It’s been an average week in the crazy land of our neighbor next door. More of the same toxic Allah-based politics, jingoistic media and army, ranting mullahs, runaway terrorism, deeper than ocean friendship with Comrade Xi Jinping, and intrinsic hostility to India. But after the nodding handshake between Modi and Nawaz Sharif in Ufa, there is a slight change. For the first time, there is no mention of Kashmir or its political reincarnation Siachen.
However, that does not mean that the obsessive Pakistani bid for demilitarizing Siachen or harping on the peace dividend from the “Mountain of Peace”, is losing steam. For tactical reasons, it is now put on a silent mode, yet ready to be turned to the right pitch when India has a pliable leader like Manmohan Singh (MMS) or the straw headed Gujral. As long as India is in the driving seat in Siachen occupying heights dominating the entire region, the Pakistani army will get no sleep.
The guns in the freezing mountains have been silent for quite some time. Since 2003, there has been a cease fire which has been adhered to. The devastating avalanche that killed about 140 Pakistani troops stationed at Gyari in April 2012, has further deterred their ardor. Also since Modi is no MMS, the rhetoric has also vanished. But it will show up in one form or another in the never ending peace talks which brings anything but peace.
Call it luck, or call it the hand of fate, India acquired those commanding heights not only through a slew of audaciously daring men, but also due to some carelessness on the Pakistani side.
It all began as always with a line on the map. A line that was defined up to a map coordinate NJ9842 in the line of control (LOC), as per the Simla agreement. Beyond NJ9842, the LOC was defined as “north to the glaciers” and did not specify which nation would control it. In July 1972 when the Simla agreement was signed, no one seemed to be interested in the glaciers north of NJ9842 known as the Siachen glaciers, a freezing wasteland blanketed with ice through eternity. Pakistanis interpreted the LOC beyond NJ9842 as veering North and East towards the Karakoram pass which would put Siachen in Pakistani territory, whereas India interpreted it literally as going upwards towards the North and slightly West which would put Siachen within India’s territory. The different interpretations have contributed to the root of the problem.
Until 1984, neither Pakistan nor India had any presence in the forbidding heights. However, in the 70’s and early 80’s Pakistan started allowing mountaineering expeditions to the Siachen region from the Pakistani side of the glacier with the assistance of the Pakistani army. Operating on the principle that “possession is nine-tenths of the law,” Pakistan was the first to use oropolitics (mountaineering with a political motive) to legitimize its claims by promoting tourism and fostering the impression that this was Pakistani territory. And it seemed to work. A U.S drawn map of Northern Kashmir showed a large chunk of the Eastern Karakoram including the Siachen Glacier as part of Pakistan.
At that time, a German mountaineer approached Colonel Narendra “Bull” Kumar, the commanding officer of the Indian Army’s High Altitude Warfare School with the U.S drawn map to undertake an exploration to the snout of the glacier. The Colonel, a mountaineering juggernaut, immediately spotted the cartographic aggression. Nicknamed “Bull” for his thick muscular neck, Col. Kumar also had the instincts of the bull to charge relentlessly into whatever he does. “I bought the German’s map and sent it straight to the Director General of military operations,” says Kumar. “I said I would organize an expedition to the area to correct the map.”
He sought and obtained permission for a counter expedition to the inhospitable and remote glacier in 1978. The daring colonel knew he was heading into uncharted territory, along with plenty of challenges due to arctic like weather approaching temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Centigrade, whipped by frenzied winds at 50 to 60 miles per hour. The Siachen is the world’s largest non-polar glacier and is often known as the third pole. The stunning glacier, as treacherous as it’s beautiful, can nevertheless daze, numb and kill. Icy winds and howling blizzards can bury artillery in a minute, lack of oxygen can set hearts racing at a galloping speed, and frostbite can chew its way through fingers, toes and limbs. Traversing, exploring and mapping this vast expanse of towering mountains with dizzying heights of over 22000 feet, is an extraordinary challenge even for the incredible man of the mountains. And trudging through acres of seemingly endless white terrain of gaping crevasses, sudden avalanches, and slippery ledges, where even walking is a strain, certainly required a “bull” of a man.
