Siachen Glacier situated at the altitude of 6,500 metres is the highest battlefield in the world where perpetual subzero temperature and frequent blizzards are the order of the day in the rarefied atmosphere. Read the article to know how Indian soldiers race this daily ordeal in the natural cold storage
One cannot imagine having to pay in restaurant 550 rupees for just one tandoori roti even in the present day high inflation. Similarly, it is impossible to believe that transportation cost of a 25 kilogram bag of wheat from the market to one’s home can be as much as 50,000 rupees! In the same manner, who will find it credible on being told that a woolen suit for protection against the cold costs 45,000 rupees?
Believe it or not, all the three figures mentioned here are genuine. The cost of the tandoori roti that the soldier serving on the snowy mountainous Siachen Front consumes in three or four morsels is really 550 rupees. ‘Cheetah’ helicopter of the Indian Air Force can barely carry 200 kilogram supplies for the soldiers at Siachen Glacier per trip. It is unable to carry a greater load in the rarefied atmosphere of the mountains.
Helicopter’s each to and from trip of two hours costs Indian Air Force not less than 60,000 rupees per hour! The dress (including gloves and boots) known as the Alpine suit worn by the Indian soldiers costs not only 45,000 rupees but has to be discarded and destroyed at the end of the soldier’s tour of duty at Siachen Glacier. Even if it is in good condition, this dress worn for many days continuously is invariably discarded. New soldiers being posted in Siachen are supplied new dresses in order to maintain their morale.
Ordinarily such an expensive lifestyle can be described as opulent but the life of Indian soldiers on the Siachen front is not the life of luxury. It is one of harsh punishment that might cost one’s life itself. Unbearable cold during long bitter winters and incessant shelling by the enemy’s heavy artillery take the toll of at least one soldier every two days on an average. In spite of the best medical treatment at the army base in the plains, often there is no alternative but to retire seriously injured or ill soldiers prematurely. In some cases severe frostbite leaves soldiers crippled for the rest of life or severe shell- shock leaves them incapable of thinking or acting properly for a long time. The main reason for such physical and mental torture is that Siachen is the world’s highest altitude battlefield where an ordinary person cannot survive for more than a few hours in oxygen deficient rarefied atmosphere.
In order to understand better the detailed description of the ordeal the soldiers have to undergo, carefully observe the geographical map given above and especially note the place bearing the mark NJ 9842. This mark was the root cause of the armed conflict that flared up on the Siachen front for the first time in 1984.
If we consider the historical context of the conflict then one has to go back to the late 1947 when Pakistan occupied nearly 78,114 square kilometres of remote and inaccessible North Kashmir by military aggression. Indian army was airlifted from New Delhi to Srinagar in small cargo and passenger planes commandeered for the purpose to halt the aggressors and throw them back into Pakistan. Hundreds of Indian soldiers laid down their lives in the bitter battles that followed but they succeeded in preventing Pakistan from occupying entire Kashmir. On the other hand, much of the portion overrun by Pakistani army which they called Azad Kashmir continued to be held by Pakistan. The Government of India committed a blunder at this stage. Loss of such a vast and strategic area was not an insignificant loss but instead of fighting till the entire area was regained the government settled for cease-fire to prevent any further bloodshed. The hopes of regaining the area lost to Pakistan were snuffed out once the option of truce was selected.
Soon the Government of India committed another serious mistake. Officials were sent to Karachi to draw a permanent line of cease-fire. Such a cease-fire line simply meant that neither country should cross it—nor fight in future-and thereby India must forget forever the area it had lost! Drawing of the cease-fire line on the ordnance maps took many months. The officials of both the countries even gave numbers to the stone boundary markers to be put at short intervals along the cease-fire line. starting just a few kilometres west of Jammu city the cease-fire line on the map stretched for 790 kilometres before stopping in North-East Kashmir at the marker number NJ 9842.
A high mountain range named Saltoro Mountain range lies just north of the cease-fire line termination point NJ 9842. During the Indo-Pak War of 1947 neither any battles were fought in this area nor the armies deployed. The entire region was too high for human activity, being under the perpetual blanket of snow. Barring a few migratory birds like cranes flying over this mountain range, even the birds shun it. Similarly, a large glacier named Siachen Glacier situated in the east of Saltoro Mountain Rage is also equally desolate. Originating at an altitude of 6,500 metres above the sea level the mouth of this glacier is at 5,500 metres height. About 76.4 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide glacier has such a large volume of compressed snow that greater quantity of ice can be found only at the Poles. No wonder, the geographers call Siachen region as the Earth’s third Pole!
