May Issue 2012
Siachen: The Height of Folly and Courage
War unfortunately is not conducted on Gandhian lines, the sacred principles of non-violence. Nor are the doctrines of Christianity of much use in this grim business, turning the other cheek usually an invitation to another slap on the face. Tragedies are a part of life, of conflict and war too. When tragedies occur nations mourn them and, if any lessons are to be derived, they learn something new. But nations with some spine in them usually don’t change course just because of a single catastrophe.
Siachen is the bleakest battlefield in the world.There won’t be any two opinions about this. But if we have inherited part of the Himalayas, and if we are not to abandon them, we must live by the rules of that inheritance.
Certainly India and Pakistan should be able to manage things better, not only Siachen but other things as well. There is no iron rule why Siachen must remain a battleground and why lives must be lost and the elements fought and the limits of human endurance tested. But unless the gods of the mountains take pity and gift some sense to the combatants, the challenge of it will remain for the foreseeable future.
All wars are not sought. Mostly they just happen, through accident, the play of unrestrained ambition or the march of folly. But there is no running away from the dogs of war once they are unleashed. Aggression not countered is aggression rewarded. Let Pakistan walk away from Siachen. In India this will be read as a sign of weakness, the ultimate argument for standing firm and worshipping at the altar of rigidity, on every issue and in every particular.
India stood firm on Kargil, indicating its determination that come what may, regardless of the price, it would get the heights vacated which Pakistan in the depth of winter had stealthily occupied. Any unilateral Pakistani wavering on Siachen and the lesson of Kargil will be reinforced: that Pakistan only understands the language of force.
None of this takes away from the senselessness of the Siachen conflict. The glacier was best demilitarised and troops from both sides pulled out. We were close to an agreement in 1989 but then the Indian military had other ideas and since then progress has been stalled because of endless quibbles from the other side. Siachen is one conflict Pakistan cannot be held responsible for. There is near universal agreement about who the aggressor is.
In the ’80s we were caught up in the travails of Afghanistan, bringing light to that darkened land, little realising that before we were done with it the lights would go out in our own country. And in the secret laboratories of Kahuta we were putting together the ultimate weapon of defence, or so it seemed at the time. Taking advantage of our great preoccupations India quietly sneaked into the upper reaches of the glacier.
But to what avail this chorus of agreement or disapproval? We are stuck with a stalemate and unless a measure of statesmanship arises, from quarters hitherto undiscovered, and the doors barring the way to an agreement opened, our armies are doomed to facing each other on those steep and treacherous heights.
Whether the Afghan and Iraq wars were wrong or not, justified or otherwise, there is no disagreement in the countries involved about honouring their soldiers. In Pakistan we are good at army-bashing. Repeated encounters with martial law have honed us in this art. But with democracy taking root, however imperfectly and tenuously, and the old passions abating, we should move on. We should learn to respect and honour our soldiers who keep vigil, a lonely and terrible vigil, in this toughest conflict of all.
We should know more about them. We should be more familiar with their stories of courage and sacrifice. Pakistani journalism is too much about tinselly things, showy stuff lacking substance and meaning. Some of us should try going up to Siachen to learn more about what has been going on all these years.
I can’t help adding one more thing. Indian troops have an unfair advantage in that they have a regular quota of rum to maintain precarious morale. Our troops have to make do with the power of prayer, great in its own way but not for every mortal. No doubt it is tough up there but we owe it to our troops to make it easy for them as far as possible.
From the comfort of the plains it is easy to talk about the Fortress of Islam and similar consolations. But boredom and depression and the unrelenting cold — these are serious afflictions requiring material help.
No unit stays permanently in Siachen. Officers and men are rotated. But it would also help if there was a better appreciation among the army high command of the need for rest and recreation as the rest of the world understands these terms. Except for messianic wars, crusades and the like, primitive jihad included, no wars in history were ever won without the power of Bacchus and the attraction of the fleshpot.
In fiction as in real life, it is the very recklessness which is an essential feature of the soldier’s calling which makes soldiers reckless in living it up when opportunity and good fortune permit. Reckless in life, reckless in battle, it can’t be any other way. The Germans, the Russians, the Japanese, the British in the Second World War had more than water to keep them going. Even towards the end, when Germany was going down in flames, Luftwaffe pilots would return from their missions and dine in style, the best available and at their command.
This used to be the reigning feeling in our army too before false piety and the spirit of commerce, in the form of real estate, took over. What don’t we owe General Zia? Prolonged involvement in hypocrisy destroyed the spirit of the army. I have no idea how this can be reversed. Too much has been distorted, too many false gods worshipped. But on the heights of Siachen all dross and confusion are stripped away. All that remains, all that matters, are the bare bones of courage and determination, life in its rawest form, the soldier by himself face to face with the closest thing to eternity there can be on earth.
The Pakistani nation could do with an elementary course in world history. Do we have any real awareness of what went into such events as the siege of Leningrad, the defence of Stalingrad, the suffering of victors and losers alike in those titanic battles? We are a nation exhausted by 17 days of conflict, in 1965 and 1971. Siachen is the exception. The courage of our soldiers has not flagged. We have so few things to be proud of, but this is one of them.
Let the insanity end, and there should be no doubt this is insanity, but it has to be when there is a dawning of something akin to wisdom on both sides. Appeals to reason will have not the slightest effect on Indian minds. There will always be armchair strategists with nothing to lose who will come up with bizarre twists and angles whenever the clouds seem to be parting.
Our greatest leaders screwed up the dynamics of Partition in 1946-47. Don’t expect the pygmies of today to don the robes of statesmanship in a rush. Things will take time. A Siachen settlement will come when it comes. And until it does we must hang on, saluting our soldiers, honouring their sacrifice — and paying some attention to the true meaning of rest and rejuvenation.
This article was originally published in the May issue as part of the cover story on the Siachen conflict.