The February 3 avalanche on the Siachen glacier >that buried 10 Indian Army soldiers is a stark reminder to both India and Pakistan about the cost of military deployment in such inhospitable territory. The bodies of most soldiers of the 19 Madras Regiment are yet to be recovered from the post on the northern part of the glacier, at a height of 19,600 feet. This was not an isolated incident but part of a growing trend in that region, as global warming dramatically affects the glacier. Last month, four soldiers of 3 Ladakh Scouts were killed when an avalanche hit a patrol party in the Ladakh region, not very far from the site of the present tragedy. Avalanches are a threat not just to Indian soldiers, but also to the Pakistani troops. In April 2012, in the Gayari sector, 129 soldiers of the 6th Northern Light Infantry of the Pakistani military and 11 civilian contractors >were buried by a massive avalanche . It is not just avalanches; the challenging terrain of the glacier and its surroundings as a whole have been regularly claiming lives. According to reliable estimates, over 2,000 soldiers from both sides have died on the Siachen glacier since 1984, when India beat Pakistan by a few days to occupy many of the strategic locations on the glacier.
Ever since the two militaries began a costly engagement on the glacier, there have been numerous efforts by both countries to find a way to demilitarise the glacier. In June 1989, they came very close to clinching a final deal. The two sides had agreed to “work towards a comprehensive settlement, based on redeployment of forces to reduce the chance of conflict, avoidance of the use of force and the determination of future positions on the ground so as to conform with the Shimla Agreement and to ensure durable peace in the Siachen area”. Ever since then, India and Pakistan have tried diplomatically to find a way to demilitarise the region. However, a lack of political will on both sides has meant that the status quo holds, and soldiers continue to pay a very high price in that remote snowy outpost. India has in the past suggested delineation of the Line of Control north of NJ 9842, redeployment of troops on both sides to agreed positions after demarcating their existing positions, a zone of disengagement, and a monitoring mechanism to maintain the peace. Given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal initiative to visit Lahore on Christmas day and to push forward peace with Pakistan, it would only be the next logical step to look at the low-hanging fruits in bilateral issues to build trust. The demilitarisation of Siachen is definitely doable. This is not only because it is diplomatically possible, but also because there is a critical mass of opinion in both India and Pakistan that neither can sacrifice, or put in harm’s way, so many lives on the inhospitable glacier. If the initiative is not seized by both sides now, the vagaries of nature will continue to exact a toll on forces deployed in Siachen, even if peace holds.