“Dread the day when those who are defending the borders either refuse to defend or train their guns on those who are out to criticize them only to humiliate them. Can a single politician spend a week with these gallant soldiers on those heights or can a single politician send his son to fight as a soldier in these conditions? I bet not.

Siachen is a challenge only the brave and patriots can face. Shame on those who are out to appease and please the enemy by humiliating our gallant soldiers and officers.” Raja Mujtaba

By S. M. Hali

The Siachen theatre of war is the world’s highest battlefield, which continues to bleed both Pakistan and India since 1984. The genesis of the conflict is embedded in the unresolved Kashmir dispute, a legacy of the British Empire, which partitioned India in August 1947 but left the fate of Kashmir undecided. Resultantly, India and Pakistan have gone to war in 1948, 1965, 1971 and faced a limited conflict in 1999 over Kargil. The United Nations-supervised Cease Fire Line (CFL) of 1949 extended from the international border between India and Pakistan near Chhamb in Jammu and Kashmir in a rough arc that ran nearly 800 km north and then northeastwards to a point, NJ9842, nearly 20 km north of the Shyok river in the Chulung group of mountains of the Saltoro range. Since the territory beyond this point witnessed no military activity and appeared inaccessible, no attempt was made at that time to extend the CFL beyond NJ 9842 to the Chinese border. At least a 65-km stretch was left undelineated. Since 1949, mountaineering and trekking expeditions to the Siachen area routinely applied for, and obtained authorization by the government of Pakistan. US and British maps and atlases including the Britannica Atlas, the National Geographic Society’s Atlas of the World, The Times Atlas of the World, and the University of Chicago’s Historical Atlas of South Asia—show the Cease Fire Line/Line of Control running from NJ 9842 in a straight line northeastwards to the Karakoram Pass on the Chinese border, with the Siachen Glacier clearly inside Pakistan. 

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On April 13, 1984, Indian Army surreptitiously launched “Operation Meghdoot” (cold messenger) and occupied positions overlooking key passes in the Saltoro Range. Learning of the occupation, Pakistan Army tried to wrest control and launched attacks. Being at relatively lower altitudes, it was at a handicap and could not retake the positions, but it has maintained a military presence since, occasionally exchanging fire and ensuring that the Indians do not advance any further.

In the last 28 years, about 5000 soldiers have laid down their lives in defending their respective positions, nearly 1,000 Pakistani and 4,000 Indians. The major toll has been due to inclement weather and hostile terrain. Avalanches and landslides wipe out whole units; the air is so thin that it is nearly devoid of oxygen causing pulmonary and/or cerebral Edema. Sudden blizzards can bury shelters and field artillery in a matter of minutes; frostbites may lead to amputation of limbs. Reduced fluid intake can lead to kidney failure. The enemy is hard to see in the crags and craters in the vast whiteness—and harder to hit. Rifles must be thawed repeatedly over kerosene stoves, and machine guns need to be primed with boiling water. At altitudes of 18,000 feet, the trajectory of mortar shells is unpredictable due to rarified air and sudden gusts of wind. Yet it is the terrain, which is more hostile than the enemy.

On April 15, 2003, India lost 20 soldiers, including a JCO, who got buried alive in the snow at Malan in the Northern Glacier. While on April 7, 2012, a massive avalanche struck Pakistan Army’s Battalion Headquarters at Gayari. Located in a valley between two peaks at 4,572 metres (15,000 feet) above sea level, the Gayari base is a vital supply hub for the logistic support of troops located in even more remote bases. When the avalanche struck, the base was occupied by soldiers of the 6th Northern Light Infantry battalion, a unit "trained in mountain operations". Captain Kernal Sher Khan and Havaldar Lalak Jan Shaheed, recipients of the Nishan-e-Haider, Pakistan’s highest award for valour are proud sons of this brave unit.  Avalanches are uncommon in the area of Gayari; due to the low risk, Gayari was a major complex and housed many more soldiers than other bases in Siachen.

  Pakistan being shrouded

Pakistan Army rushed rescue teams to the location while a US team deployed in neighbouring Afghanistan and German and Swiss snow rescue specialists flew in to recover the trapped soldiers. Inclement weather, snowstorms and raging blizzards hampered the operation. As the window of opportunity to rescue anyone alive narrowed, the whole nation prayed for its valiant sons, who have never demurred in defending the nation through land, sea or air; over mountains, deserts and vales; through earthquakes and floods. Now these brave defenders of Pakistan needed help but more so their near and dear ones required solace and courage to face the calamity.

The catastrophe of Gayari has brought international focus on the plight of the two opposing armies, locked eyeball to eyeball in a frosty standoff, slowly depleting the scarce resources of the two impoverished nations. According to careful estimates by defence analysts, Pakistan spends approximately 60 million Dollars annually to maintain three battalions at the Siachen Glacier, while on the other hand, the deployment of seven battalions at the Glacier costs India One Billion US Dollars a year. Lieutenant General M. L. Chibber (Retd.) of the Indian Army, who was responsible for Siachen in 1978 and retired in 1985, is quoted by Barry Bearak in his article: ‘India and Pakistan: Frozen in Fury on the Roof of the World’, published in The New York Times of May 23, 1999, comments: “No one had ever carried out military operations at these altitudes and temperatures, so we figured after the summer ended, we’d have to pull out. But with the first snows, we realized it was possible to stay up there all winter. If we left, the Pakistanis would take the glacier and then we’d never get it back.” Today Gen Chibber lectures about the futility of the war.

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Pakistan has been proposing a drawdown of troops from the Siachen by both India and Pakistan but the Indian Army’s egotism has been the stumbling block. Prudence dictates that both sides agree to demilitarize Siachen and let the governments delineate the region based on principles and ethics.  If the Siachen front is closed, the sacrifice of the135 at Gayari would not have been in vain.