‘Siachen is no longer just a bilateral issue’

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Nitin Gokhale | 52 Security and Strategic Affairs Editor, NDTV
Nitin Gokhale | 52 | Security and Strategic Affairs Editor, NDTV. Photo: Arun Sehrawat

In your book, you narrated the story of the accidental discovery of the Siachen stand-off, which continues till today. How did it all start?
The glacier and the areas beyond it came into the army’s focus around 1977- 78. It was actually the famous military mountaineer, Colonel ‘Bull’ Kumar, who accidently discovered Pakistan’s “cartographic aggression” displayed on commercial American maps while out on an expedition with a German expedition team. He found that the maps showed a line from NJ9842, which was the last point delineated on the LoC between India and Pakistan, drawn straight to the Karakoram Pass, instead of going north, as was internationally accepted. Bull Kumar’s initial alarms led to a series of expeditions in the region. There were many international expeditions from the Pakistani side as well. However, it was only in 1983, when protest notes came from Pakistan stating that Indian troops had crossed over onto the glacier, that the planning began in Sector 26, which encompasses Siachen. It was not a priority sector at the time and needed to be beefed up. This was compounded by intelligence reports that the Pakistan Army was in Europe buying snow clothing and equipment in bulk. The Indian security officials put two and two together, surmised that the Pakistan Army was likely to occupy Saltoro Ridgeline in the summer of 1984, and decided they would have to act first, and fast. This is the origin of the conflict. No one knew it would continue until today.

You said the stand-off has continued for the past three decades. Why is Siachen of such importance to India?
When Bull Kumar discovered the maps, the army’s mind went back to what happened in the 1950s when China built the East-West highway in Aksai Chin. India only learnt of the highway after it was fully built — they were caught napping. In this case, the line not only meant that India was losing some 3,000 sq km of territory; this patch of land in Pakistani hands would create a land link between Pakistan and China. Though China and Pakistan have a small link through the Shaksgam Valley, with access to the glacier, they would have access to India’s head. That would have meant a double squeezing of the defences of Ladakh. Even if one company or platoon comes down from both sides and occupies the heights, India would lose advantage. Therefore, keeping strategic significance in mind, India has maintained its presence on the glacier.

For Pakistan, Siachen has remained an emotional issue for a few reasons. They planned to occupy it on May 1984. However, Indian troops beat them to it, taking up the ridge line in April. But all this while the Pakistan Army has maintained the myth that they are on the glacier, when they are not. They tried a number of times in the 1980s, including two attempts by the then Brigadier, Pervez Musharraf, to reoccupy these heights, but it never happened. Benazir Bhutto added fuel to fire and taunted Zia ul Haq, saying “you can only act against your own people and not operate against India.” So the civilian government has continuously mocked the Pakistan Army, and Siachen has remained a most humiliating loss for them after 1971.

The rarefied atmosphere, the freezing temperatures, and the cross-border military threat… what toll does a stint at Siachen take on the human body?
The Siachen base camp is at 12,000 feet and the heights along the ridgeline go up to 23,000 feet. There is a lack of oxygen, so it is very difficult to breathe. You cannot walk briskly, your appetite gets killed, the deep snow restricts your movement, hidden crevasses present a different form of danger. On an average, during their three-month tenure, military personnel lose between 10 kg to 20 kg of their body weight. The high altitude kills your appetite, so you don’t eat, and your body becomes weak. However, you still have to keep working. Then there is the threat of high-altitude pulmonary oedema, where seemingly fit men can die as their lungs fill up with fluids.

Beyond the physical toll, there is a huge mental component. Earlier, there was no communication equipment. You had to come down to base camp to call home. There was no companionship, no entertainment. Though communication has improved now, loneliness is still a factor. When the troops come down, very often they tend to suffer short-term memory loss. What I have learnt from doctors and military personnel is that a lot also depends on the individual. Each person reacts differently to the altitude.

Over the past 30 years, the army has really mastered the weather. And if you look at the past 10 years, since the ceasefire was signed in 2003, the number of people losing their lives because of the weather has reduced drastically. This is because the army has put various training and acclimatisation systems in place.

Given the location of the glacier, keeping the troops going must be a logistical nightmare?
Ladakh itself is dependent on two routes, both very difficult. And in six summer months, they have to stock up for the full year before the passes close due to snow. So the planning has to be impeccable.

In the 1980s, there was no concrete plan. They first sent a platoon (30 to 50 soldiers), then it became a battalion (a few hundred soldiers), and then a Brigade (a couple of thousand). To sustain a Brigade at that altitude, you need two Brigades acting in a supporting role. So if 3,000 personnel are deployed there, you require 6,000 people to support them because for everything, from paper pins to ammunition and food, you have to depend on the supplies via air efforts or porters.

Today, the military plans almost 18 months in advance. Supply loads are airdropped, and snow scooters, to which there was resistance in the 1980s, move around to pick up and drop off supplies — the situation is more comfortable now because there is never a shortage of air effort. About 1 crore is spent every day to keep troops on the glacier, but I think it is a figure that a country like India can afford. However, there is a question, should we continue to be there?

So, should we continue to be there? Or is there an alternative to occupying those heights?
In the short to medium term, there is no solution other than to man the posts. Having said that, a solution for Siachen can come only as part of an overall Jammu & Kashmir solution. The reason is that if you go back to 1999 and see what happened in Kargil, one of the stated objectives of Pakistan at that time was to cut off Ladakh and Siachen because of the huge emotional drain on the Pakistan Army. Therefore they don’t want to authenticate the actual on ground positions. The other problem is that now Siachen cannot be solved in isolation because of Chinese footprints in PoK. It is no longer just a bilateral issue. So I don’t see any quick solutions to it. For the time being we will just have to work to make life better for our armed forces there.

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