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The story of Siachen

With the tragic news of 150 Pakistani soldiers buried alive in an avalanche in the Pakistan base camp at Siachen, it brings back to memory the bitter truths about this conflict.

The glacier:

  • Siachen means ‘the place of wild roses’.
  • Siachen glacier is the great Himalayan watershed that demarcates central Asia from the Indian sub-continent, and that separates Pakistan from China in this region.
  • It is the world’s second longest non-polar glacier, and thus is sometimes referred to as the third pole.
  • It is 70 km long and flows from an altitude of 5750 meters to 3620 meters above sea level.

The conflict:

  • Siachen is known as the world’s highest battlefield between #India & #Pakistan. Troops are deployed at elevations of up to 6,700 metres (22,000 feet) at minus 60 degrees C.
  • Siachen conflict began in 1984 when both India and Pakistan, began sending mountaineers, in an attempt to lay their claims over the area. Several skirmishes took place till 2003 when a cease fire was declared.
  • The roots of the conflict over Siachen lie in the non-demarcations on the map northward to the China boundary beyond NJ9842, which is the line’s “dead end” in the India-Pakistan line of control agreement.
  • The 1949 Karachi agreement and the 1972 Simla agreement presumed that it was not feasible for human habitation to survive north of NJ9842.
  • UN officials presumed there would be no dispute between India and Pakistan over such a cold and barren icy wasteland.
  • The contentious area is only 900 square miles (2,300 km2)
  • Indians control the length and heights of the glacier including the three passes, while the Pakistanis control the glacial valley. As a result, Pakistanis cannot climb up, and Indians cannot come down.
  • Together, the two nations have about 150 manned outposts along the glacier, with some 3,000 troops each.
  • Over 2,000 Pakistani & 4,000 Indian soldiers have died at Siachen conflict. More soldiers have died or handicapped from frost bites, cold and avalanche i.e. harsh weather than combat.
  • Official annual figures for maintaining these outposts are put at $300 and $200 million for India and Pakistan respectively.

The strategic importance:

No matter what India and Pakistan may claim about its strategic importance, Dr. Stephen Cohen, a well-known and respected Washington-based South Asia analyst, considers,

“Siachen conflict is a fight between two bald men over a comb.”

In his view, “Siachen… is not militarily important… They (Indian and Pakistani armies) are there for purely psychological reasons, testing each other’s ‘will’.”

The talks for demilitarisation of Siachen did take place between India and Pakistan in May 2011, but fialed to reach any agreement.

The truth remains that this stretch of icy wasteland holds no political or economic importance to the billion and a half residing on both sides of the border.

Instead of being a battle ground, Siachen should be demilitarized, and to evade the unresolved dispute of AGPL ( actual ground position line) the area could be seen as a ‘common ground’ precious enough to study and conserve the glacier which is under threat due to the climate change. This can easily stand as a symbolic Peace Park. And the billions of rupees used to maintain its cost as outpost for armies should be directed at improvement of the plight of the impoverished peoples on both sides.

Or better still let ordinary youth from both sides of the border play kabaddi in snow.


Comments on: "The story of Siachen" (17)

  1. A very concise and good write up. As a neutral observer, by looking at the LOC progression in the map, the Siachen triangle (that India captured in 1984) should belong to the other side.
    Then again whole of Kashmir does not belong to neither India or Pakistan:-)

    • I don’t care to which side this moving river of ice belongs to, but it should be demilitarized, and the waste of human & economic resources and environment should stop. Let this place be the cooool peace frontier for both sides :). Sounds better 🙂 ?


  2. Some other interesting details:

    1. According to careful estimates by Pakistani defence experts, to maintain three battalions at the icy wasteland of Siachen, Islamabad spends Rs. 15 million a day, which makes Rs. 450 million a month and Rs. 5.4 billion a year.

    2.The deployment of seven battalions at the Glacier costs India Rs. 50 million a day, Rs. 1.5 billion a month and Rs. 30 billion a year.

    3.The cost of a loaf of bread that would be less than a rupee in the Kashmir Valley is estimated by the Times of India to be worth Rs10,000 (US$217) by the time it reaches Indian soldiers on Siachen.

    4.Over a period of 25 years, the presence of thousands of troops in the vicinity of the glacier has caused severe environmental degradation of an ecosystem already affected by climate change. Thousands of tonnes of military garbage and human waste lie dumped in the area. About 200 tonnes of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere each day due to burning of fuel for cooking, warming and transportation of men and material by land and air.

    5. Though the talks remain inconclusive, it is heartening that both Indian and Pakistani members reportedly questioned the terrible waste of human lives in a so-called war of prestige and urged that it must be brought to an end.

  3. In the article below, Colonel Pavan Nair, a retired from Indian Army comes down hard on the media as well as the civil society for not doing their bit to bring to tragedy of Siachen on the public radar. Both the media and civil society, he says, have played a limited role in debating the issue, except to state the official position and in some cases bring out the difficult conditions faced by the soldiers.

