There’s no question of demilitarising Siachen despite the recent death of 10 soldiers unless Pakistan was prepared to mark out exact troop positions on the world’s highest and coldest battleground, army chief General Dalbir Singh said.
In his first interview a fortnight after an avalanche swept the soldiers away at an altitude of 20,500 feet, Singh said on Wednesday each casualty on the glacier only “hardened the army’s resolve” to hold on to the heights that were of “immense strategic significance”.
“Troop withdrawal remains out of the question unless they (Pakistan) agree to sit down at the negotiating table and agree to the conditions set by us to authenticate troop positions. That has been our stand and we are not budging from it,” Singh said.
He has visited Siachen four times after taking over as army chief in July 2014. In coming weeks, he will travel to Sonam, the army post crushed by the February 3 slide.
India can’t risk a withdrawal as it holds dominating positions on the Saltoro ridge, with Pakistani posts located 3,000 feet below. Reclaiming lost advantage could be tough.
Pakistani high commissioner Abdul Basit had last week called for mutual withdrawal of troops.
Nearly 1,000 soldiers have died guarding Siachen since the army took control of the glacier in April 1984, almost twice the number of lives lost in the Kargil war.
“Our deployment has stabilised with the casualty rates being the lowest since we took control of the heights. Top-notch equipment, rigorous monitoring of training, fine leadership and adherence to strict codes and drills have helped save lives,” said Singh, the first army chief who travels to the Palam airbase every time a martyr’s body transits through Delhi.
On the February 3 tragedy, Singh said avalanches on the glacier were extremely difficult to predict. “We map areas meticulously and maintain year-wise records of danger zones to keep casualties low. Soldiers know at what precise time, in which month, there was an avalanche in their area, say, 10 years ago. But given the geography, such incidents are unavoidable,” Singh explained.
One of the soldiers, Lance Naik Hanamanthappa Koppad, miraculously survived being trapped under 35 feet of snow for six days but died in an army hospital on February 11.
Singh said, “They were buried too deep and the ice had become harder than concrete. It couldn’t have been blown up using explosives. We flew in electric ice cutters and radars that can detect heat signatures at a depth of 20 metres. My instructions were clear that the rescue operations would continue till the time we found survivors or the bodies.”
Soldiers in Siachen have faced hardships because of the government’s repeated failures to provide them with special clothing and equipment to endure the punishing heights of more than 21,000 feet, but Singh said the deficiencies had been made up entirely.
In 2008, the Comptroller and Auditor General had criticised gaping deficiencies in the procurement of sleeping bags, jackets, pants, multi-purpose boots and even woollen socks.