846 Indian soldiers have died in Siachen since 1984
For the first time ever, the government has announced the number of Indian soldiers who have laid down their lives in the Siachen sector, ever since the Indian army made its first headlong rush to secure that strategic area in the summer of 1984.
Defence Minister A K Antony, in a written reply to a question in the Lok Sabha, on Monday stated, "A total of 846 armed forces personnel have made supreme sacrifices on the Siachen glaciers since 1984."
This includes deaths due to the extreme climate and terrain conditions, which causes more casualties in that sector than battle. Hypoxia, high altitude pulmonary edema (or "altitude sickness" in mountaineering lexicon), avalanches and crevasses have taken a heavy toll on Indian lives.
Early in this high-altitude war, New Delhi decided not to differentiate between those who died in combat and those who were swept to their deaths in an avalanche.
"(Environment-related) death during the course of duty on Siachen glaciers is treated as a 'battle casualty' and enhanced compensation is paid to the next of the kin," Antony told the Lok Sabha on Monday.
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Image: Indian army soldiers muster at their base camp after returning from training at Siachen Glacier
For years Pak has mounted bloody, but fruitless attacks atop Saltoro Ridge
"Operation Meghdoot", the military nickname for operations in Siachen, began on April 13, 1984, when the Indian Air Force helicopters airlifted a platoon of hardy hillmen from the Kumaon Regiment onto the Saltoro Ridge, which overlooks the Siachen Glacier from the west.
Building up quickly, more Indian troops moved onto the three main passes on the Saltoro Ridge -- Bilafond La; Sia La; and Gyong La.
According to Lt Gen (Retd) V R Raghavan, a respected authority on Siachen, the Pakistan army had planned a similar operation to occupy the Saltoro Ridge that summer. But they arrived on the Saltoro a month after the Indians, only to find most of the key heights on the ridge already occupied.
For years, Pakistan has mounted bloody, but eventually fruitless, attacks to get atop the Saltoro Ridge. But the Indian army still controls all of Siachen, its tributary glaciers, and all the key passes and heights of the Saltoro Ridge. Shut out even from a view of the Siachen Glacier, Pakistani troops suffer a severe tactical disadvantage all along the 109-kilometre-long Actual Ground Position Line, as the frontline in that sector is called.
"Forced to fight uphill, Pakistan is believed to have suffered the lion's share of battle casualties on the Saltoro. Indian troops, who hold higher positions with more difficult access, were estimated to have initially suffered more environment-related deaths, before better equipment, procedures and training brought casualties down to a trickle since the mid-1990s.
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Image: The Siachen Glacier
No headway in talks so far
On April 7 this year, an avalanche that slammed into Pakistani headquarters at Gyari swept away more than 130 soldiers. The next day, Pakistan's President Zardari asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to cooperate in demilitarising Siachen.
New Delhi, however, is sticking to its demand for authentication of ground positions on the Saltoro Ridge before any demilitarisation could be continued.
The Indian army says without authentication on signed map sheets, its hard-won high ground on the Saltoro Ridge could be occupied by Pakistan with impunity.
As a result, the 13th round of Siachen talks between the two countries' defence secretaries was adjourned without any headway towards settling the Siachen dispute. No dates have yet been fixed for the next round of discussions.
Image: Pakistan's Defence Minister Naveed Qamar (R) talks with Defence Secretary Shashikant Sharma at the Defence Ministry in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad on June 11.
Photographs: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters