The idea of turning Siachen into a ‘peace mountain’ or park is cute and sounds awfully nice. But it isn’t Disneyland and giving up a strategic height isn’t a roller coaster ride. This time defence minister Parrikar has got it right when he says that withdrawal is not a solution.
For once, let’s back off the usual cynicism. The death of 10 soldiers in an avalanche had nothing to do with any compromise in safety equipment or troop positioning. If Nature decides to be cruel, it will.
This is not 1962, or even 1971. Indian forces are very well insulated against the weather and the risks of living in the mountains at those heights. We have the clothes, we have the communications, we have the medical support systems and any service officer will tell you that life is tough, but this not the Indo-China war, with soldiers in vests holding rusty .303 rifles.
I have been up to 20,000 feet with the Nun Kun expedition from the NDA, sent by Khushwant Singh to cover the climb by these cadets. It is scary and lonely and intimidating. You are not even allowed to shout in case that triggers an avalanche.
All too often, the sheer weight of the ice wall can shift and send down a hundred thousand tons of ice as suffocating as sand in your throat. Avalanches are unpredictable and fall at any angle depending on the melt point and the wind factor and the balance of the ice pack.
Yes, it is true that more soldiers have died of climatic conditions than by bullets, as many as 869 over thirty years but it is facile to call the glacier 76 kilometres of ice. It is easy to forget that because of holding this strip of ice, India gained over 1,000 square miles (3,000 square kilometres) in territory because of its 1980s military operations in Siachen and we cannot forget that it is a contentious issue with Pakistan who also lay claim to this territory. Operation Meghdoot got us that control and we cannot just relinquish it without reason.
The death of the soldiers is deeply regrettable, but we cannot get sentimental about surrendering territory. Even though the nearest inhabited village is Warshi about 10 kilometres off the glacier, the Indian hold on Siachen is a military imperative. India holds the five passes on the Saltoro spine and it would be absurd to let them go. Let not the death of these soldiers over the years go in vain. No one denies that high altitude postings are hazard postings and are replete with medical and psychological problems. Pulmonary odema, high altitude hallucination, depression, loneliness-they are all on the cards.
Swift rotation is the better option. The stays can be shorter and perhaps the support system between soldier and family can be heightened through modern technology to offset the sense of loneliness. Longer vacations, review of hazard allowances, skype connections, more welfare activity thereby giving the soldier the satisfaction that someone cares for his family.
But let’s get off this sentimental claptrap of turning Siachen into some sort of shrine to peace. What peace do we speak off and who shall come to pay it reverence? Peace Mountain or Peace Park may sound salutary but after the 1999 Kargil conflict India can ill afford to be generous unless there is an assurance from the other side that they will not take advantage after a mutual troop withdrawal. India had to reconsider packing up from Siachen without official recognition of the current line of control by Pakistan.
India would look pretty silly if it left and the Pakistan army came riding in.
Without the cast iron guarantees, let’s just stick to tourism trekking.