THE recent discovery of the body of an Indian soldier lost in an ice storm on the Siachen glacier 38 years ago yet again illustrates the fruitless nature of this high-altitude conflict. The fact is that more soldiers from both sides die of causes other than fighting on what has become known as the world’s highest battlefield. Rather than guns and mortars, it is frostbite and avalanches that claim the lives of most troops in Siachen. The conflict dates back to 1984, when Indian forces occupied the icy glacier, and has effectively remained frozen ever since, although it has taken a high toll in both blood and treasure. One estimate says over 2,500 soldiers from both Pakistan and Indian have died since 1984, the vast majority of deaths caused not by fighting but due to extreme weather and inhospitable terrain. The worst disaster was the 2012 Gayari avalanche, in which around 140 Pakistani soldiers and civilians were buried alive under tons of snow and rock. The Indian side has also recorded fatalities due to avalanches.
While other areas may require complicated negotiations, the Siachen question is one issue where both sides can come to a relatively quick agreement. After all, there is no need for further deaths or injuries to soldiers on either side of this frozen wasteland. Efforts began in the mid-1980s to resolve the issue, while Siachen has also featured in the now suspended Composite Dialogue that both states had pursued. An agreement was reportedly close in 1992, but Indian reservations eventually thwarted that effort. However, nearly four decades after the conflict began, and after several thousand lives have been lost, it is time Pakistan and India moved to resolve this senseless engagement. Perhaps the blueprints of the 1990s’ agreement can be retrieved and looked at anew. For the prospects of peace, demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier is the best option. It would be an easily achievable confidence-building measure and many lives, as well as a huge amount of funds spent on sustaining the conflict, would be saved. Former Indian premier Manmohan Singh had once suggested that Siachen be transformed into a “mountain of peace”. It is time the current Indian administration took up Mr Singh’s suggestion, and Pakistan should respond to such overtures. If there is progress in ending this face-off on the roof of the world, forward movement can also be made in the overall peace process.
Published in Dawn, August 19th, 2022