India and Pakistan’s Ice-Bound Standoff
War at the top of the world
No prospect Siachen Glacier confrontation will end soon
It seems the most pointless military exercise in the world. Yet in the days since Feb. 3 when 10 Indian soldiers were hit by an avalanche and killed on the Siachen glacier some 20,000 feet up in the Himalayas, it is clear there is no prospect of the 32-year old stand-off in the area between India and Pakistan ending in the foreseeable future.
Five days after the avalanche, one of the soldiers was discovered still alive under 35ft of snow. He died in hospital yesterday, after a national outpouring of grief and a visit to his bedside by Narendra Modi, the prime minister.
No shots have been fired since a ceasefire was agreed between India and Pakistan in 2003, but soldiers continue to die because of the conditions. With temperatures averaging minus 24C and dropping sometimes to minus 50, they suffer from hypothermia and frostbite and, till relatively recently, the Indian troops were ill equipped to cope. India has lost 33 soldiers since August 2012 when parliament was told that the death toll was 846 since action began in 1984. In 2012, 129 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians were buried in an avalanche at a camp near the glacier.
Indian politicians have often talked about ending the impasse. Manmohan Singh, the former prime minister, visited the glacier in 2005 and suggested – unrealistically – making it a “mountain of peace.”
Proposals have emerged at various times from “track two” behind-the-scenes consultations for a settlement as a “confidence building measure” between the two countries, which would also include resolving a disputed section of coastline know as Sir Creek between India’s state of Gujarat and Pakistan’s province of Sind. There were formal talks on Siachen in 2012 after the Pakistan avalanche, but the defense establishments objected – in India saying, as they still do, that the cause which led to such sacrifices cannot be thrown away.
“Siachen has become embedded in the Indian public consciousness as a symbol of national will and determination to succeed against all odds,” a retired Indian general said this week. “Siachen has acquired a sanctity of its own, which is part folklore, part military legend, part mythology, and a substantial measure of national pride.”