Recently an avalanche killed 6 jawans in Siachen, the world’s highest battlefield. Situated on the northern edge of Kashmir’s mighty Himalayas with an altitude as high as 22,000 feet, the glacier has become a desert of snow after the continuous snowfall for a week. Army spokesman in Srinagar, Col JS Brar said that a group belonging to 1-Assam Regiment were buried under an avalanche in Turtuk area of the glacier. Indian and Pakistan armies, fighting for the snow waste lands since 1984, have lost more soldiers to adverse weather than fighting each other. On April 7, around 130 Pakistani soldiers were killed besides 14 civilians when a giant wall of snow crashed down on the battalion headquarters of army’s 6 Northern Light Infantry. The effect of the tragedy was such that Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani questioned the rationale of the two countries keeping soldiers on the glacier. On our side, of every four soldiers lost by the army in the mountains of the valley for the past five years, one has died due to weather. Around 242 soldiers were killed in the valley since 2007, out of which 180 lost their lives fighting militants. The rest were killed by natural calamities, mostly snow avalanches.
One of the factors behind the Kargil War in 1999 when Pakistan sent infiltrators to occupy vacated Indian posts across the Line of Control was their belief that India would be forced to withdraw from Siachen in exchange of a Pakistani withdrawal from Kargil. Both sides had previously desired to disengage from the costly military outposts but after the Kargil War, India decided to maintain its military outposts on the glacier, wary of further Pakistani incursions into Kashmir if they vacate from the Siachen Glacier posts without an official recognition from Pakistan of the current positions.
The Siachen Conflict, also referred to as the Siachen War, is a military conflict between India and Pakistan over the disputed Siachen Glacier region in Kashmir. A cease-fire went into effect in 2003. The conflict began in 1984 with India’s successful Operation Meghdoot during which it wrested control of the Siachen Glacier (unoccupied and not demarcated area). India has established control over all of the 70 kilometres (43 miles) long Siachen Glacier and all of its tributary glaciers, as well as the three main passes of the Saltoro Ridge immediately west of the glacier—Sia La, Bilafond La, and Gyong La. Pakistan controls the glacial valleys immediately west of the Saltoro Ridge. According to Time magazine, India gained more than 1,000 square miles (3,000 km2) of territory because of its military operations in Siachen.
The Siachen glacier is the highest battlefield on earth, where India and Pakistan have fought intermittently since April 13, 1984. Both countries maintain permanent military presence in the region at a height of over 6,000 metres (20,000 ft). More than 2000 people have died in this inhospitable terrain, mostly due to weather extremes and the natural hazards of mountain warfare. The conflict in Siachen stems from the incompletely demarcated territory on the map beyond the map coordinate known as NJ9842. The 1972 Simla Agreement did not clearly mention who controlled the glacier, merely stating that from the NJ9842 location the boundary would proceed ‘hence north to the glaciers.’ UN officials presumed there would be no dispute between India and Pakistan over such a cold and barren region.
Former Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf states in his memoirs that Pakistan lost almost 900 square miles (2,300 km2) of territory that it claimed. Time states that the Indian advance captured nearly 1,000 square miles (2,600 km2) of territory claimed by Pakistan. Further attempts to reclaim positions were launched by Pakistan in 1990, 1995, 1996 and even in early 1999, just prior to the Lahore Summit. The 1995 attack by Pakistan SSG was significant as it resulted in 40 casualties for Pakistan troops without any changes in the positions. An Indian IAF MI-17 helicopter was shot down in 1996. The Indian army controls all of the 70 kms (43 miles) long Siachen Glacier and all of its tributary glaciers, as well as the three main passes of the Saltoro Ridge immediately west of the glacier— Sia La, Bilafond La and Gyong La —thus holding onto the tactical advantage of high ground. The Pakistanis control the glacial valley just five kilometers southwest of Gyong La. The Pakistanis have been unable get up to the crest of the Saltoro Ridge, while the Indians cannot come down and abandon their strategic high posts.The line between where Indian and Pakistani troops are presently holding onto their respective posts is being increasingly referred to as the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL).
A cease-fire came into effect in 2003. Even before that, every year more soldiers were killed because of severe weather than enemy firing. The two sides, by 2003 had lost an estimated 2,000 personnel primarily due to frostbite, avalanches and other complications. Both India and Pakistan have around 150 manned outposts along the glacier, with some 3,000 troops each. Official figures for maintaining these outposts are put at $300 and $200 million for India and Pakistan respectively. India built the world’s highest helipad on the glacier at Point Sonam, 21,000 feet (6,400 m) above sea level, to airlift supply to the troops. The problems of reinforcing or evacuating the high-altitude ridgeline have led to India’s development of the Dhruv Mk III helicopter, powered by the Shakti engine, which was flight-tested to lift and land personnel and stores from the Sonam post, the highest permanently manned post in the world. India also installed the world’s highest telephone booth on the glacier. Till some long term understanding is arrived between India and Pakistan, both the countries will have to guard the posts in the most inhospitable terrain and challenging conditions. This cold and barren land is the world’s highest and most sensitive battlefield.