Soon, Army may open parts of Siachen glacier to civilians
The Indian Army is examining a proposal to allow civilians to visit the world’s highest battlefield, the Siachen glacier, to gain first-hand experience of the tough conditions in which soldiers operate, two senior army officers said on Tuesday.
Mooted by army chief, General Bipin Rawat, the proposal to give civilians access to the glacier is at an initial stage but is being considered seriously, one of the officers cited above said on condition of anonymity.
Siachen is strategically important because so long as it is in India’s control, the Pakistani army can’t link up with the Chinese and pose a threat to Ladakh. It acts as a wedge between the Shaksgam Valley under Chinese control and Baltistan, which is occupied by Pakistan.
“We are examining how the proposal can be implemented, the logistics involved and areas that can be opened to the public. We are looking at the possibility of allowing people to visit the Siachen base camp and some nearby posts,” said the second officer, asking not to be named. Since 2007, the army has been conducting a civilian trek to the Siachen glacier every year.
India, which spends Rs 5 to Rs 7 crore daily on guarding the glacier, has deployed around 3,000 soldiers at Siachen, where temperatures can drop to minus 60 degrees Celsius. More than 1,000 soldiers have died guarding the area since the army took control of the inhospitable glacier in April 1984, almost twice the number of lives lost in the Kargil war. While about 220 men have been killed in firing from the Pakistani side, the other casualties have been caused by extreme weather and treacherous terrain.
Guns have been silent on the glacier since the November 2003 ceasefire between India and Pakistan.
Experts welcomed the move to give civilians access to the glacier, stressing that it will give them a better understanding of India’s national security challenges.
“It will be a capability demonstration for the people of the country. They will appreciate how our brave troops are trained to fight in any kind of terrain and also the challenges they encounter daily,” said former Northern Army commander, Lieutenant General BS Jaswal (retd).
Soldiers have to trek for almost 28 days, covering a stretch of 128km to reach some of the farthest pickets on the glacier, one of the most desolate places on the planet.
Former army vice chief, Lieutenant General AS Lamba (retd), said the move will allow people to comprehend the complexities of guarding the country’s farthest frontiers at any cost. “It will also create a new sense of integration of these remote areas to the rest of the country,” Lamba added.
The Indian Army launched Operation Meghdoot in April 1984 to secure the glacier after the Pakistan army occupied the heights at Siachen, a 76km river of slow moving ice. Almost 80% posts on the glacier are located above 16,000 feet, with Bana towering above the rest at 21,753 feet.
Islamabad has made repeated demands for demilitarising the glacier, invoking long-term peace but India has taken a cautious approach on the sensitive issue. Several rounds of talks between India and Pakistan on demilitarising the glacier — a contentious issue in bilateral ties — have failed, with Islamabad refusing to authenticate troop positions on the ground.