The military veterans call it “an unending cold war”. It’s been raging for last 28 years between India and Pakistan on an icy frontier of the Siachen, a sprawling glacier on the northern-most edge of Ladakh region. Consisting of a treacherous terrain of glaciated craggy heights jutting up to 20,000-ft , it is inarguably the world’s highest — and the most hazardous — battlefield. The Siachen, literally meaning ‘a valley of rose’, has been the killer glacier where snow blizzards, avalanches, scant oxygen, and sub-zero temperature of minus 50 degree Celsius have claimed more soldiers’ lives than hostilities.
The military stand-off, triggered by India’s capture in April 1984 of a strategic Saltoro ridge on the icy expanse of wasteland with an un-demarcated border, continues to simmer like a dormant volcano — the last flashpoint was the 1999 Kargil war on this axis. The guns on the heavily-militarised glacier have, by and large, been silent since 2004 when India and Pakistan put in place a ceasefire on the Jammu and Kashmir front. Yet, the face-off continues to exact the human toll on both sides — as chillingly underscored by the killing of over 130 Pakistanis, mostly soldiers, in a massive snow avalanche that hit a high-altitude military camp at the Siachen on April 4.
For once, the tragedy has not only spotlighted the perils of a costly confrontation on the Siachen, it has set off a public debate, especially in Pakistan, over futility of the forgotten war. It’s the first time that such chorus for de-militarisation of the Siachen has echoed aloud in Pakistan. Former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif called on both India and Pakistan to “climb down from the icy battleground”.
What, however, has lent the issue contours of an opening gambit in the new-found thaw between New Delhi and Islamabad is the loaded — and rare — call by Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani for resolution of “all issues” including the Siachen. While India and Pakistan embark on the trade route to reduce the trust deficit, the key question is: can the Siachen be an ice-breaker in their ties bound by a history of hostilities and mistrust.
Hindustan Times de-constructs the Siachen stand-off, with military and strategic experts’ take on India’s options to the latest Pakistani overture.