    A must read ( or at least the second last and the last para for the role of civil society & media on both sides) :

    Click to access 13281.pdf

    The last sentence of the article concludes thus:

    “Siachen is not worth another dead
    soldier, it never was. Siachen and only
    Siachen has the ability to get sorted out
    without any impediment and without
    being linked to the other part of J&K.”

  4. Hi ilmanfasih. I really enjoyed reading this informative post. I definitely learned something I was previously unaware of. The dizzy heights and the men who have to patrol there (without good reason, as is any conflict) is a fascinating story.

  5. Around 135 pak troops were hit by an avalanche in the Gyari Sector of Siachen. The rescue attempts are underway. The tragedy is a grim reminder of the dangers associated with the conflict on one of the highest battlefields of the world. The massive slide is a consequence of freakish seismic activity and seasonal variations that are a function of global warming. This part of Gilgit-Baltistan is also called Little Tibet. The environmental degradation due to human activity i.e artillery shelling,small arms fire, burning of stoves and carving of tracks/billets etc have caused significant damage to the Siachen environment resulting in increased frequency of snow slides and opening of crevasses. The weathering activity has a link with the geographical activity in the past. 20 million years ago Indian and Eurasian plates collided that resulted in the creation of the ‘Roof of the Earth” including K-2,Nanga Parbat,Rakaposhi,Gasharbrum and Mount Everest. The youngest mountains of the world are still growing as a consequence of the tectonic movement of the plates 20 million years ago. Such is the locale of this bloody conflict that tests the limits of the human endurance while just trying to survive at heights averaging 22000-24000 feet. Pulmunory and brain odema are the common maladies suffered by all those remaining on those heights for over thrre months alongwith a temporary loss of memory. The Gyari sector where the avalanche occured was a safe place for deployment and the slide could have only been trigerred as a freakish phenomenon increasingly evident due to global warming. The slide triggered upstream of Hunza resulting in creation of Attabad Lake blocking the Gilgit-Khunjrab road is a reminder of environmental freakishness. The Siachen Conflict that continually exacts a heavy toll on Indian as well as Pakistani side ironically alongwith Sir Creek is amenable to solution but despite coming close to a resolution has been scuttled each time by Indian Army. It is time both countries transcended the narrow military centric reasoning while parleying for a peaceful solution to the intractable conflict.

  6. 1 – the map that shows how it is on the ground.

    2 – while the environment and cost, liberty and aggression may be factors for the ‘peace activists’ the reality has to be seen in the overall geo-strategic-political-military perspective.

    3 – both countries have had discussions on the issue of demilitarizing the area, which remain inconclusive.

    4 – till such time that there is some political will to resolve the major issues facing the country, siachen, sir creek, wullhar barrage, nelum-jehlum, chenab water, and similar issue will keep being irritants.

    5 – we cannot give or people gas, water, electricity and cannot build kalabagh dam or resolve the drones, NATO supplies and such, siachen is a far cry.

  7. An appeal from National Geographic : Siachen Glacier Tragedy : An appeal to Singh & Zardari by Saleem Ali >>

  8. An excellent film on Siachen Glacier and it’s politicization:
    What a plunder of human lives, money & environment it is!

  9. If this is just a glacier, no significance at all, then why pakistan is spending so much on it? let india do whatever they want, spend crazy amount of money, why pakistan is not calling its troops back? If pakistan really thinks theres no significance in it? the TRUTH is only pakistan is calling for demelitarization, not INDIA. India has experience of pakistani betrayal in the case of Kargil. India will never trust pakistan on siachen case now onwards. the reason pakistan is crying for demelitarization is because of the fact they know that Siachen is strategically important and all major strategic glacier are under indian control and theres no way they can win them. this call for demilitarization is not call for peace, its a cry from weak..

  10. ilmanafasih, to my untrained, unstrategic, and common-sensical eye, your recommendation and that of a lot of others on this post appears perfect. Just demilitarize the thing, and move on.

    However, I’ve always had a question for someone from the other side (I’m Indian as my name would suggest). In India, we’ve always been told (and read) that the 1949 and 1972 agreements didn’t fully demarcate the line of control, but DID SAY that the LOC continues North of Point NJ9842 (“thence north to the glacier”). Unless this itself is debatable, I’d really like to know the Pakistani view point on why the Glacier should lie inside Pakistan’s territory given it is to the West of where the line would run if you extended the LOC northwards.

    Note that I do realise the truth ultimately is relative. But what I would like to understand is both the perspectives minus the jingoism and melodrama that usually and unfortunately finds its way into all discussions around Kashmir.

    • Sorry I meant, East…”I’d really like to know the Pakistani view point…… is to the EAST of where the line would run if you extended the LOC northwards.

  11. Use of chemicals in blasting, oil pipeline & wastes,..etc by Indian soldiers in the glacier has reduced & polluted water of Nubra river falling down in Nubra Valley of 13,000 poor Buddhist inhabitants, making lives of people & < 50 red & beautiful two humped Bactrian camels in the area , a hell. The rare species of them is facing fast extinction, none cares. 99.99 % Indians don't even know that such camels exist in any place within Indian control. People will migrate to other areas but camels will die elsewhere. They were in hundreds earlier.


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