Both countries mutually agreed to discontinue drawing the cease-fire line beyond this point. In the document of agreement they mentioned that, ‘…it is understood that the cease-fire line extends due north towards Siachen Glacier., This was the third mistake committed by the Government of India. Pakistan, on the other hand, had nothing to lose if the cease-fire line was not demarcated on this part of the map. On the contrary it got a loophole for exploitation in the future if the need arose. Quoting the agreement, Pakistan could claim entire Siachen Glacier by extending the line to the mouth of siachen Glacier and beyond to Karakoram Pass! In short, according to Pakistan cease-fire line extends northward to the mouth of Siachen Glacier and not towards the glacier’s source known as Indra col.
This aspect is clearly shown in the accompanying map of the Siachen Glacier region. Observe the mountainous area known as Indra col which is the source of Siachen Glacier. It lies between Saltoro and Karakoram Mountain Ranges in the west and east respectively. Moving southward slowly the glacier ultimately melts giving rise to the Nubra River. Note the broad expanse of Siachen Glacier in the map. Its width of ten kilometers which is mainly due to large quantity of snow sliding down the slopes of both the lofty mountain ranges. Another feature of the map worthy of note is the distance between Siachen Glacier’s source and its mouth but let’s leave it alone for the time being.
Years rolled by since the cease-fire truce. Nobody bothered about Siachen but Pakistan had its eye on the entire State of Jammu and Kashmir including Laddakh which would automatically include Siachen. Siachen. In the meanwhile Pakistan started strengthening relationship with China in the hope that if the powerful China gave it a helping hand then teaching a lesson to India would become easy. In accordance with this long term strategy Pakistan made a gift of 5,180 square kilometres land of Kashmir occupied in 1947 to China which the latter took-over from March 2, 1963. Emboldened by the Chinese assertions of friendship, Pakistan once again sent a large body of armed infiltrators to conquer Kashmir in 1965. As a result a war broke out between India and Pakistan but perfidious China did not join the fray.
Some years later another war broke out between India and Pakistan in 1971 in which India captured nearly 90,000 Pakistani soldiers as prisoners of war and held them in confinement in prisoner of war camps for months together. Now Pakistan’s rulers had no option but appeal to India to show clemency and release its soldiers. Today, one would feel that what a wonderful opportunity it was to settle vexatious outstanding issues with Pakistan. There is no doubt that Pakistan could have been easily compelled to draw the cease-fire line from the marker NJ 9842 according to India’s wishes. It would have no option but to accept India’s just and fair stand regarding extension of cease-fire line north towards the source of Siachen Glacier. But the Government of India was found wanting even in the position of strength. It committed yet another serious mistake in leaving cease-fire line incomplete. The only alteration in cease-fire line made was to rename it line of control/LOC. It became a cosmetic change only without affecting the realities of the situation.
As per its wont Pakistan pulled out a new trick in 1974, Pakistani army had not learnt the lesson from the staggering defeat of 1971. Its generals were raring to avenge the debacle in Bangladesh. They wanted to regain credibility but Pakistan was not in a position to fight another war. Therefore, it resorted to a different ploy. Pakistan invited foreign mountaineers to climb lofty peaks of the Karakoram Mountains in 1974. In other words, it opened up the area that was not its territory under the guise of mountaineering.
It was a clever ploy of Pakistan. In many western countries like the U.K., U.S.A., France, Japan and New Zealand a number of periodicals devoted to mountaineering are published and enjoy wide readership. So, Pakistan published advertisements in these magazines inviting the mountaineers to climb lofty peaks of the Karakoram Mountains. Besides, the guidance regarding necessary government permissions the advertisements also carried maps of the Karakoram region which was shown as integral part of Pakistan instead of disputed territory. This was a Machiavellian ploy in the true sense of the word as many atlas publishers altered the maps as desired by Pakistan. Government of India was shocked when it learned about this ploy. If Pakistani propaganda was not effectively countered then the rest of the world would start acknowledging the Karakoram Mountains (and also Siachen) as lawful territory of Pakistan.