“Our equipment wasn’t the best, we didn’t have any maps,” recalls the colonel. We were going in blind and all we had was a rough idea of the peaks which had been named by the British decades ago.” Yet dauntless and determined, Colonel Kumar led the expedition of brave men bound to each other by thick ropes, as they trekked across the harsh terrain for several weeks. At last there was success. Colonel Kumar reached Sia Kangri peak which at a height of 25,350 feet offers a majestic view of the Siachen glacier. But there was a surprise. In their relentless efforts to claim the whole glacier, Pakistani military had facilitated a Japanese expedition, who were already camped in those heights. This gave an urgency to the Indian expedition to redouble their efforts to make a claim before the Pakistani army established a military base and developed capabilities to defend the heights. After promptly notifying the army headquarters, the team lost no time and went from peak to peak, avoiding avalanches and crevasses to chart the area.
In the year 1981, the enterprising colonel was given permission to map the entire glacier all the way up to the Chinese border. The fantastic journey throughout the glacial biosphere and its enduring images was captured in an illuminating write up by Col. Kumar in the popular Illustrated Weekly of India read by millions. The enterprising colonel lost four toes to frostbite, but his stupendous efforts were not in vain. Kumar’s maps, films, explanations, videos was crucial in Operation Meghdoot conducted in 1984 to plant the Indian flag in Siachen. A caption in the outlook magazine says it all, “One army man was the rock India built its Siachen castle on.”
Needless to say, Pakistan was on edge after the article made its appearance as it consolidated India’s claim by de facto exploration of the glacier. It further spurred the Pakistani army to claim the heights through troop deployment.
Here is where Fortuna, the Roman Goddess of luck and fate, played a key part. Islamabad went shopping for specialized mountain gear and clothing in London. It turned out that Indians too bought winter gear from the same supplier. The Indians came to know about the shopping spree of the Pakistanis and as a result, the Indian army acted swiftly to get a head start in the race to reach the crucial heights. For in this land of icy blizzards, whoever reaches the top first, gets to keep the tactical advantage of height and mow down the enemy crawling up on slippery slopes. A retired Pakistani colonel later admitted they had blundered by using the same supplier as the Indians.
The rest is History. The head start of one week allowed India to launch operation Meghdoot on April 13, 1984 to claim Siachen ahead of the Pakistanis by about 4 days. It was led by the then Lieutenant General Prem Nath Hoon, the General officer commanding the 15 corps in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. It was a brilliant strategy to airlift platoons of soldiers and place them at crucial passes and peaks. The Indian Air Force (IAF) airlifted troops, supplies, and rations to high altitude airfields using Il-76, An-12 and An-32 and from there using Mi-17, Mi-8 and HAL Chetak helicopters to carry provisions and personnel to the East of the hitherto unscaled peaks.
Major R.S Sandhu’s unit was the first to establish positions on the heights of the glacier. Captain Sanjay Kulkarni secured the Bilafond La at 18,500 feet, and Captain P.V Yadav secured the remaining heights of the Saltoro Ridge. By April 13, approximately 300 Indian troops were hanging tough into the critical peaks and passes of the glacier. When the Pakistani troops started their operations, they found to their dismay that the Indian troops had already occupied all the commanding heights of the Saltoro Ridge west of the Siachen Glacier and all the major mountain passes of Sia La, and Bilafond La. The third pass Gyong La came to India’s control in 1987.
Not surprisingly, the Pakistani army is unable to accept India’s dominance in Siachen. They have mounted several operations to wrest control from India. In 1987, Brigadier General Pervez Musharaff (who later became President of Pakistan) led an all-out assault to reclaim the lost heights with little success. Later on that year, they lost a major Pakistani post, the “Quaid” which was renamed “Bana Post” in honor of Bana Singh who captured the feature after a harrowing climb of 1500 feet of icy wall, followed by a daring attack on the enemy. Bana post is the highest battlefield post in the world today at a height of 22,143 feet above sea level. In 1999, Kargil operations was launched under the assumption that India would be forced to give up Siachen. Since Kargil would ensure control of National Highway 1 which supplies Ladakh and hence also Siachen which is the northern most part of Ladakh, the Pakistanis believed that India would give up Siachen in return for Kargil. Instead, they were just pushed out.
