Over a week after having lost ten soldiers in an avalanche in Siachen, the Indian Army on Friday February 12th ruled out any withdrawal from the glacier, the highest battlefield in the world.
Siachen glacier is one place where fewer soldiers have died on the line duty due to enemy fire than because of the harsh weather conditions. For Indian forces deployed in Siachen, it is less of a challenge to watch out for the frail Pakistani forces but to just stay atop this 76 kilometers long glacier at 5, 400 meters altitude (nearly twice the altitude of Ladakh and Kargil) in itself means you have to defy all of your physical, mental and spiritual limits.
How’s life there?
“Coming back from Siachen is like getting a second lease of life,” says Havildar Mittu (retired) from the Madras Regiment, recalling his two stints at Siachen Glacier. May be that explains the most adverse conditions our soldiers work to protect our border at Siachen. “It is medically not possible to live in those conditions beyond three months. During that period, we lived on eating ready-to-eat food, chocolates and dry fruits, most of which are airdropped. On those days that they were not airdropped, we had to walk up to the next link, which those four people were also doing,” he narrated.
“The biggest challenge in Siachen is survival,” echoed Col. Prateek Seth (retired.) from the Parachute Regiment, who served in the glacier in 1992, referring to temperatures that dipped below -50 degrees Celsius. “If there were snow blizzards, it reduced the temperatures further. Even breathing is a problem there and the lack of oxygen and the cold makes you eat much lesser. We come back after suffering weight loss and have to gain that strength back,” he said.
In Siachen, soldiers are at the risk of getting a deadly frostbite if your bare skin touches steel (gun trigger, for example) for just over fifteen seconds. Frostbite is a condition resulting from abrupt exposure to extreme cold that can leave amputation of fingers or toes as the only alternative. In extreme cases, these organs may just fall off.
Snowstorms in Siachen can last 3 weeks. Winds here can cross the 100 mph limit in no time. The temperature can drop well below minus 60 degrees. There’s 10% of the amount of oxygen available in Siachen than it is in plains. It’s the weather of the kind that us mortals aren’t simply designed to bear. Not for long and not without the great risk of losing eyes, hands or legs. But these men – they do it, every day.
Eating is a task because food doesn’t digest fast. Fresh food is rare at Siachen. Rations come out of tin cans. Army pilots literally push their helicopters well beyond their optimal performance every day to drop supplies at forward posts located at an altitude of more than 20,000 feet. Army pilots usually have less than a minute for dropping off the supplies at forward posts as they must fly off before the Pakistani army guns open up which is merely few hundred meters away.
They say your life reduces by five years when you are stationed at Siachen. Should someone fall ill, they need to consult the doctor as medicines too have side effects at that altitude. It often irritates some of the soldiers, who are looking for instant relief and want an extra dose.
More soldiers have been killed in the Siachen glacier owing to weather than by enemy fire over the years. Over 870 soldiers have lost their lives due to climatic conditions and environmental factors since 1984. In Siachen, the Indian Army spends as much as 80% of its time preparing soldiers of deployment.
One can never be prepared enough, despite all the rigorous training that soldiers go through at base camp. It starts out with a screening of the movie Vertical Limit, which helps them understand what to expect. Climbing ice walls that are almost vertical and bivouacking on one is always a challenge, every time the need arises. At times, the crevasses are so big that soldiers need to couple a few ladders to traverse them, which too can crack because of the cold.
Because every inch of this land belongs to India and they shall not cede it to some untrustworthy neighbors who no longer have a higher ground in Siachen. Yes, it is tough. But we cannot climb down because we cannot let the Pakistani Army climb up and take high ground.
When and why the glacier was militarised?
The disturbing intelligence reports in 1983 highlighted that the Pakistanis were making probes deliberately through tourism and mountaineering groups. The obvious aim of the Pakistanis appeared to be cross the Saltoro heights and head for the Karakoram Pass on the Jammu and Kashmir border with Tibet (China).