Since it was not possible to stop Pakistan, India decided to give Pakistan a lit for tat. India also invited foreign mountaineers to climb the mountain peaks of the Saltoro Mountain Range in the west of siachen Glacier and gave much publicity to such mountaineering expeditions. Irritated Pakistani government drew up a top-secret plan in 1983 to invade and occupy three main passes of the Saltoro Mountain Range. A glance at the map will reveal that Sia Pass, Bilaphond Pass and Saltoro Pass are like the gateways to Siachen Glacier from Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Pakistan decided to implement its top secret plan as soon as the winter of 1983-84 had passed at the end of April.
Unfortunately for Pakistan, the Indian spies had come to know all the details of this so-called top secret plan. Rugged Indian soldiers of the Kumaon Regiment were flown to the Saltoro Mountain Range in helicopters on April 14, 1984 (i.e. before Pakistan could implement the top secret plan at the end of April) where they immediately occupied the important mountain passes. A reinforcing column of well equipped soldiers joined them in high passes after one week’s continuous climbing. This was India’s rejoinder—a top secret mission named ‘Operation Meghdoot’. when the Pakistani invaders turned up belatedly, the Indian defenders had entrenched themselves on all the three passes from where it was relatively easy to give the enemy situated about 600 metres below, a taste of the Indian artillery fire.
Today, less than 25 kilometres separate the Indian army from the Pakistani army. The enemies frequently bombard Indian positions on the mountain passes with their heavy guns. The Indian soldiers reply with retaliatory bombardment from their 130 mm calibre Russian guns. Sometimes frenzied Pakistani soldiers fire all their heavy guns simultaneously. If their shelling accurately hits the Indian positions then the Indian soldiers can hardly take any evasive action because there is no flat or level ground, Sometimes the artillery duel between the two armies goes on for days together resulting in considerable casualties on both the sides.
The climate of Siachen is far more deadly than the enemy. During the winters the temperature at Siachen (at an average altitude of 6,500 metres) goes down to 55° Celsius below the freezing point. During summers the mercury remains at 20° Celsius below the freezing point. Hence, the circumstances of cold storage prevail throughout the year. As if this is not sufficient, bitterly cold wind often blows at the cyclonic speed of 160 kilometres per hour. Such gale-force wind penetrates through the best winter gear benumbing the body as well as soul. It is not possible to construct permanent stone structures in Siachen. Fibreglass cabins are used instead which are completely uprooted and blown away in severe blizzards. Then shelterless soldiers have to spend nights in the open.
More daunting than extremely cold and stormy climatic conditions is the rarefied atmosphere with insufficient amount of oxygen in it. As a result, even the strongest soldiers lose five to ten kilograms weight every month. In the long run fluid starts accumulating in the brain, lungs and other organs. Sometimes so much fluid accumulates in the lungs as if that person has drowned! There is only fluid in the lungs instead of air Even if such a person remains alive his breathing becomes shallower and shallower gradually. His saliva becomes foamy and pink in colour. He is unable to see clearly and loses appetite for food. Even when holding a cup of coffee in his hands he forgets that it is meant for drinking because his faculty of thinking is lost.
One more danger in such an environment is that of suicide. Every commander is trained to keep a vigil to prevent suicide in his company. Suffering unbearable misery a soldier sometimes attempts suicide while walking on a narrow ledge above a deep chasm. He is unable bear the tyranny of harsh climate any more. Therefore, whenever any soldier’s behaviour raises the commander’s suspicion, the commander immediately sends him back to the base camp in a helicopter. However, if the weather is too rough for helicopter to fly then even mortally injured or sick soldiers remain without necessary treatment for days at a time, which ultimately goes to make critical condition worse.
We have used the words opulent and luxury in the beginning of this article. Do you want to know what luxury in Siachen is? Once weather remained inclement for days at a stretch in Siachen and Indian Air Force could not send its helicopters with much needed supplies of food. Hence, the soldiers had to fall back on the reserves of tinned food. Some days later, when weather became normal again, heavenly messenger-like IAF helicopters brought the supply of bananas, carrots, apples, brinjals etc. Overjoyed soldiers got themselves photographed with brimming smiles on the dining table! Who knows when they will enjoy such delicious fruits and vegetables again? Such is the meaning of the word ‘luxury’ in Siachen.