Can you imagine a land nearly 19,000 feet above sea level with howling winds where the snow can be as much as 35 feet deep, or more? It is a 43 mile-long glacier, which makes it the second largest glacier in the world outside the poles. No animal is so stupid as to live there; indeed even plants do not exist. Day in and day out, the snow blinds you with its intense white glare. Even the rifles have to be heated so that they do not freeze. This is the Siachen Glacier where India and Pakistan have been fighting a totally idiotic war since 1984. Both sides concede that more soldiers have perished because of the climate than enemy fire. Both sides also agree that they are spending their taxpayers’ money in the millions every day for this insane conflict. There have been a dozen or so efforts at making peace and in June 1989, Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto almost agreed to a withdrawal. But the Indian generals would have none of it and the civilian government was not strong enough to put its foot down.
I was of the opinion that the establishment thinks that people do not matter while land does. One can read about any number of wars over land in history, which have wasted thousands of lives. Even the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between the kings of France and England was understandable. For the lands were fair and not wastelands. The Alsace-Lorraine region, which became the bone of contention between France and Germany, was also a rich and fair land. But, despite the fact that many people spoke German dialects, there were cities like Metz where the language was French. When the German king was advised to annex it by his generals who wanted to move the frontier to the west in order to have a strategic advantage over France, the wise minister Otto von Bismarck opposed the aggression. He said it would result in war with France. And that is exactly what happened. It resulted not in one war but several and, cost far more in men and money to both France and Germany than any strategic advantage could compensate for. Indeed, history talks of many conflicts over pieces of the earth which cost much more in terms of lives blighted and wealth squandered. Of course, the nationalists who go to war for these pieces of land, do so on some imagined principle of dynastic ego or national prestige or vague concept of ‘strategic interest’ or ‘national interest’. While the realist school of international relations would have us believe that decision-makers carry out a cold-blooded rational calculation of loss and gain before deciding to sacrifice their young men, the fact is they act irrationally. They act like foolhardy, gambling school bullies who jump into fights to satisfy their egos. Such are the decision-makers of the human race to whom we have entrusted our lives and in whose hands we have given weapons which can blow up the planet several times over.
As I said, in most cases of war, the land and its wealth was said to be a major cause. While it made sense in premodern warfare when the weapons were not as destructive and there was no spirit of nationalism to keep the dogs of war perpetually unleashed, the advent of modern weapons and nationalism have made these arguments obsolete. However, in the particular case of Siachen, we are in danger of losing the land too — not the wasteland of the glacier itself which ought not to interest any sane person, but the great plains of India and Pakistan. The reason is that the glacier is melting at the rate of 110 metres per year and the great Gangotri Glacier is also melting at a rate of 32 metres per year. This is unprecedented and it will be an ecological disaster if the glaciers melt because of human activity. The glaciers feed rivers and if we waste the water because of fast melting glaciers, we will have to face unprecedented disaster in the river systems of both India and Pakistan. In short, instead of gaining land our follies are going to make us lose the lands we inherited. Does this make any sense?
Well, in the face of such arguments the nationalists fall back on principles: the Indians contend this was their land and Pakistan had allowed expeditions near, or on some part of it earlier than their occupation of the Saltoro Range heights. The Pakistani position is that the land was unmarked but that India transgressed against this understanding in April 1984, when it sent in its army to occupy the heights of Saltoro. Since the 1990s, the Bharatiya Janata Party contends that Siachen is necessary for ‘strategic and security’ reasons. In Pakistan also, this argument is heard with the additional one that India can threaten Gilgit-Baltistan and China’s approach to Pakistan. The fact is that if India and Pakistan would only deploy their forces in the areas where human habitation actually begins, they would be more secure than they are now as they would not be constantly losing soldiers and money. After all, an army which crosses the formidable glacier would not be a match for an entrenched army sitting in trenches in habitable land. Moreover, if it is a question of crossing over into the other’s territory, there are other less daunting places. The real reason is that both sides are afraid of losing face and appearing to seem weak and appeasing. But these fears should transcend for the higher reason that there is nothing more important than human lives and ecology.
In short, what I would recommend in the interest of human beings on both side of the conflict and the ecological system of the two countries is for them to withdraw to the pre-1984 positions. And if India does not agree, then Pakistan should do so unilaterally while reserving the right to appeal to the International Court of Justice or some other UN agency for a final marking of the maps acceptable to both countries.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 26th, 2012.