The death of 10 soldiers in an avalanche at Siachen has brought the spotlight back to the harsh conditions faced by troops at the world’s highest battlefield and also its strategic importance to India.
Islamabad has made repeated demands for demilitarising the glacier invoking the aspect of long-term peace but India has always taken a cautious approach on the issue.
Defence officials say that as long as the glacier is under India’s control, the Pakistani army can’t link up with the Chinese and pose threat to Ladakh. It acts as a wedge between the Shaksgam valley under China’s control and Baltistan, which is occupied by Pakistan.
The Indian Army launched Operation Meghdoot in April 1984 to secure the glacier after Pakistan army occupied the heights at Siachen, a 76-km river of slow moving ice.
Several rounds of talks between India and Pakistan on demilitarising the Siachen glacier --- an old sore in bilateral ties -- have failed with Islamabad refusing to authenticate troop positions on the ground.
In fact, India deployed its soldiers on Siachen after Pakistan began allowing international mountaineering expeditions to the glacier, sending out a signal that it controlled the area. Different interpretations of the 1949 ceasefire agreement by the two countries also aggravated the dispute.
India, which spends Rs 5 to Rs 7 crore daily on guarding the strategic glacier, has deployed around 3,000 soldiers at Siachen where temperatures can drop to minus 60 degrees. The location at 19,600 feet where the 10 soldiers died often sees temperatures plunging to minus 42 degrees.
Soldiers 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.
Almost 80% posts on the glacier are located above 16,000 feet, with Bana towering above the rest at 21,753 feet. Bana post is named after Subedar Bana Singh who was awarded the Paramvir Chakra for his helping secure the glacier in 1984.
Indian Army has cautioned against withdrawing from Siachen until Islamabad authenticates troop positions on the ground as it would be a formidable task to reclaim the glacier.
India currently occupies dominating positions on the Saltoro ridge with Pakistani posts located 3,000 feet below.