Today India controls all 70 km of the Siachen glacier and all of its tributary glaciers, as well as three main passes of the Saltoro ridge immediately west of the glacier – Sia La, and Bilafond La and Gyong La. According to a TIME magazine article, India gained over 1000 square miles of territory. The Pakistanis could only manage to hang on to the lower level slopes and foothills west of the Saltoro Ridge in spite of having an easier ground accessible routes to the area. To honor Colonel Kumar whose maps functioned as a vital compass in the uncharted terrain, one of the key Indian installation in Siachen today is named Kumar Base – a fitting tribute to the invincible man whose invaluable assistance established India’s footprints in Siachen.
In spite of such heroism and brilliant military achievements, Siachen is virtually unknown and underreported. This could happen only in India where the media ignores the heroism of its soldiers and the nation pauperizes their families. In contrast the world’s entertainment capital, Hollywood, produces several movies covering their heroes such as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Colonel Patton, the heroes of World War 2, battle of Iwo Jima, civil war, Indian wars, Vietnam war, Korean war, the holocaust and endless documentaries about their History going all the way back to Sir Arthur and the knights of the round table, the Renaissance and middle ages. In comparison, the escapism of Bollywood in not making a single movie on Siachen or exploration of Colonel Kumar or the mind boggling heroism of Bana Singh is a criminal conspiracy perpetuated with the equally criminal Congress to deprive Indians of national awareness, a sense of nationhood and civic sense. The media’s criminal negligence has fostered a lost generation with total amnesia for their heritage which has been deliberately given a lower value as compared to the West. It rests upon the shoulders of individuals to become citizen journalists to plug the ever expanding gap.
It is due to such colossal ignorance that the Congress gets away by sleeping with the enemy. The “brilliant” MMS was very willing to hand over Siachen to Pakistan in a platter. The brainwashed peace brigade was harping on the degradation of the environment because of India’s military’s presence, wolves in secular clothing were willing to push for a joint control of the area with Pakistan, and true to being clones of the dynasty, Track-2 experts were angling for an international peace keeping operation. The newspapers and fifth column journalists chipped in with their sage-like wisdom, “as to how the money could be better spent on infrastructure such as roads and bridges.” None of the so called peace mafia could envision that without the defense of commanding heights, the enemy can easily dislodge and wash away cities, roads, and the noisy pollution of self-styled “intellectuals.”
And Pakistan smiled. What they failed to achieve militarily, they could obtain very easily by playing on the fault lines of Indian society - eternal hankering for an elusive Gandhian peace, some brownie points on good behavior justified by a Nobel peace prize bestowed on the fawning MMS, and obtaining crumbs of goodwill by breaking bread with the foxy enemy. Well, they stopped all their wily smiles, when the army stepped in and simply stated that the blood of around 900 jawans who died in Siachen cannot be etched out of existence, that technology has reduced the costs to men and material in Siachen, and that Pakistan cannot be trusted especially after Kargil when vacating such dominating heights would be automatically taken over by them in one form or another. Moreover China and America, their eternal allies in undermining India, will ensure that India does not retaliate and get the intruders out of Siachen. The nation should be grateful for such sound sense from the Army, an oasis of sanity in the madness of Delhi.
Siachen, ironically meaning “land of abundant roses” in the Balti language, is also known for being the highest battlefield in the world. In the current geopolitical situation, it is a strategic golden goose whose value keeps increasing year by year. First and foremost is that Geographically, Siachen denies Pakistan and China from linking up and menacing Ladakh. Second, it is a source for the 80 km long Nubra river, a tributary of the Shyok which is part of the mighty Indus which feeds the largest irrigation system in the world. Keeping the source of such rivers is a strategic necessity. Third, the glacier is the world’s largest reservoir of fresh water – which in the future is going to be a critical resource especially in water-starved South Asia. Fourth, it is an area rich in natural resources including hydrocarbons, oils, metals, precious stones and minerals whose value increases day by day. Finally, maintaining and operating troops in Siachen has enhanced India’s capability for high altitude and mountain warfare in addition to developing technical expertise for supplying food, medicines, airlifting the wounded, and the development of military hardware and software. As events have proven, being prepared for war is the best way to ensure peace.
According to Nitin A Gokhale, the author of “Beyond NJ9842, the Siachen Saga,” it takes about one crore a day for India to operate a base at the heights of Siachen which is a fraction of the current defense budget of around 80000 crores. He also reiterates that the real significance of holding on to the glacier lies in India preventing any physical link up between China and Pakistan on the northern borders in the future, however inconceivable it may be at the moment.