Given the aggressive manner in which Pakistan had begun to interfere in India like inciting Sikh extremists and supporting naxalites, India could not afford to become vulnerable on another front. Siachen in the possession of Pakistan would have meant Pakistan would have access from Skardu through to the Karakoram near the Aksai Chin and eventual linking with Shahidullah on the Kashgar-Xigatse road that runs parallel to the Tibet- India border.
There was no option but to launch Operation Meghdoot on April 13, 1984. The Kumaon Regiment of the Indian Army with cover from the Indian Air Force reached the glacier to occupy two mountain passes at Bilafond La and Sia La while the Pakistan Army could only reach Gyong La. The battle zone was a triangle with point NJ9842 at the bottom, Indira Col due west and Karakoram Pass due east. Indian troops today control two thirds of the area and the world’s highest motorable road at Khardung La with a helipad at a place called Sonam, at 21,000 feet. Pakistan overlooks the Nubra and Shyok valleys from the north. Saltoro lies almost exactly due north of Leh and North West of Kargil.
And since then this highest battlefield in the world is manned by Indian Army.
Officials say the presence of Indian troops on the craggy Saltoro Ridge, at heights varying from 16,000 to 22,000-feet, actually serves as a wedge between China and Pakistan to prevent them from “militarily linking up”. The strong Indian presence on Saltoro Ridge also provides “some military depth” to Leh and Kargil, which could be threatened by the adversaries if the glacier is demilitarized.
Over the years, India has invested heavily in procuring high-quality equipment. The Army has streamlined procedures for better acclimatization, and this has helped to cut casualties. However, all that is no guarantee against the avalanche of the sort that hit the camp on Wednesday. It is said that on an average, India spends more than Rs. 6 crore a day for maintaining troops on the glacier.
Possibility of demilitarization?
Following the avalanche in Skardu which killed 150 Pakistani soldiers, there seems to be renewed talk that India should withdraw from the heights attained with so much sacrifice and at great cost to the nation. Indian Army is clear that there is no question of withdrawal of its forces unless Indian position on ground is authenticated. India has therefore insisted that joint demarcation of the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) on the ground as well as the map should be the first step to be followed by a joint verification agreement and redeployment of forces to mutually agreed positions.
Pakistan has traditionally objected to it arguing that India is the occupying party in Siachen and it should unconditionally withdraw and the pre-1984 status-quo should be maintained.
Quite unlike the terrestrial border of 8,891 km between the U.S. and Canada, which is called the “world’s largest undefended border”, there will always be deep suspicion between India and Pakistan about cross-border insurgency and terrorist activities considering the history of Pakistan Army’s invasions on Indian posts like the Kargil invasion by Pakistan in 1999.
“Trust deficit” remains the key issue. “If the Pakistan Army could surreptitiously violate the well-recognized Line of Control during the 1999 Kargil conflict, can we trust them on the AGPL?” asks a Major-General of Indian Army.
India, of course, has also gradually hardened its stand over the 13 rounds of defence secretary-level talks held since 1986. For one, unlike the earlier years, the Indian Army no longer haemorrhages heavily in the glacial heights, with better infrastructure, logistics and practices in place. For another, China’s expanding footprint in Gilgit-Baltistan of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as well as in Karakoram has heightened concerns here.
The China factor cannot be ignored in this cockpit of the world. It was not so evident in 1984 although the Karakoram Highway had been built by the Chinese by then and Pakistan had illegally ceded a portion of the territory under their control, Shaksgam to them. Today, the Chinese footprint is much larger. In its own strategic interests in the region, China would be interested in greater Pakistani control over Gilgit and Baltistan.
It is not a question of a glacier in the Himalayan heights; it is a question of India’s security. The nation cannot afford to repeat the strategic mistakes of the past — like halting our advance at Uri in 1948 or not capturing Skardu; or giving up Haji Pir in 1966; or returning 93,000 troops and territory in 1972.
A plaque at Indian Army headquarters in Jammu and Kashmir responsible for security of the Siachen sector states: “We do the difficult as a routine. The impossible may take a little longer”. And another one states “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today.”
A million, billion, zillion salutes to our soldiers who protect the glacier for the security of our country! We remain indebted, forever.