news Friday, May 22, 2015 - 05:30
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has begun his Jammu and Kashmir trip by paying a flying visit to the Siachen glacier, the highest battlefield in the world. He laid a wreath at the War Memorial there and informally interacted with soldiers stationed at the base camp near Siachen. Being the Defence Minister, naturally he must be aware of all things defence, but here is something for him to ponder. His counterpart in another time and context, George Fernandes too had made the same trip, and during which he was accompanied by a writer who gave a fascinating account of Kashmir’s (ir)relevance to India, Pakistan and the nuclear bomb. Here are some notes for Parrikar, and for the interested Indian as well: In 1999, a year after India tested five nuclear devices in Pokaran, Rajasthan. Fiction and non-fiction writer Amitav Ghosh had met Fernandes, one of India’s most interesting politicians, while gathering material for an essay on the nuclear tests which would eventually be titled “Countdown”. Fernandes had asked if Ghosh would like to accompany him, and the latter agreed. What emerged is a fascinating account of the toll the Siachen glacier is on the soldiers of India and Pakistan, not to mention the two countries’ finances. On August 25, 1999, Ghosh flew to Leh along with George’s entourage and after swallowing pills to prevent altitude sickness, headed for the Siachen glacier by road via the Khardung pass at 18,300 feet. “The landscape was of a lunar desolation, with electric-blue skies and a blinding sun. Great sheets of glaciated rock rose sheer out of narrow valleys: their colours were the unearthly pinks and mauves of planetary rings and stellar moons. The mountains rose to sharp, pyramidal points, their ridges honed to fine, knife-like edges… along the valley floors, beside ribbon-like stream, there were trees with whispering leaves and silver bark… Outside the polar snows there is perhaps no terrain on earth that is less hospital, less tolerant of human claims, than the region around the Karakorams.” Ghosh talks about how international mountaineering expeditions into the region from Pakistan eventually led to transformation of the Siachen glacier into a “battleground”. In 1983, the Indian Army set up military posts on the glacier, and Pakistan followed suit. Since then at least until 1999, Indian and Pakistani soldiers had exchanged fire every day, even though it is “generally agreed that the glacier has absolutely no strategic, military or economic value whatsoever”. Ghosh also describes the life of soldiers who serve on the glacier. After walking for 23 days with equipment that is heavier what Sherpas carry on Himalayan expeditions, soldiers reach the glacier and live in tents on the surface of the glacier or on ledges of rock. Temperatures can dip to -40 and -50 degrees centigrade, and wind velocities are very high. “Shooting at the other side takes up very little of their time.” When soldiers return to the base camp after a three-month tour of duty, they are covered from head to toe in black grime from kerosene stoves that are always burning, and are the only source of heat. Supplies are sent to the soldiers via Cheetah helicopters which can carry only around 25-kg of weight – one jerry can of kerosene – over and above the two-man team required for operations. Given high wind speeds, supply runs are irregular and on fine days, choppers have to fly under fire. “On the higher reaches of the glacier, the soldiers’ dependence on the helicopters is absolute. It sometimes happens, a major-general told me, that the men become besotted with these craft and begin to pray to them. This is just one of the many species of dementia that come to afflict those who live on the glacier.” Ghosh writes. According to an officer, 10 men per battalion were set aside for “wastage” as it was the environment which resulted in more casualties, and not enemy fire. Ghosh says that annually, around 1,000 Indian soldiers – equivalent to an infantry battalion – are estimated to be injured on the glacier. Back then, basic equipment for an Indian soldier cost Rs 60,000. On the Pakistani side, someone estimated that every roti a Pakistani soldier in Siachen ate cost Rs 450. An account of conversations with soldiers who lived at a base close to the glacier reveals the cultural paradoxes of Indo-Pak relations. While many of them referred to Pakistani soldiers as “dushman”, there was no derogator reference. “’Most of us here are from north India,’ a bluntly spoken major said to me. ‘We have more in common with the Pakistanis, if you don’t mind me saying so, than we do with South Indians or Bengalis.’’” After an attempted visit to the glacier where soldiers were camped out, Fernandes and Ghosh returned to the base where lunch was served. Fernandes himself served the soldiers. A conversation that Ghosh had here with an officer who proudly listed one of his achievements (“no one had gone mad”), could have been something out of Manto’s stories, if he had lived when India and Pakistan showed off their respective nuclear tests. This is how it went. The officer had just returned from a three-month stint in Siachen, and asked Ghosh whether he would help in getting the attention of the defence minister for a plan to win the war with Pakistan. “A nuclear explosion, he explained, inside the glacier, a mile deep. The whole thing would melt and the resulting flood would carry Pakistan away and also put an end to the glacier. ‘We can work wonders’.” When Ghosh asked Fernandes if a solution to the Kashmir dispute was possible at all, the latter replied: “Does anyone really want a solution? I don’t think anyone wants a solution. Things will just go on, like this.” Asked the same question, an officer who was posted near the glacier had this to say about India’s presence at in Siachen: “But of course we have to stay… National prestige – this is where India, Pakistan and China meet. We have to hang on, at all costs.” For more, read the whole longish essay.