In addition, during the past 30 years, essential infrastructure has been built up, thus further reducing the costs bringing it on par with any other high altitude areas in Jammu and Kashmir. There are motorable roads right up to the base camp and the climb from 13000 to 18000 feet is gradual and not as steep as in the mountains of Kargil. Snow mobiles operate with considerable ease even in the winter. The high attrition rates due to the biting cold have also come down compared to the early years of the campaign. Logistics have improved considerably. The old base camp was a few prefabricated buildings and a helipad. Today the Indian base camp has barracks, helipads, supply sheds, satellite dishes, dental clinics, internet access, dosa stands, accommodations for visitors and VIPs, hospital and Hindu shrines. Jawans can watch their favorite soap operas on TV. Besides, the doctors provide expertise in high altitude medicine, the helicopter pilots have become adroit at skirting the cliffs, solar panels are affixed to some igloos, a pipeline to produce kerosene and aviation fuel is being completed, a ski lift is used to ferry soldiers across the canyons, a pulley system has begun to hoist supplies up the mountainsides, and bacteria are eating human waste in machines called biodigesters developed by the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO).
The world’s highest helipad has been built by the army at Point Sonam about 21000 feet above the sea level to supply its troops. Earlier problems due to reinforcing or evacuating from high ridge altitudes led India to develop the Dhruv Mk III helicopter powered by the Shakti engine which was tested on the Sonam post, the highest permanently manned post in the world. The world’s highest telephone booth is also on the glacier. If India had given up on Siachen all of these capabilities would not have been acquired. As far as the environment goes, the Indian Army’s “Green Siachen, Clean Siachen,” campaign to airlift garbage from the glacier in addition to the use of biodigesters to remove biodegradable waste should satisfy the Environmental warriors on a wild goose chase to evict Indians from the Siachen.
All of this nullifies the dubious postulate put forth by Pakistan that the costs of Siachen merit it being made a peace park. The litany of chorus from their international backers have also contributed to the symphony. “This is like a struggle of two bald men over a comb,” says Stephen P. Cohen of the Brookings Institution. “Siachen is the epitome of the worst aspects of the relationship. These are two countries that are paired on a road to Oslo or Hiroshima, and at this point it could go either way.” Some journalists echo the leading song and describe it as a futile war. If holding on to barren Siachen is futile, one can only wonder if the learned journalist would be as dismissive if Russia attacked a barren chunk of land in Alaska, or would he consider Siachen to be more futile than the U.S campaign in Iraq?
In spite of all the advantages of holding on to Siachen, India has agreed to vacate the heights if Pakistan authenticates the current deployments on the map, also called the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) which Pakistan is unwilling to do. The Indian position has hardened since the Kargill operations, and the army is not willing to vacate without iron clad guarantees.
There is bound to be pressure on India especially from the Americans since they want out of Afghanistan and are dependent on the slippery Pakistanis to get them out of the hole. They will use their mediating powers using the age old leverage of technology transfer, high tech sales, trade and tariffs to ensure that India makes peace with Pakistan. India should insist that Siachen can be on the table once the anti-India terrorists spawning machine are shut down permanently, along with repatriating the most wanted criminals to India. And that is where the absence of peace between the countries lie – in the festering violence of Islamabad, not in the tranquil silence of Siachen.
The nation has made several strategic mistakes in the past – like halting the Indian army’s advance in Baltistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir in 1948, giving up on Haji Pir pass in 1966, and returning 93000 troops and territory in 1972 without settling the Kashmir issue on a permanent basis. Vacating Siachen would concede dominating heights to Pakistan which would ensure loss of Ladakh, and slowly Jammu and Kashmir and the ability to fight high altitude warfare crippling India’s defense for a long time.
It is now over 30 years since the war began but the cold war in Siachen has not ended. Kept alive by Pakistani obsession with a conniving nod from China, it festers on. But India has managed to bring the costs and the attrition rate to a comfortable level. Militarily it is secure but the peaceniks may open the backdoor by which the enemy can pour in.
It would help if the political class make a trip to the base camp and get renewed by the patriotic zeal which conquered the icy behemoth of Siachen and pay homage to the martyrs who gave their life so we all can have a sunny tomorrow. Let them renew their lagging spirits with the same words that rest a soldier’s soul -
Quartered in snow,
silent to remain,
when the bugle calls,
they shall rise and march again.