Siachen means ‘the place of roses’, after the wild Sia roses that grow below the snout of the glacier. This magnificent and terrible terrain was hardly known before Independence. At the meeting in Karachi in 1949 to draw up a ceasefire line between Indian and Pakistani forces, its status was left undefined. No one imagined that it could ever be a flashpoint.
Then, in the 1970s, the Pakistanis began what an Indian brigadier called “cartographic aggression” — they started allowing foreign climbers to explore the mountains in the area. India and Pakistan both began patrolling and suspecting one another of intending to occupy the glacier and the neighbouring Saltoro range. MacDonald manages to track down Stobdan Kalon, the Sherpa on India’s first expedition to Siachen in 1978. That expedition scaled not only the glacier but also the 24,631 feet Teram Kangri peak without the benefit of modern equipment.
The Siachen conflict began in 1984, the same year as Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the anti-Sikh riots and the Bhopal Gas disaster. Ladakhi scouts and men of the 4th battalion of the Kumaon Regiment occupied a pass above Siachen in the blizzards of April, a month before the Pakistanis believed any movement was possible. According to MacDonald, the aim of India’s Operation Meghdoot was to put on a show of force, stake a claim to Siachen and withdraw before the winter.
To the Pakistanis, such an umambitious plan was inconceivable. Convinced that India must be aiming at something bigger, they reacted and the conflict escalated.
On her visits to Siachen, MacDonald finds that the altitude makes her unable to think or to take coherent notes. She rashly urges helicopter pilots to fly on even in dangerous weather. Perhaps the effect of altitude is one of the reasons she finds that even Indian soldiers’ memories of the same events differ while Pakistani and Indian accounts of the same battles are irreconcilable. Wisely, MacDonald does not even attempt to reconcile them. Each individual is given his say.
Through interviews she builds up a detailed picture of the lives of the jawans during the tours of duty on Siachen, which leave them emaciated, sun-blackened and often frostbitten or psychologically disturbed. Siachen makes you believe in ghosts and men leave out an empty bed for any visiting spirits of soldiers who have died there. She devotes a whole chapter to Bana Singh, who won India’s highest bravery award for an audacious attack on a Pakistani outpost at 21,000 feet in 1987. At that height, rifles jammed and he used a bayonet and grenades to overcome the enemy.
On both India and Pakistan sides, she finds a similar regimental spirit and a similar commitment to keep every inch of territory. However, the Pakistan army to her seems much richer, its standards of living in the conflict zone higher. Its PR machine bombarded her with information, using power point presentations and scale models that showed the entire region as ‘Siachen’ and made the frontline seem much longer than it did in India.
MacDonald was able to visit Siachen when there was a ceasefire in place. But nature, she reminds us, has declared no such ceasefire. She clearly believes that peace initiatives need to allow troops down once and for all from those heights of madness.
Gillian Wright is a writer and translator based in New Delhi