Recently, ten soldiers (one JCO and nine jawans of the 19th Madras battalion) were buried alive in an avalanche at Siachen glacier at a height of 19,600 feet in eastern Ladakh, the world’s highest battlefield, in an unfortunate event.
However, despite consistent loss of soldiers due to climatic condition and related incidents, defence minister Manohar Parrikar says that India will not consider any withdrawal of troops from the world’s highest battlefield as deployment is needed for national security.
Parrikar said that while casualties have come down in recent years due to improved facilities at the glacier, the ice fall was an unpredictable show of nature’s strength and little could have been done to prevent it.
Every year, a lot of soldiers lose their lives on both Pakistani and Indian sides. In 2011, 24 Indian soldiers died due to climatic conditions and related accidents. In April 2012, Pakistan lost 140 personnel when an avalanche hit one military sector Head Quarter.
From the launch of Operation Meghdoot to take the control of the strategically vital glacier in 1984 till December 2015, over 869 Indian Army personnel have lost their lives on the Siachen due to climatic conditions.
The glaciated area presents temperatures ranging from a minimum of minus 42 degrees in the night to maximum of minus 25 degrees during the day.
The Siachen Glacier is located in the eastern Karakoram range in the Himalayas, just northeast of the point NJ9842 where the Line of Control (LoC) ends. As both India and Pakistan have claim over it, the stretch of snow is called the world’s highest battlefield.
Siachen has recently been disdainfully described as ‘A struggle of two bald men over a comb’ or ‘an ego problem between the two armies.’ Several experts have questioned the need for maintaining armies on the glacier with such high casualties and cost.
Prior to 1984, neither India nor Pakistan had any military forces in this area.
Indian troops sit at vantage points on the Saltoro ridge as compared to Pakistan on its west, but holding high ground involves great sacrifice of life and limb. And there are many strategic reasons for it.
Here are some of them:
- Indian troops currently occupy the full Siachen glacier and the world’s highest motorable road at Khardung La with a helipad at a place called Sonam, at 21,000 feet.
- The formidable Saltoro Ridge overlooks Gilgit and Baltistan to its west and has to be crossed by any one seeking access from Skardu in the Gilgit and Baltistan area through to the Karakoram Pass which enters Tibet. Any Pakistani location in Karakoram would be a threat to India in Ladakh from the north in addition to Chinese locations in Aksai Chin.
- A control over Siachen by Pakistan would have meant that it would have access from Skardu through to the Karakoram near the Aksai Chin and eventual linking with Shahidullah on the Kashgar-Xigatse road that runs parallel to the Tibet- India border. Obviously, India could not afford to become vulnerable on another front.
- Withdrawal from strategic heights without any iron clad guarantees that do not extend beyond declarations of intent would be the height of folly.
- The China factor cannot be ignored in this cockpit of the world. In its own strategic interests in the region, China would be interested in greater Pakistani control over Gilgit and Baltistan.
- It is not a question of a glacier in the Himalayan heights; it is a question of India’s security.
- The Saltoro was attained at considerable loss of life, expenses and equipment. Over the years, a lot of problems have been tackled, including logistics.