The country mourned when braveheart Lance Naik Hanumanthappa breathed his last. He not only left us devastated but also obligated us to think about the working conditions of Siachen soldiers.
It’s time to introspect whether we should do something so that no other soldier meets Hanumanthappa’s fate. It has become urgent for the government to consider the withdrawal of forces from Siachen during the harsh winter. In case there’s a compelling reason to deploy, such deployment should be limited to one or two chowkis for communication only. If we can make this arrangement with China in Ladakh, why can’t it be done with Pakistan in Siachen? The proposal for de-militarisation and withdrawal during winter has been discussed several times in the defence ministry. I hope certain options were explored.
Siachen is covered by heavy snow, with temperatures ranging between 0 to minus 35 degrees Celsius. Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been locked in a stand-off on the glacier since 1984. The Indian army has around 300 soldiers deployed in Siachen. They are provided with ration for six months and they return to their base camp only after six months.
Soldiers are taught to survive first and then fight. Many soldiers have become colour blind due to continuous exposure to snow; many are suffering from ophthalmological problems. Many soldiers suffer frostbite. If you visit Leh’s army hospital, you will find many soldiers admitted for frostbite. Pneumonia and oxygen-deprivation are common. Permanent disability is also not uncommon. We have lost valuable officers and soldiers because of Siachen. When I visited Siachen with K.C. Pant, then defence minister, we witnessed soldiers’ arduous life there. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was also convinced about making Siachen a mountain of peace when he visited it in 2005. He was the first PM to visit Siachen.
Snow storms are a regular feature of the region. It’s inherent in the nature of ice that nothing changes its form in it. Human waste takes months to get dry, and it becomes a health hazard for the soldiers. Even when a soldier falls sick, helicopters find it difficult to land. That was precisely the reason why the bodies of the nine soldiers could be evacuated only days after they were killed.
Siachen is only a 75 km stretch between India and Pakistan. Given the human loss, the two countries should agree to take forward the draft agreement settled by Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto in 1989 — that there will not be any deployment of forces in Siachen in winter. I hope Pakistan would reciprocate because it’s the Pakistani soldiers for whom the terrain is more difficult, as they don’t have treatment facilities there, nor are they equipped like their Indian counterparts.
Pakistan’s Ambassador to India, Abdul Basit, had recently expressed his country’s desire for a speedy resolution to the Siachen stand-off. So, once such a proposal comes, both sides should accept it for the sake of their soldiers. When George Fernandes was defence minister, he had said India spends hundreds of crores in Siachen but there’s nothing there that benefits India. India spends around Rs 4 crore per day in Siachen.
Both countries have accepted Siachen as a matter of prestige. So forces have been deployed from both sides. Otherwise, it has no real strategic significance. Because of its terrain, there will never be any incident like Kargil in Siachen. There’s a huge difference between the geography of the two regions. The enemy can construct bunkers in Kargil to intrude into our territory but it’s not so easy in Siachen. We can patrol the area with helicopters even without deploying soldiers. Helicopters can keep a watch on the border and on intrusion for every two to three kilometres. We have modern instruments by which we can keep a close watch and monitor the area. So there’s no need for the deployment of forces, particularly during winter. The fact is that we can keep a better watch from helicopters we presently use for the transport of soldiers and also with satellites. In winter, it becomes very difficult for soldiers to step out of their camps and patrol. In case we pick up any intelligence, forces can be airlifted to the region within an hour.
Both India and Pakistan should seriously consider this idea. The Indian government should take the first step in this direction so that no other soldier meets the fate of Hanumanthappa and his colleagues. This would be a fitting tribute to the indomitable spirit of Hanumanthappa.