More calls for peace at highest battlefield

Tragic deaths and popular opinion in India, Pakistan add weight to case for demilitarisation

Recent avalanches on the Siachen Glacier, which killed 14 Indian soldiers, have reignited debate about demilitarising the world's highest battlefield, where India and Pakistan are locked in a long-running standoff over disputed Kashmir.

India and Pakistan both claim the 74km-long glacier and have stationed some 10,000 troops there between them.

Since the 1980s, both sides have lost hundreds of soldiers, more from hypothermia, avalanches and frostbite than exchange of fire.

Winter temperatures there - at an altitude of about 6,000m - fall to minus 70 deg C.

The Indian government says 846 of its soldiers have been killed on Siachen over the past three decades between 1984 and 2012. This year, 10 died after an avalanche struck early this month and four were buried in January.

Hundreds have also died on the Pakistani side, with more than 135 soldiers and civilians killed after a huge avalanche struck a Pakistani army camp in 2012.

The Indian government says 846 of its soldiers have been killed on Siachen over the past three decades between 1984 and 2012. This year, 10 died after an avalanche struck early this month and four were buried in January.

Siachen has been peaceful since the two countries declared a ceasefire in 2003 and experts believe it is time Pakistan and India worked out a solution. Earlier proposals have included converting it into a zone of peace.

The Himalayan glacier sits on the northern tip of Kashmir, the main source of the countries' hostilities over the past almost 70 years and the cause of two of their three wars.

"This is a complete waste of resources and men on both sides..." said Professor Happymon Jacob, a disarmament expert at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

"Things have become better over the years with better ability to deal with the unfriendly environment, but that is no reason we should waste even a single life.

"India and Pakistan have come close to an agreement and, with some creativity, it can be done."

India's The Hindu newspaper, in an editorial, noted the soldiers' deaths were "a stark reminder to both India and Pakistan about the cost of military deployment in such inhospitable territory".

"The demilitarisation of Siachen is definitely doable. This is not only because it is diplomatically possible, but also because there is a critical mass of opinion in both India and Pakistan that neither can sacrifice, or put in harm's way, so many lives on the inhospitable glacier," the newspaper said.

Last year in Pakistan, a play titled Siachen was staged to question the presence of troops on the glacier.

A headline of a recent article carried by the Dawn newspaper of Pakistan read: "Killer Siachen - where a Pakistani soldier dies every four days from the cold".

Further attempts to resolve the Siachen issue are on the backburner for now, given the stalling of India-Pakistan talks after January's terror attack on the Indian air force base in Pathankot.

Amid questions about the need to maintain armies on the glacier, India's defence minister Manohar Parrikar last weekend also ruled out any withdrawal of troops, saying they were needed for the country's security.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs said on Friday that Siachen would form part of talks with Pakistan when they did take place.

Though experts are divided on the strategic importance of Siachen, many believe there is a need for change.

"We need to relook some of these posts, especially those which are more vulnerable," said Indian army veteran H.P.S. Bedi, now retired, who has served as Siachen brigade commander.

"We can't just say an infantryman has to sit there. There is so much talk of drones... UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles)... thermal imaging equipment.

"You can't have troop withdrawal without demarcating actual ground positions, which should be done.

"But let us also encourage more civilian activity, like tourism, on the glacier. That could become a confidence-building measure."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2016, with the headline 'More calls for peace at highest battlefield'. Print Edition | Subscribe