Should patriotism be foolhardy? Will possession of a dicey battlefield settle neighbourly squabbles once and for all?
On February 6, The Times of India pitched its readers onto 74 kms of treacherous ice with an unspoken query now left quivering in some vague corner of an otherwise patriotic Indian mind: Is Siachen worth dying for?
The debate was undoubtedly triggered by the latest statistics released by Indian defence circles, delineating the details of the ten (now nine) army lives presumed dead in a deadly avalanche on February 3.
One soldier was found miraculously alive but critical, with a still-ticking pulse when he was pulled out from under 25-35 feet of snow.
It was in 1984 that India had bested Pakistan by a few hours to set up a base at Siachen under Operation Meghdoot and laid claim to the ownership rights of the world’s highest battlefield, which also included Sonam – the world’s highest helipad, at 21,000 feet.
Located in the eastern Karakoram range of the Himalayas, just north-east of the point where the Line of Control between India and Pakistan ends, Siachen lies to the immediate south of a region often referred to as the “Third Pole’.
That Siachen bestows India with a huge tactical advantage over Pakistan in case of a war scenario is an indisputable fact.
But when juxtaposed with the ground reality that India has had to sacrifice over 800 lives since 1984 – lives which were lost to harsh inclement weather rather than actual combat in preserving her territorial rights – one is forced to do a rethink of what exactly constitutes nationalism and perceived sovereignty over a patch of land.
Winning the Battle but Losing the War?
We may have grabbed Siachen from our north-west neighbour but are we losing the war against Mother Nature’s fury?
Avalanches and crevasses stalk the glacier as silent killers, with temperatures hovering around minus 60 degree Celsius; a stony, dead, freezing wasteland as Captain Raghu Raman puts it.
With almost 10,000 troops reportedly stationed there, the extreme climactic conditions of this huge chunk of ice – prey to stormy blizzards and spine-chilling cold – make the Siachen posting an unenviable tenure in any soldier’s life.
Yet the Indian Army continues to defend this 74 km stretch even to the point of giving up their limbs, if not their lives, with almost all of them left permanently scarred.
The emotional and psychological scars get swept under the carpet as there are no beholders to empathise with these hidden traumas engraved in the depths of a battle-hardened soul.
That they were able to defend this icy desert for 32 years and still continue to do so is a fitting reply to all those people who believe life in the armed forces is all about “aish aur araam”, and that they are a pampered lot out to eat into the commoners’ tax returns.
But leaving the intense patriotism behind us, do we still have takers for why on earth we need to be at Siachen in the first place?
According to geographical evidence published in the journal Current Science in 2009 by Dr Rajeev Upadhay of Nainital’s Kumaon University, the original length of Siachen was 150kms which has now come down to less than half, to the present 74 kms.
Going by this data, it would only be a matter of time until we might not have a glacier to defend due to climate change and global warming.
At a time when 2016 could be a year of economic recession for India, is spending taxpayere money to the tune of Rs 7 crore per day, for the upkeep of a territory which keeps gnawing away at human lives and maintenance resources, justified?
It is not that efforts have not already been made to demilitarise the Siachen zone, but all of them have failed miserably till date. This despite the fact that Pakistan too has borne the brunt of the extremely unreliable weather conditions in the said region.
So whether it is due to bruised egos or even a case of upping the ante when a war breaks out, or simply a sore lack of political will in order to pander to a misplaced sense of nationalism, it now seems almost a case of Hobson’s choice after all.
That we made it into one makes it more pathetic when one confronts the misery in the eyes of the families of all those who lost their lives at the altar of a cold-hearted monster which Siachen has become, for them at least.
(The writer Chintha Mary Anil works with The News Minute.)