The tragic death of Lance Naik Hanumanthappa and his nine colleagues in an avalanche last February reminds us of how Siachen remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Annually, Parliament is told about expenditures and casualties (about 900 so far) but most military actions are secret and conducted far from human habitation. Their timing also contributes to Siachen staying hidden from public debates.
While Operation Meghdoot, to capture Siachen during April-May 1984, was obscured by Operation Blue Star at the Golden Temple in June that year, the battles of 1987 and 1989 were over-shadowed by a China-India military stand-off in Tawang and Indira Gandhi’s assassination. No doubt, the half dozen books on the region mainly present stories of sacrifice and valour.
Written by a journalist, Beyond NJ 9842 takes the discourse forward with verbatim, long and informal reminiscences of a large number of troops who served in Siachen. The author’s repeated trips to the region and his use of official notations, pictures of troops and their log-books, however, begs questions of copyright, unless it is a quasi-official history. Whatever be the case, his journalistic flair makes for lucid story-telling.
The story of Siachen goes back to the early 1970s. Following its bifurcation in 1971 and India’s nuclear test in 1974, Pakistan had reversed its policy on mountaineering in Siachen. It began by not just allowing expeditions but incentivising them, offering discounts and adding soldiers as liaison officers. In response, India started allowing expeditions from the late 1970s and organised covert army expeditions in the early 80s. So in the late summer of 1983, two protest notes arrived at the Northern Command headquarters cautioning India: “Withdraw beyond LoC south of line joining Point NJ 9842, Karakoram Pass NE7410 immediately.”
In the winter of 1983, India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) had picked up information about Pakistan shopping for thousands of pieces of alpine clothing from Europe, indicating plans to occupy Siachen. India pre-empted it by launching Operation Meghdoot, landing troops on Bilafond La on Saltoro ridge, west of Siachen glacier, on Friday, April 13, 1984, which was too early in winter and seen as an unlucky day for military action. It was also Baisakhi, so both sides were celebrating the festival. On the flip side, it was India’s first ‘deployment’ at such heights and casualties showed how the weather was the far bigger enemy.
Having secured Siachen, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi flew over it on June 23, and was so elated to see the tricolour fluttering atop Bilafond La that she ordered the team leader of this post to be immediately sent on an all-expenses paid week-long holiday to Europe.
Fierce battles took place in 1987, when the so-called ‘left-shoulder’ of Bilafond La, at 21,184 feet, was occupied by Pakistan. After several failed expeditions, a final assault led by Subedar Bana Singh helped to capture it back and the Army renamed it ‘Bana Post’ to celebrate the valour of the team leader.
While the benefits of occupying Siachen are largely intangible and strategic, the costs remain palpable. India prides itself on sustaining its dominance on the world’s highest battlefield, especially when Pakistan has a logistical advantage with their road heads being much closer. Also, Siachen gives India the opportunity to test the mettle of its troops and for research and development in military fields — from medicine to maintenance and warfare. Helicopters are the lifeline of Siachen and helicopter pilots here are the best in the world.
But Siachen is also known for health hazards such as hypothermia, chilblains, snow blindness, low oxygen, reduced barometric pressure, high levels of ultraviolet radiation, low humidity, cramped shelters without electricity and the constant threat of enemy fire. All these result in dulling of senses, loss of appetite and sleep disorders that make soldiers susceptible to infections and libido loss. Evacuations are dependent on weather. Helicopters do not land on all posts so casualties are often carted across crevasses.
Siachen is also described as “an environmentalist’s nightmare” where artillery guns may fire up to 1,000 shells per night, not to mention fumes from daily sorties and occasional helicopter crashes or the military legacy over the past 32 years. Every year, 1,80,000 tonnes of provisions are supplied to Ladakh, which include consumables, ammunitions, HAPO (High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema) bags, oxygen cylinders and other essentials for 150 posts atop this pristine roof of the world.
It is instructive to note that in the 1948 Karachi Agreement, both sides had agreed to leave their ceasefire line beyond NJ 9842 undefined hoping this would be followed by a plebiscite. Also, the region beyond NJ9842 was too elevated, glaciated, unexplored and had witnessed no fighting. So, in the absence of folklore or landmarks, the ceasefire line followed a directional path: ‘Chalunka (on the Shook river), Khor, thence north to the glaciers.’ Now, India interprets this to mean ‘due north’ (along the ridge line), leading to the northern tip of Saltoro Ridge, namely Indira Col, but Pakistan draws it to the northeast joining NJ 9842 to the Karakoram Pass.
Manmohan Singh aspired to turn it into a ‘mountain of peace’ and Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had proposed the demilitarisation of Siachen following the death of 130 Pakistani soldiers in a massive avalanche at Gayari glacier in April 2012. But given Pakistan’s double-speak in the past, India sees no reasons to entertain such thoughts. The Indian army today occupies commanding heights overlooking this sensitive region. The ceasefire has been successfully held since 2003. Nonetheless, part of the Indian elite is ready for demilitarisation provided Pakistan accepts the actual ground position line now — but Pakistan wants India to first return to the pre-1971 position. This is what keeps Siachen irreconcilable.
Swaran Singh is Professor for Diplomacy and Disarmament at Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi.
Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga; Nitin A. Gokhale, Bloomsbury, Rs. 699.