Siachen Glacier: Pristine beauty, and the war at the top of the world

Time Magazine: War at the Top of the World

Siachen Area Kashmir Map
  • In spite of the severe climate, the word `Siachen` ironically means `the place of wild roses`.
  • The glacier is the highest battleground on Earth, where India and Pakistan have fought intermittently since 1984.
  • Siachen is the world's largest non-polar glacier, and thus is sometimes referred to as the third pole.

T h e S i a c h e n G l a c i e r is located in the East Karakoram/Himalaya, at approximately 35.5 N 76.9 E. It is one of the five largest glaciers in the Karakoram, situated at an average altitude of 5,400 meters (~17,700 feet) above sea level. Most of the Siachen Glacier as is the LoC, a hotly contested territory between Pakistan and India.

The roots of the conflict over Siachen (the place of roses) lie in the non-demarcations on the western side on the map beyond NJ9842. The 1949 Karachi agreement and the 1972 Simla agreement presumed that it was not feasible for human habitation to survive north of NJ9842. Piror to 1984 neither India nor Pakistan had any permanent presence in the area.


The battle over Siachen May 12, 2006 - It?s a huge drain on their economies, it takes lives of those who are deployed to guard it, it means a lot of tension around for India and for Pakistan as well. The question is why? Hafizullah Shiekh writes

Siachen has witnessed sporadic armed clashes between India and Pakistani forces since April,1 1984 when the Indian army carried out a clandestine operation code-named ?Meghdoot? and established permanent posts at the Siachen glacier, since then the Indian tricolor has flown over Siachen. An upset and agitated Pakistani force launched a fierce attack to dislodge the Indian troops. The two nuclear armed neighbors have confronted each other militarily for control over the ice wasteland and its approaches in the eastern Karakorn mountain range, adjacent to the borders of India, Pakistan and China. The longest running armed conflict between the regular armies in the present century, the Siachen conflict has resulted in thousands of casualties from both sides, primarily because of adverse climatic conditions and harsh terrain. This is despite the fact that the leaderships in India and Pakistan acknowledge the human and economic costs of the Siachen dispute.
Perhaps it symbolizes distrust between India and Pakistan. Since Siachen is in Kashmir, it also symbolizes Indo-Pak battle over the valley. For India control of Siachen is of key strategic importance allowing the Indian army to dominate the heights and over look the Pakistan-China highway. Pakistan believing that Siachen should be part of its territory, is also keen to control the heights for the very same reason, besides of course linking it to the overall dispute over Kashmir. Whatever may be the reality, the bottom line is that the human and economic costs of sustaining more than two decade long bloody conflict over the possession of the geographically remote and climatically inhospitable glacier continues to bleed both Pakistan and India dry.
According to careful estimates by Pakistani defense experts, to maintain three battalions at the icy wasteland of the Siachen, Islamabad spends Rs 15 million a day, which makes rupees 450 million a month and rupees 5.4 billion a year. On the other hand the deployment of seven battalions at the glacier costs India rupees 5.0 million a day, rupees 1.5 billion a month and rupees 30 billion a year. On average the experts say, one Pakistani soldier is killed every third day, on the glacier, showing approximately 100 casualties every year on average. Similarly one Indian soldier is killed every other day on the glacier, at an average of 180 casualties. According to unofficial figures over 2,200 Pakistani soldiers lost their lives on the glacier between 1984 and 2004 as against 4,000 Indian casualties.
According to Indian army sources air maintenance for the Siachen operation alone costs Rs 2.5 crores a day, or 1000 crores a year. A cheetah helicopter sortie costs Rs 2000 an hour, it can only carry 25 Kg when flying to high altitude. 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 Rs 10,000 by the time it reaches Indian soldiers on Siachen
Conditions at Siachen are harsh. At 5,472 meters above sea level, the Siachen glacier is located in the Karakom mountain region, which has some of the highest peaks in the world like K2. The northern mountains of the glacier mark the watershed between the central Asia and the Indian sub-continent. Bereft of vegetation, the glacier happens to be one of the world?s most inhospitable regions where temperature hovers around Minus 40ocentigrade.
The surroundings are too chilly to be tolerated. Bare skin. In winters strong winds from central Asia can further bring down the temperature to minus 50o. The glacier receives 6-7 meters of annual total of 10 meters of snow in winter alone. Blizzards at a speed of 300 kms/h can only be imagined by an outsider. Many soldiers collapse of exhaustion after walking only a few yards. They have to take risks- e g falling off cliffs into a ravine-even to do something as routine as defecate. Siachen is proof not of any one?s bravery, but of expandability and low value of Indian and Pakistani lives.
The Indian army controls Siachen heights holding on to the tactical advantage of high ground, but the Pakistani army is slightly better of since it occupies smaller portion of the glacier and its road-head is only 20 kms away from the farthest post. Indian troops on the other hand are stationed about 80 km away from the road-head and have to be maintained entirely by Air, which is not only cost prohibitive but also risky because of the adverse weather conditions most of the times. Interestingly the Pakistani soldiers can not go up to the glacier and the Indian forces can not come down.
Two countries have talked in the past, the eighth round of talks was held after a gap of 7 years in Delhi in September 2004 in which both the countries agreed to discuss modalities for disengagement and redeployment of troops. They also agree to continue talks and find a solution to most serious issue that is Siachen.
Under the changed circumstances in south Asia there is every reason why Pakistan and India should pursue the matter in earnest. The peace process has received full baking from their people, and it is highly unlikely that hawkish opposition to an agreement for demilitarization will get popular support. The issue now poses a challenge to the two governments. If they pursue the matter in real earnest, there is no reason why they can not finally agree on a demilitarized Siachen.
It would not be prudent to expect too much too soon, but it is time for both the countries to seriously rethink that what they have gained by bleeding themselves-to control Siachen and both the countries should get of the old grooves and begin to look at the issue in the larger political and human context rather than simply in the narrow military sense. Let there be a cohesive plan of action followed by a positive political will by both the countries to at least agree on withdrawal to less harsh and more hospitable positions and to pledge that no patrols will be carried out by either side.

(Hafizullah Shiekh is a Research scholar Political Science Department, University of Kashmir)