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Battleground Siachen

For 25 aching years, the army has been engaged in hostilities on the world’s highest battlefield that has come to symbolise India’s unshakable resolve to hold on to the Siachen glacier. A report by Rahul Singh.

india Updated: Apr 13, 2009 01:40 IST
Rahul Singh

For 25 aching years, the army has been engaged in hostilities on the world’s highest battlefield that has come to symbolise India’s unshakable resolve to hold on to the Siachen glacier.

The unknown Indian soldier has endured the extreme tensions at frigid heights of over 21,000 feet since the army made a pre-emptive move on April 13, 1984 to secure the glacier from Pakistani aggression under Operation Meghdoot.

The guns have been silent since the 2003 ceasefire with Pakistan, but the soldier’s task remains as demanding as ever.

“The peculiarities of weather and terrain pose a formidable challenge. We have lost more soldiers to avalanches, crevasses and medical complications than hostile fire,” said a senior army officer, who has commanded the Partapur-based 102 Infantry brigade which controls the glacier.

Mapping the dispute

Post 1947-48 operations: When the cease-fire line (CFL) was demarcated, neither India nor Pakistan extended it to Siachen. As per the 1949 UN resolution, the CFL ran across J&K for 800 km and ended at map reference NJ 9842. The boundary beyond NJ 9842 was referred to simply as “thence northwards to the glacier”.

1972: After the Simla agreement, the CFL was converted to Line of Control, which also ended at NJ 9842. Pakistan claims it extends northeast of NJ 9842 to Karakoram Pass. India says it follows the Saltoro ridge.
Early 1980s: Pakistan staked its claim on the glacier, allowing foreign mountaineering expeditions. India launched Operation Meghdoot on April 13, 1984.

Post-1984: Pakistan tried to dislodge India from Saltoro heights, but lost its highest post, Qaid, now called Bana Post.

Numerically speaking

Around 3,000 soldiers defend the 76-km long glacier

They have to trek for 28 days to reach the farthest post

At least 700 men have died so far

Dominating the glacier costs Rs 3 crore per day

Temperatures can drop to -60 degrees Celsius

Around 3,000 men defend the 76-km-long glacier. The soldiers are stretched to the limits of their endurance at the Siachen Battle School, located at a height of 12,200 feet on the banks of Nubra, to prepare them for the three-month tenure.

Soldiers reach the farthest pickets after a punishing 28-day trek covering 128 km. So far, the army has lost at least 700 men, majority to the hostile weather.

So, what is the strategic value of this barren battlefield? Lieutenant General S.K. Sinha (retd), the former Jammu and Kashmir governor, explained: “Occupation of the glacier will not allow the Pakistani army to link up with the Chinese and pose threat to Ladakh. If we vacate our positions, the Pakistanis would take over the glacier and recapturing it would be virtually impossible.”

The glacier acts as a buffer between the Shaksgam valley under Chinese control and Baltistan, which is occupied by Pakistan. “Dominating positions on the Saltoro ridge give us a huge advantage over Pakistani posts located 3,000 feet below,” said a senior officer.

Helicopters remain the lifeline for the troops. The IAF’s Mi-17s and army Cheetahs drop stores at the glacier. Sometimes all a helicopter carries is a jerrycan of kerosene, making it the costliest fuel in the world — it costs over Rs 60,000 to fly a Cheetah for an hour.

Despite such hardships, the army has repeatedly failed to provide them with special clothing and equipment. After scrutinising a bunch of army contracts last year, the CAG criticised the army headquarters for gaping deficiencies in the procurement of jackets, trousers, sleeping bags, multi-purpose boots and woollen socks.

In some cases, troops got special items almost three years after a demand was made.