On 21 October, the government announced that the Siachen area, from the base camp (at Partapur; 11,000 feet altitude) to Kumar Post (at 15,000 feet), would now be open to public. It added that this would serve two functions: one, it would boost tourism, and two, it would allow the public to understand and appreciate the rigours faced by, and the work being done by, the Indian Army there.
It did not however, outline an important, underlying rationale – that tourism would buttress India’s claim to the Siachen.
Also unstated was the fact that Pakistan had tried to do a similar thing in the 1970s and 1980s. Further, this move by the government is not entirely new – the government had earlier (2007 to 2016) allowed joint army-civilian expeditions to Siachen.
What Led to Siachen Dispute?
The genesis of the Siachen dispute lies in the 1949 Karachi Agreement. Signed to end the 1947-48 Indo-Pakistan war over Kashmir, it had clearly demarcated the Ceasefire Line (CFL) in Kashmir up to map coordinate NJ-9842 — but mentioned, indistinctly, that the CFL ran “… thence north to the glaciers.” After the 1972 Indo-Pak War, the CFL was converted into the Line of Control (LoC) — but the ambiguity on the boundary beyond NJ-9842 continued. India is of the view that “thence north to the glaciers” correctly implies “to Siachen”, which is due north of NJ-9842.
Pakistan however, claims that the line from NJ-9842 should be drawn northeastwards towards Karakoram Pass (north of Daulat Beg Oldi).
In any case, Siachen falls in the Northern Areas, which are claimed by India, but are illegally occupied by Pakistan.
Further, to the top and north-east of Siachen lies the Shaksgam Valley, which was illegally ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963. Nevertheless, the issue remained dormant till the late-1970s.
Pakistan’s ‘Cartographic Invasion’ & India’s Operation Meghdoot
In 1977, Colonel Narendra ‘Bull’ Kumar, a celebrated mountaineer and a soldier, saw a map with a Western adventure sportsman which showed a dotted line connecting NJ-9842 with Karakoram Pass. He reported this to the Army’s Directorate of Military Operations. Around the same time, the government became aware that many other publications and maps, including official documents published by the US, were showing the LoC as extending northeastwards from NJ-9842 to the Karakoram Pass, thus placing the Siachen region under Pakistan; and that the latter was permitting Western mountaineers to visit Siachen and the areas around it, thereby surreptitiously instituting its claim over the area.
India concluded that Pakistan was indulging in ‘cartographic invasion’.
In 1980, Colonel Kumar led India’s first Indian expedition to Siachen Glacier – and returned with litter left behind by Pakistani expeditions. In April 1981, he went back to Siachen Glacier and planted the tricolour there.
This was followed by intelligence reports of Pakistan purchasing high-altitude combat equipment.
Sensing that the Pakistani Army was plausibly planning to occupy Siachen, the Indian Army in a swift, bold, strategic move — ratified personally by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — launched Operation Meghdoot, on 13 April 1984.
The Indian Army preemptively deployed small contingents of soldiers on the Bilafond La and Sia La, two key passes on the Saltoro Ridge (west of Siachen Glacier).
With Indian troops also occupying Gyong La, Yarma La, and Chulung La along the Saltoro Range, Pakistan’s access to the Siachen was fully blocked. The Pakistan Army then commenced efforts to wrest back Siachen, and fighting started in the world’s highest battlefield with an extremely inhospitable terrain and climate. After a number of Secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan, a ceasefire was accepted in November 2003. Since then, the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) separates the Indian and Pakistani positions in Siachen.
Challenges in Siachen: Hazardous Weather, Waste Management Crisis
Although there is no fighting going on there now, a trip to Siachen is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Often referred to as the ‘Third Pole”, it has temperatures that plunge to minus 40 degrees Celsius, and blizzards with speeds in excess of 300 km per hour. Air evacuation is difficult — helicopters cannot carry a meaningful load on account of the rarified atmosphere. Oxygen levels at that altitude — about 17,750 ft — are so thin, that breathing is a problem. Together, the high altitude and weather can inflict severe depression, hallucination, memory loss, frost bite, pulmonary and cerebral edema, and at times, death. In other words, the ‘tourists’ would have to be extremely fit.
In addition, are ecological concerns.
Nothing — including human waste — decays at that altitude on account of the extreme cold.
The Indian Army deployment alone generates about 240 tonnes of waste annually — and it has taken the Army one and a half years to remove just 140 tonnes of waste from there. And tourists there will mean much more garbage and human waste. Who is going to clear all of that, is yet to become clear.
Who Will Fund Siachen Tourism?
At this juncture, it is also not known whether the government will directly, or through the Indian Army, fund such tourism. The Indian Army spends over Rs 6 crores a day to maintain its deployment on Siachen. In other words, tourists may have to shell out good sums of money for a visit to that region. Besides, with no hotels, motels, lodges, KFC, Starbucks, malls, chole-bhature / chaat stalls, etc operating there, much of the sustenance burden of tourists will have to be shouldered by the Army.
This is making many ask, what the powers-that-be think soldiers are. Combatants or jack of all trades?
A shooter aiming for an Olympic medal spends about 12-15 hours a day for a couple of years to hone his skills. But in the end, he is only shooting at clay pigeons — which do not shoot back. In sharp contrast, soldiering involves acquiring skills to kill an enemy before he kills you — and the enemy is very keen to do that.
That said, many veterans think that this perhaps may be a good move — provided it is swiftly followed by a diktat that ensures all Twitter ‘warriors, warmongers and allied trolls are taken for ‘tourism’ to parts of the LoC, where firing and shelling is going on.
(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)