Map courtesy: www.siachenglacier.com
Declan Walsh of The New York Times has a piece today about the nearly three decades-old stand off between Indian and Pakistani troops on the Siachen Glacier in Kashmir at an altitude of 22,000 feet.
The standoff, which is frequently forgotten by even those who vigorously advocate it, is in the news because of the April 7 avalanche on the Pakistani side that likely killed more than 130 soldiers and civilians.
This is a bogus strategic fight over an utterly inhospitable Himalayan mountain which neither India nor Pakistan has shown the statesmanship to end. There is a word in Hindustani called “enkdi”, which loosely translates petty arrogance with not foundation in fact, that aptly describes what has been going on in Siachen for so long.
It has been known to those who follow the Kashmir issue that Siachen is not a particularly compelling strategic spot other than its austere and primal beauty like many similar places throughout the Himalayan range. Some strategic thinkers on both sides almost arbitrarily decided that this is the place to hold on to at any cost. So it continues at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars over the decades and many lives.
Admittedly, the glacier is cinematic and there has been at least one major feature film made about it. Indian filmmaker Farhan Akhtar made “Lakshya” (Target or Objective) that effectively captured the conflict. While the movie had an element of confectionary nationalism, it did a largely convincing job of portraying what goes on there.
Coming back to the real life conflict, as Pakistan is discovering the glacier is hungry for human life. It does not like intruders. Walsh accurately says, “In the snowy wastes of Siachen, where Pakistani and Indian soldiers face off in a high-altitude battle zone ringed by Himalayan peaks, the fight is against the mountain, not the man.”
What happens with many such stand-offs is that over long passages of time their strategic value acquires unassailable sanctity, even though they may not have begun for reasons other than “enkdi.” Both New Delhi and Islamabad should gather enough courage to admit to each other they have been wrong about Siachen’s strategic value all along and jointly decide to end it.
By the time I started reporting on Kashmir in 1989, Siachen had become enshrined in the bilateral conflict lore as the symbol of standing one’s ground at any and all costs between the two countries. The standoff began in 1984. It used to be discussed in hushed tones full of reverence for those soldiers who were stationed there. Because it tests human endurance to the maximum, those who come back intact are treated with special respect by both sides.
It is easy to see why the 49-mile-long glacier, which as the Times notes is the world’s second longest outside a polar region, would feel like a prized strategic possession. It is just one of those places that nation-states want to own simply because of its awesomeness. And I do not use awesome in the teenage sense. It is truly awesome as a piece of territory simply because it is, in reality, unattainable. The best that can be done to the glacier is to desperately hold on to it and not necessarily possess it. As frequent avalanches would bear out, the place is not meant for habitation.
The time is opportune for India and Pakistan to declare joint ownership of the glacier and withdraw their troops.