During the UPA government, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not visit Pakistan ever. But peace talks between the two nuclear nations had scaled new heights including discussions to demilitarise the world’s highest battlefield — the Siachen glacier. However, those discussions are yet to come to fruition.
The latest death of nine Indian jawans perhaps underlines the pressing need for both sides to remove soldiers from the glacier where temperatures drop to below -50 degree Celsius during winter. In 2012, Pakistan paid a heavier price when an avalanche killed 140 soldiers and civilians.
Over the past three decades, the Indian Army has lost more than 860 soldiers on the forbidding glacier, mostly due to avalanches, exposure to extreme cold and altitude sickness than to enemy bullets. On the Pakistan side, a soldier dies every fourth day for the same reasons.
Talks to demilitarise the zone have yielded no concrete results. New Delhi insisted Pakistan authenticate its troop positions before India removes its soldiers. Pakistan refused, arguing it is disputed territory.
Soldiers were deployed on Siachen after Pakistan allowed international mountaineering expeditions to the glacier as an indication that it controlled the area. Different interpretations of the 1949 ceasefire agreement by the two countries also aggravated the dispute.
India spends between Rs 5-Rs 7 crore daily on guarding the strategic glacier, and deploys around 3,000 soldiers at Siachen, located at 19,600 feet above sea level.
Troops have to trek for almost 28 days covering a stretch of 128 km to reach some of the farthest pickets on the glacier, one of the most desolate places on this planet where temperatures can dip below minus 60 degrees Celsius.
While India guards Siachen heavily, there are areas such as Indira Col on the glacier, where no soldier can be deployed due to difficulty in climbing the terrain. The area near the col – the lowest point on a mountain ridge – however is controlled by Indian forces.
Policy-makers and experts say there are compelling reasons for India to hold on to Siachen. The country holds the strategic Saltoro Ridge, which overlooks Pakistani positions. Military officials say vacating Siachen would give Pakistani troops in the Baltistan region a free pass to the Chinese troops in the Shaksgam Valley, which will not be good news for India.