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India has lost 900 soldiers at Siachen

February 08, 2016 08:14 IST

'Their failure to take Siachen is an embarrassment to the Pakistan army -- and let them live with it.'
'Our army's shoulders are broad enough to endure the challenge,' says Shekhar Gupta.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with soldiers at the Siachen glacier, October 23, 2014.Whether or not you are a Dev Anand fan, you must acknowledge that as a filmmaker he often explored themes that were recklessly ahead of the times.

There was the most celebrated extra-marital affair in Bollywood history in Guide, the 1965 classic. Less remembered somehow is Prem Pujari (1970), where he played an army lieutenant court-martialled and convicted for cowardice in the face of the enemy.

Dev Anand set the scene at Nathula in Sikkim, obviously based on the famous 1967 skirmish there. The scene has Lieutenant Ramdev Bakshi's (Dev Anand's) pet dog at the border post taking the first volley. He stands holding the dog's body, in mourning and defiance, refusing to fire back with saying: 'Woh goli chalayenge, main goli chalaunga, phir woh goli chalayenge... kab khatam hoga ye silsila (They will fire, I will fire, they will fire back, I will fire back, when will the vicious cycle end)?'

Of course, Bakshi, because he is Dev Anand, escapes, ends up spying for India -- and, finally, gets his family's soldierly honour back by returning just in time and defeating what looks like an entire regiment of Pakistani tanks at his village in Punjab, the familiar Khem Karan.

Why did Thursday's tragic news, of the death of 10 soldiers and an officer on the Saltoro crest line in Siachen, bring this old scene back to me and persuade me to draw what may look like a stretched parallel (though it isn't)? Because this is the way Siachen has been for exactly 32 years now since our army made it its proud home.

In the very first expeditions, we lost an entire platoon of about 30 -- just swallowed by a large crevice that opened up under their unsuspecting feet. Then the Pakistanis tried, unsuccessfully, to catch up and lost their own to crevasses, avalanches and high altitude sicknesses like pulmonary oedema.

Then we lost some more, and so did they. In the biggest such tragedies in 32 years, in 2012, an avalanche took away an entire Pakistani army base in Gyari, sort of at the base of the other side of the Saltoro slopes, burying 129 soldiers and 11 civilians, mostly defence contractors. Both sides make varying claims.

But the Indian side has by now lost about 900 lives in Siachen; the Pakistanis probably a similar number, if not more, as they used to launch desperate assaults in the past. But both sides say that more than 90 per cent of these casualties were caused by the elements, rather than by enemy fire.

Insert Siachen in place of that Nathu La in Prem Pujari, and the new exchange could be something like: We will die in an avalanche, then they will die in an avalanche, then we will die in an avalanche... when will this vicious cycle end? This, in fact, is the cruellest of all military vicious cycles.

There hasn't been a shot fired in anger now for 14 years around the glacier. The ceasefire of 2002 has held nicely here. But casualties thanks to the elements continue, though they have declined with both armies investing in better equipment.

Both armies, as macho armies always do, treat the sector as a badge of honour. You haven't heard Indian or Pakistani soldiers ever say, let's call off this joke, we are really hurting.

First, it is un-soldier like. And second, there is a belief that the other side is hurting even more.

We draw satisfaction from the fact that since we moved in there (this was the first of Indira Gandhi's last two big military adventures in her last year, 1984, Operation Blue Star being the second), the Pakistanis haven't been able to dislodge us from even an inch.

If anything, India captured the one crucial point they owned on the Ridge, the Bana Post close to which this tragedy struck. So, if the Pakistanis are hurting more, let them sue for peace.

You get an echo of this from Pakistan. OK, these Indians have the heights, but the stupid fellows are sitting far away from their bases, suffering and dying from the elements, so let them get tired, they will come to their senses.

The two armies proudly call this the highest battlefield in the world, have instituted special medals for Siachen service for their troops, and regiments on both sides vie for a 'glacier' tenure. It's a box every infantry unit wishes to check. Why bother breaking this cycle of reciprocal cussedness and bravado?

In fact, in my recollection, the one time I have heard a senior enough soldier saying something similar was in 2012, when Pakistan's army chief, Parvez Ashraf Kayani, expressed pain over the Gyari disaster. There wasn't much sympathy or understanding for this from our side.

Just as there was zero appreciation of the Pakistani offer last week to help with search and rescue. A bland no-thanks was the response -- but what remained unspoken (with a smirk!) was, look who's talking. From where you guys are, you can't even see the glacier!

I have a personal claim to make on the Siachen story, and also a disclosure. I broke it for the first time in April 1984, in India Today magazine; though, in fairness, I should mention that Joydeep Sircar, in a 1982 article in The Telegraph, had talked in detail about the contest that had broken out between the two sides in the high Karakoram. But the blows exchanged until then were either cartographic or of rival mountaineering expeditions.

In the spring of 1984, the Indian Army claimed, spread out and declared it 'our' land. So the disclosure is a simple one: Having broken the story and then followed it for years as a reporter, knowing the cruelty of the conditions that troops from both sides faced uncomplainingly, I had inevitably grown to believe that it was a totally futile war, and the earlier we disengaged -- provided India could make sure the Pakistanis would never try coming there again -- the better and more prudent it would be.

I was also among those who watched in deep disappointment as the 1989 talks, the last time we came close to settling Siachen, failed at the last moment. That peacenik belief endured for long after 1989 -- a little like Lieutenant Bakshi's 'kab hhatam hoga yeh silsila.'

I am afraid it is no longer so. And I say this even as I deeply mourn the loss of our soldiers' lives and salute their bravery. Until a few years back, I would have said, see, this is why we must settle Siachen. Today, I won't because between 1989 and now, the trust between the two sides has completely disappeared.

That precise year, 1989, was when the Pakistan army and ISI brought their Afghan strategy of bleeding by a thousand cuts to Kashmir. Subsequently they have extended it to the Indian mainland. It is no longer possible, or wise, to make local, sectoral settlements or de-escalation unless it is a part of a larger normalisation.

Until then, their failure to take Siachen is an embarrassment to the Pakistan army -- and let them live with it.

Our army's shoulders are broad enough to endure the challenge. To that extent, with the 27-year proxy war, my peacenik mind on this has changed. This is one more reason I thought about Lieutenant Ramdev Bakshi and Prem Pujari.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with soldiers at the Siachen glacier, October 23, 2014.

Shekhar Gupta
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