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The Rediff Special/ Amberish K Diwanji
What Siachen is all about
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
The origin of Siachen trouble is somewhat ironic: The glacier is so high up in the mountains that Indian and Pakistani officials decided to leave it alone. They figured drawing a boundary line on a massive sheet of ice was meaningless.
This was 1949, right after the first Indo-Pak war over Kashmir. The same policy dominated the Simla Agreement, 1972.
"The area was completely uninhabited. We therefore left it as it was," said former foreign secretary J N Dixit.
However, the tranquillity of the region, where only the wind could be heard howling across the mighty mountains that almost touch the sky, was to change soon. The Chinese decided to build the Karakoram highway across the Karakoram mountains (part of the Himalayas) on their side, passing very close to the glacier. Also, significant advances in fibre technology made it possible for humans to scale these high mountains. When people started evincing interest in climbing the ranges, Pakistan decided to take them to Siachen.
It was this that apparently awakened Indian officials. Between 1974 and 1978, Pakistan organised several expeditions of foreigners to Siachen. The idea clearly was to create the impression that the glacier was part of Pakistani territory (certain US tourist maps show Siachen as Pak territory).
In return, India began to regularly despatch troops to patrol the region, especially in the summer months when trekking expeditions occurred.
The situation changed in August 1983. Pakistan claimed the glacier as its territory. Indian officials believed that Islamabad was preparing to capture it. However, with winter setting in, Pakistani troops were unable to take over the passes to the glacier. Then, in April 1984, in a dramatic operation, Indian troops of the crack Kumaon regiment were air dropped into the area. They established pickets at strategic points, especially at the entry to the glacier. Pakistan has since been reduced to trying to capture it at lower heights, in vain.
Then on, firing artillery at each other has become a regular habit for both the armies.
"The Siachen glacier has significant strategic value to India," said retired lieutenant general J S Aurora, "because if Pakistan gets on top of it, they will overlook the entire Ladakh region and beyond. Their presence would make movement of traffic in the region below very difficult for India."
One only has to read the recent reports of the almost incessant firing on Kargil, which has made life a virtual hell for the locals, to realise why India is extremely loath to give up the area.
The highest battlefield in the world, at over 6,000 metres (Mount Everest is 8,840 metres), the glacier is one of the most expensive to retain too. India reportedly spends Rs 10 million per day on keeping men at the high altitude. It is also reported that she loses five men every two days, not to Pakistani firing but to the biting cold. Frostbite is part of life, snow blindness never too far.
Troops are also known to suffer from psychological disorders, living under such stressful conditions.
Food, medical supply, men and equipment are ferried by air. To cut down costs, India is planning to build a road to the glacier, which will be both difficult to execute and maintain. Apparently, the 1,000 km Karakoram highway cost about 1,000 lives.
India and Pakistan have twice come close to resolving the dispute, in 1989 and 1992, but never managed to actually do so. Reason: differences in approach. One factor was whether the boundary should be demarcated or the troops pulled out first. Proposals have been made to pull back troops, but the question how much was not settled.
Friday, Indian and Pakistani officials meet once again to try and bring the troops back from the cold.
"Ultimately, Siachen is only part of the entire range of Indo-Pak disagreements, especially over Kashmir," said Lt General Aurora, "and neither side wants to concede anything."
Dixit feels that the dispute should be resolved in stages: "Both sides should move back and sign a standstill agreement not to go up again. Then we can work towards a solution." He doesn't expect any breakthrough in the current talks.
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