As one of Earth’s most beautiful but in hospitable terrains prepares to open up to tourism, Sudha Ramachandran considers the design behind the decision
The world’s highest and coldest battlefield, the Siachen Glacier, will soon figure on the list of dream destinations for adventure tourists and selfie-seekers.
On October 21, India’s Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, announced that the Siachen region will soon be thrown open to tourists, who will be allowed to visit the entire area, from the Siachen Base Camp, located at the tail of the glacier at an altitude of 3,658 metres, to Kumar Post at a height of around 4,572 metres.
The 76-km-long glacier nestles in the eastern Karakoram Range of the Himalayas, between the Saltoro Ridge to its west and the main Karakoram Range to the east. It snakes down from the Indira Col at an altitude of 5,753 metersto a height of around 3,620 metres, where it forms the source of the River Nubra.
Singh says that opening the glacier to tourists is aimed at providing a boost to tourism in Ladakh. According to Indian Army chief Bipin Rawat, it would also provide civilians with an insight into the tough conditions under which soldiers serve the country.
However, there are cold calculations, too, underlying the Indian government move, for this is strategic territory. Not only does it lie at the tri-junction of India, Pakistan and China but it also overlooks the Karakoram Pass. And the India-Pakistan boundary here is blurred. So behind New Delhi’s professed desire to boost tourism is another agenda: to strengthen its claim over the Siachen area and secure international endorsement of India’s control over it.
Of course, the stunning beauty of the Siachen area can be expected to enthral visiting tourists.But a trip there will be more a test of human endurance.
The Siachen area is notorious for its hostile climate and treacherous terrain. Deadly crevasses dot its geography. Temperatures at the glacier drop to around minus 50 degrees centigrade in winter. Blizzards are known to touch speeds of around 300 km per hour and avalanches are routine. An avalanche on 7 April 2012 hit the Pakistani military base at the Gayari sector, killing 129 soldiers and 11 civilians, while another on February 3, 2016 swallowed an Indian military base in the northern Siachen region.
Since it lies at an average altitude of 5,500 metres above sea-level, the air at the glacier is rare and the combined impact of high altitude and cripplingly cold weather can cause hallucinations, severe depression, memory loss, blurred speech, frost bite, pulmonary and cerebral oedema, and even death.
Clearly, this is not a destination for the faint-hearted.
The Siachen Glacier is disputed territory, with India and Pakistan both laying claim to it. The origin of the dispute can be traced back to the ambiguous text of the 1949 Karachi Agreement, which ended the 1947-48 India-Pakistan war over Kashmir. That agreement described the Ceasefire Line in Kashmir as running up to map coordinate NJ 9842 and ‘thence north to the glaciers’.What it meant by ‘thence north to the glaciers’ was not clarified either in 1949 or 1972, when the Simla Agreement converted the Ceasefire Line to the Line of Control (LoC). The indistinctness of the boundary beyond NJ 9842 remained.
In the late 1970s, India woke up to reports that western publications were carrying maps showing the LoC extending northeast from NJ 9842 to the Karakoram Pass. In effect, these maps were putting the glacier under Pakistan’s control.
Additionally, Pakistan was allowing western mountaineers to scale peaks such asthe Saltoro Kangri and Teram Kangri, which flank the glacier, from the part of Kashmir that is under Pakistan’s control.
Pakistan’s cartographic aggression and its use of oropolitics (using and abusing mountaineering for political purposes) evoked concern in India. But it was only when India learned that the Pakistani government was purchasing high-altitude fighting equipment that New Delhi swung into action. Anticipating a Pakistani military operation to capture the Siachen, India carried out Operation Meghadoot in April 1984. Two platoons of soldiers were sent to take control of the Bilafond La and Sia La, two important mountain passes on the Saltoro ridge.
India beat Pakistan to the Siachen by a week and since then it has controlled not only the main glacier but also all its tributary glaciers and key passes as well as the Saltoro Ridge. Indeed, India has fully sealed off Pakistan’s access to the glacier.
For two decades thereafter, the ridges around the Siachen have resounded to gunfire as India and Pakistan engaged in fierce fighting on this icy wasteland. That fighting ended in November 2003, when India and Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire along the International Border (IB), the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir and the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) in Siachen. While India and Pakistan have repeatedly violated the ceasefire along the LoC over the past decade, the truce along the IB and AGPL has held since.
However, the bilateral dispute over the Siachen lingers and the issue was among the disputes that were being discussed under the composite dialogue framework.
The dispute over the Siachen has cost India and Pakistan dearly. Neither country has made public the financial costs of keeping troops at this high altitude, though it is estimated to cost around $1 million per day. Both sides have lost many soldiers, with most of the deaths caused not by enemy fire but by Nature’s fury and pulmonary and cerebral oedemas.
India and Pakistan are reported to have discussed the question of with drawing troops from this brutal battlefield.But they differ on what should precede the demilitarisation of the area.
Since Pakistan has little to lose from pulling out as it does not control the disputed territory, it is willing to remove its soldiers provided India does so simultaneously. As for India, it wants Pakistan and the world to acknowledge first that it is Delhi which controls the glacier, the surrounding ridges and mountain passes. It wants the ground position in the Siachen area to be authenticated first as an international safeguard before any troop disengagement, withdrawal and the final demilitarisation of the glacier.
It is in this context that India’s opening of the Siachen Glacier to tourists must be seen. India had opened up the area to civilian trekkers, even those from abroad, in 2007. Its recent decision to lay out the welcome mat to tourists as well is an extension of this strategy.India is engaging in oropolitics to have its control of Siachen authenticated by the world.
Tourists to the Siachen can expect to witness extreme scenic beauty. But they will also see Indian soldiers holding the dominating heights on the Saltoro Ridge and, importantly, that Pakistani soldiers are nowhere near the Siachen Glacier.