakistan by a week by airlifting a platoon by the IAF choppers from Kumaon Regiment onto the Saltoro Ridge where they occupied Bilafond La and Sia La. Over the next few years, several operations were led by both the Indian and Pakistani troops to seize control over the glacier.  Today India occupies the full glacier, its tributaries and the key passes and heights of the Saltoro Ridge.

Siachen Glacier and the Avalanches

 

Rescue operation at Siachen

The toll of death keeps rising and yet there is no way out of this deadlock created by the two countries. Politically speaking, the state at Siachen is too sensitive to be pondered over by just simple emotions but the drudgery becomes so vast that even the patience over a possible solution in the nearby future starts to run loose. India has lost over 879 soldiers, including 33 officers, since 1984. Some people say proudly that out of these deaths, only 220 have fallen to bullets at the hands of the adversaries.

Can war really be more important than human life? It’s a question with no definite answer and yet, has only India lost its men? The avalanche on the 3rd February 2016 which led to the death of 10 soldiers was nothing in comparison to the avalanche that hit the Pakistan military base in the Gayari Sector, near the Siachen Glacier base on 7th April 2012 which killed 129 soldiers and 11 civilians. Our biases and patriotism on one side, and the cost of human life on another, how can we dare to equate the two?

While Lance Naik Hanumanthappa Koppad is being paid homage for surviving miraculously for 5 days despite being buried under 35 feet of snow at a temperature of -45ºC, the names of the other soldiers have been noted, glanced over and then flown back to their hometowns to be grieved over. I salute the martyrdom of Hanumanthappa, but his death has overshadowed the thousands of death that have taken place and are still taking place slowly and subtly amongst the other soldiers.

On one hand our officials express their grief at the loss of life,

It would in no way undermine the high morale of soldiers and officers”– He proceeded to say- “[T]he fact of matter is that 70 per cent of the people have died because of natural causes, and I think this is the time we ended this damn conflict, which has absolutely no explanation.”Yousaf Raza Gilani, ex P.M of Pakistan in 2012

Yet despite the big words, no resolution was reached as both countries remained resolute on their stand.

Manohar Parrikar, Defence Minister of India expressed his pain on the recent deaths of the 10 soldiers but refused the demand that the Indian soldiers should be withdrawn from the glacier, “This incident is painful to me personally, but the solution that is suggested is not a proper analysis.”

What is then, a proper analysis? Despite the multiple claims that the facilities have been improved in the region, the soldiers whiling away their lives to protect the Glacier are suffering both physically and mentally.

The men struggle to fight frostbites, diarrhea, incessant headache but that’s not all. The struggle to survive at 20,000 feet with few friends in a small cabin at harsh conditions leaves soldiers more rigid and broken than ever.

“On my way up the glacier in 2008, the most sobering effect was when I spoke with those coming down. Bearded and tough- shaving or even bathing at posts up high is an avoidable luxury- the eyes of the ice-aged men looking harder than the ice they were treading on. Yet they were cheerful, primarily because they were closer to attaining a normal life.”Manu Pubby, ET Bureau

But a normal life eludes them. From memory loss to shivering bouts at night, to mood swings or even sexual dysfunction are price paid by the soldiers for guarding Saltoro Ridge.

Instead of using big words or providing fake charity to the kin of the deceased, (as Mr. Prakash Singh Badal) has done, what we need is action and work. While the infrastructure has improved and ceasefire implemented, the soldiers are still battling an unending war with the nature.

Strategic importance of Siachen

Many have argued over the strategic importance of Siachen but despite the appreciation, the monetary and human cost has been too high for some people who now call the Siachen conflict a mistake:

“India’s military occupation of Saltoro passes in spring 1948 was meant only to deter the Pakistanis from getting there first. The Indian Army had no plans for permanent occupation. At the end of the day, the Siachen conflict was a mistake.” – Lt. General M.L Chibber in June 1990

 

Guarding Siachen at what cost?

India’s claim over the entire state of J&K stems from the latter’s accession to India in 1947. Thus India believes that Saltoro is a part of the Indian Territory and directly under its governance. The cause of dispute majorly arises from the vague status of India-Pak boundary North of NJ9842 in both the Karachi Agreement which says, “from Pt NJ9842, the ceasefire line will run northwards to the Glaciers”, while the Shimla Agreement doesn’t even make a mention of it.

India’s presence on the Saltoro heights also serves as a wedge between China and Pakistan to prevent them from military collaborating since China’s expanding presence in Gilgit- Baltistan of Pakistan occupied Kashmir as well as in Karakoram is a cause for concern.

The Saksgam Valley illegally ceded to China by Pakistan in 1963, falls into Indian Kashmir, if the line along Saltoro Ridge is extended to the Indo-Tibet boundary, raising grounds for its negotiations with the Chinese government.

The presence at Siachen also provides ‘military depth’ to Leh and Kargil, which if falls under the hands of the enemies may raise tensions on the safety of these regions.

Siachen as Peace Park?

Is cost the only thing that matters?

The debate to convert Siachen into a Peace Park has been going on for a while now, and in recent discussions the appeal to convert Siachen battlegrounds into an Indo-Pak joint laboratory for glacial research has taken momentum. While peace groups of both countries attach the lack of dialogue between both countries, the fact of the matter will remain the same, that believes of the common people and the politicians will remain perpetually different due to the differing views of both the countries on the modus operandi of demilitarization.

While India calls for a cease on the cartographic aggression by Pakistan which shows Siachen as a part of the latter, as well as an exchange of maps in which deployment of troops on Actual Ground Position Line is marked and exchanged to start the demilitarization, Pakistan doesn’t agree to the marking of the present AGPL and thereafter exchange of maps.

Instead of hoping for an alteration in the mindset of the officials to form a peace pact with Pakistan, (which is unnecessary for the formation of the Peace Park) we should instead focus on improving the ecology of Siachen which will improve lives and save money:

  • Waste disposal and Stock Reduction– There is an urgent need to improve technology to dispose off human waste which becomes non-biodegradable in the sub zero temperatures.

With ceasefire in place there is a need to reduce the ammunition and ration stocks as well as review the Forward Winter Stocking policy to reduce budget.

  • Cost-effective transport and retrieval– Helicopters use a lot of fuel for transport. If alternative methods like aerial rope ways are used, the dependence on helicopters can be reduced.

In addition the packing material of the ammunition and rations can be retrieved to save nearly 30 crore.

  • Improving the flora and fauna– The military activity puts at risk the rare fauna that are inhabitants of the place like snow leopard, brown bear and ibex. They need to be protected alongside humans.

Conclusion

Even the term conclusion becomes problematic, since there are no definite answers. Objective truth can be molded to our own reasoning and beliefs, but if there is one thing that we can learn from the recent case of Avalanche at Siachen is that we need to create a strong footing for our soldiers first.

There are many complications, infrastructure, climate and even salary wise (the soldiers are only paid Rs 14,000 but the Seventh Pay Commission has proposed to increase it to Rs 21,000). The futile arguments over the “5 crore” expenditure should be replaced by improving the lives of both the soldiers and their kin. Even if we hope for reconciliation between Pakistan and India, we should look for India and Indian men firsts and later at any hopes of peace.

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