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On April 13, 1984, 20 Indian soldiers from 4 Kumaon jumped out of helicopters hovering dangerously at over 15,000 feet and, their hands and feet numb with the cold, trudged up to the Bilafond La, a pass on the Saltoro Ridge west of Siachen Glacier. They were followed four days later by 20 more from Ladakh Scouts, whose orders were to climb up to Sia La, also on Saltoro. Despite adverse weather conditions and rudimentary mountain gear, both the teams miraculously occupied the passes. The Pakistanis reacted soon thereafter and raced to block any further advance by Indian forces. 


Thus began the two-decade-old fight for the control of the Siachen Glacier and the unpopulated frozen wilderness around it up to the Karakoram Pass. At heights between 18,000 and 20,000 feet, the Saltoro Ridge is the highest battlefield in the world. 


Myra MacDonald, Reuters' bureau chief in Delhi some years ago, set out to explore the human dimensions of the Siachen conflict four years ago and has brought alive the triumphs and tribulations of the gallant men who have fought on the Saltoro on both the sides of the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). MacDonald's book recounts the journey of a sensitive journalist through the Siachen conflict to seek answers to the glacial equivalent of the clichéd question: why do men climb mountains? She does not have all the answers but describes her quest admirably.  


Based on several visits to the conflict zone on both the Indian and the Pakistani sides — (the only journalist to have achieved that feat), interviews with the military leaders and commanders who had planned the initial occupation of the Saltoro and the soldiers who fought there over the years, MacDonald's account unfolds like a vivid docudrama. Duty and izzat are the motivating forces for all soldiers. But she describes the entire experience: being there, the daily struggle to remain physically fit and mentally alert, the anticipation with which each man awaits the 90th day, the joy of finally being relieved and the grateful thanksgiving at the O.P. Baba mandir at Base Camp, before being driven back. 


The chapters on the actual fighting make for racy reading, though things happen rather slowly at Siachen. The story of the capture of Pakistan's Quaid Post at 21,000 feet by Naib Subedar Bana Singh and half a dozen men is stirring. Bana Singh was honoured with the nation's highest gallantry award, the Param Vir Chakra. 


MacDonald steers clear of the politics of the conflict because she did not set out to write a political book. But the reader is left wondering why the two armies are still there, especially when an informal cease-fire has been in place since November 2003. It is now generally agreed that Siachen does not have major strategic significance for India as neither China nor Pakistan can launch offensive operations towards Leh through the glaciated terrain. The area has no economic significance, nor is it politically important — say, as Amritsar is to India and Lahore is to Pakistan. It certainly has an emotional connection for most Indians as the country has lost many lives defending it. Hence it is important that an early agreement is reached to demilitarise the area as a prelude to the eventual settlement of the dispute about whether the LoC should run from NJ 9842 towards Karakoram Pass, as Pakistan claims, or northwards along the Saltoro, as India would like it to. The Indian Army would be willing to vacate its positions on the Saltoro provided these are first physically demarcated, something the Pakistan Army finds difficult to accept. Only political intervention at the highest level can resolve this deadlock.  


Both the governments have come close to an agreement several times, only to pull back due to political compulsions. Perhaps strong and stable governments on both sides are needed before the dispute can be resolved. MacDonald's book will surely act as a reminder to bring the brave soldiers home. It is a book that all national security policy makers must read on both sides of the border.


(Courtesy: Business Standard, March 06, 2008)








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Brig Gurmeet Kanwal
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