At the world’s highest battleground, India and Pakistan fight over a glacier

Posted by on Jun 25, 2014

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India and Pakistan have thousands of troops stationed on the Siachen glacier. (Prashant Panjiar/BBC)

The highest battleground in the world is over an un-demarcated glacier in the Himalaya’s Karakoram range.

For three decades, India and Pakistan’s military dispute has incuded the militarization and control of Siachen glacier. Amid calls of demilitarization of the area from Pakistan and international actors, the Indian government has vowed to continue supporting the armed troops stationed on Siachen Glacier. With India’s recent general elections, the changing leadership in Indian parliament could directly impact the militarization of Siachen.

Siachen Glacier is the second longest glacier outside polar regions. The Indian government has spent the equivalent of $1.3 billion alone on keeping a presence on the glacier, or an estimated $1 million a day to occupy Siachen. While the glacier is an important source of water for both sides, the glacier symbolizes the violent partition and relations of the two countries that have been beleaguered with hostility and suspicion.

The conflict between the two powers began after India successfully gained control of the Siachen Glacier in 1984, marking the first time that the barren and inhospitable terrain was militarized. Pakistan claims it lost almost 900 square miles of claimed territory, and attempted several costly and failed missions to reclaim positions there. A cease-fire went into effect in 2003. By then, both sides had lost more than 2,700 personnel, not in combat, but primarily due to frostbite, avalanche and other hazards in this harsh region

Beyond NJ9842: The Siachen Saga“, a new book by Indian journalist, Nitin Gokhale, contains accounts of Indian soldiers on the glacier. The soldiers call Siachen “the toughest call of duty” as survival on the glacier rrequires combating long periods of isolation, struggling to find clean drinking water, living in cramped temporary shelters without electricity and making do with canned food. Working at 17,000 feet above sea level, the soldiers are also exposed to extreme health hazards such as blood clots in lungs, brain, and limbs. Many return home as amputees.

At any time, each side has 3,000 troops posted along the glacier. The area is a high priority for both nations; important officials from both India and Pakistan have made official visits to the area.

In 2012, 130 Pakistani troops on Siachen died in an avalanche. Since then, Pakistan has been calling for the demilitarization of the region, while India has opposed it and instead called for increased patrolling. Most recently, India’s Minister of Defense, Jitendra Singh, conducted an aerial survey of the entire glacier in February 2014. He promised the best operational preparedness resources for his country’s troops to survive the hostile environment.

The outgoing Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, leader of Indian National Congress party, had been pushing to make Siachen “a zone of peace”. Top officials from the Ministry of Defense, however, are keen to keep Siachen well-manned. Over the past three decades, India and Pakistan has had 13 rounds of talks about Siachen. In the last two talks, agreements on demilitarization were nearly reached but ultimately prevented by political interests.

The victorious Indian People’s Party in the April-May election has pledged harder stance on dealing with border “enemies” and anti-Indian terrorism. Experts from both sides fear BJP will have harsher crisis management, compared to the Congress Party, leaving an uncertain future for the region as BJP’s Narendra Modi begins his tenure as India’s 15th prime minister.

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