Lt Gen Mukesh Sabharwal
The passing away of a brave soldier, Lance Naik Hanumanthappa, who was buried under heavy snow in the Siachen glacier, has caught the attention of a grateful nation. Much credit must be accorded to his indomitable spirit to survive and will to live against all odds.
Citizens, one and all, led by the prime minister recognise the sacrifice of 10 valiant soldiers of the Indian Army who were the unfortunate victims of the avalanche at those icy heights. May their souls rest in peace.
The print, electronic and social media have indeed been forthcoming in covering the tragedy and conveying the sentiments of the public, while paying homage to the departed soldiers. Yet, there are some discordant voices that question the presence of soldiers in that area.
A view expressed in The Hindu of 11 February 2016 says “that the tragedy does not seem to convince the Defence Minister, Mr Manohar Parrikar to order troop withdrawal from the glacier” (sic).
Parrikar, in a very balanced statement had in fact mentioned,
The decision on Siachen is based on the security of the nation. I am disturbed by the loss of life but I think that due to this, some other solution [withdrawal] would not be the proper analysis.
Why such a senseless unconcern for human lives at unforgiving altitudes and extreme climatic conditions? It is generally believed that commanders are so mission-oriented that they do not care how many casualties are suffered, as long as success is achieved. Nothing can be further from the truth.
The relationship and bond that units and sub-units establish while operating in adverse conditions like Siachen can truly be experienced when one physically stays there for a period of time. When six to eight soldiers, including an officer, live together in a fibre glass hut, share food, see each other’s faces every morning, noon and night, rope up on a patrol as one team, they learn to care and live and die for each other. It was no different for 19 MADRAS, and it is of little wonder that the camaraderie on display was built on an edifice of faith and honour.
The rescue parties worked relentlessly day and night in the hope that some members of the party would miraculously survive. Led by the Commanding Officer, who personally oversaw the rescue operation, it was the dogged determination of the troops that succeeded in finding Lance Naik Hanumanthappa and the mortal remains of the other nine soldiers.
Credit must be given to the medical officers, helicopter pilots of the Indian Air Force and Army Aviation along with their maintenance and support staff who have conducted casualty evacuation operations with unparalleled zeal.
A Little Context
Rescue operation in the Siachen glacier. (Photo: PTI)
Casualties, the gravest concern, have reduced drastically, especially after the November 2003 ceasefire. The author of the article in The Hindu goes on to opine that just because we have militarily and materially invested in the Siachen region over the years, it does not provide us with a strategically sound rationale to continue stationing troops there – only to keep losing them year after year.
So what is the strategic significance of Siachen? Lt Gen ML Chibber, the erstwhile Northern Army Commander had succinctly stated that the Siachen glacier is a wedge that keeps the two adversaries apart. If one were to concede to the Pakistani view that the line north of NJ 9842 does indeed join with the Karakoram Pass, it would literally amount to the Chinese presence in the Shaksgam valley moving southwards to the Nubra valley.
With reported activity of Chinese troops involved in building projects in Gilgit and Baltistan, the general area, right down to the Shyok valley will become a collusive playground and a zone for future exploitation by the Chinese and Pakistanis through the Khunjerab and Karakoram passes. Occupation of the Saltoro and Siachen provides a buffer to Ladakh and in military parlance, the much needed depth to important mountain passes that are gateways to Ladakh and Kashmir.
There are some who point out that it is futile to hold on to the positions on the Saltoro ridgeline because they are important only tactically and are of no strategic significance. They are obviously unaware of the prevailing conditions in Siachen and the unequal advantage that accrues to a defender deployed in prepared positions on heights of 18,000 feet.
Whereas no position is ever considered impregnable by a determined body of soldiers – ask any survivor of such an attack that either failed or succeeded, about his tribulations and his brush with death at close quarters. The professionals in the Pakistan Army are not naïve to have attempted to capture pickets on the Saltoro over and over again despite heavy casualties. If ever there was a tactical gain that was instrumental in providing exponential dividend to a strategic cause, this is one.
Prospects for a Demilitarised Siachen
Citizens and analysts alike agree with the view that the two nations and their armies are engaged in a futile conflict in some of the most inhospitable terrain. The benefits of de-militarisation are not lost on any rational thinking person.
The area can be transformed into a peace park or a laboratory for scientific experiments – the environment can be protected and mountaineering expeditions can be flagged off. Moreover, casualties can be avoided and the national exchequers of both countries can be eased a trifle.
There is, however, a caveat. What if the agreement is flouted and the positions are occupied by the Pakistan Army? There are proponents who advocate that there should be adequate safeguards built into the agreement to include punitive action, if the aggrieved nation so desires. In practice, punitive action is easier said than done, more importantly generating the political will to authorise it.
If one was to put one’s finger on just one factor that had an overarching impact on the resolution of the Siachen problem, it would be mutual trust or rather, the lack of it. The level of mistrust between India and Pakistan in general and the Indian and Pakistani security forces in particular is so deep-rooted that it will take the better part of a couple of generations to overturn.
Starting with the proxy war in 1989, the illegal occupation of Kargil heights in 1999, and the alleged role of the ISI in a number of terrorist actions in India would make an exhaustive list. The attack on the Parliament and the Mumbai terrorist attack on 26/11 are bitter reminders. Calibrating the proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir, providing financial and moral support to tanzeems and unwillingness to expel terrorism from their soil are at the base of Pakistan’s rampant mistrust. It must be remembered that nations grow, prosper and develop when the sanctity of their borders is intact.
As acknowledged by the defence minister, members of the Indian defence forces deployed in the Siachen glacier region are performing a challenging role in extremely harsh and adverse conditions and the nation must laud their efforts. I close with the following lines that express a soldier’s wish:
He seeks no reward, material or otherwise;
His karma he performs with honour and pride;
Yet he longs sometimes, for he is human after all;
For the love of his countrymen;
Yes he does, the Army Man.
(The author was the erstwhile 15 Corps Commander in Kashmir and has served in the Siachen glacier region.)