Siachen tragedy: Is a glacier worth their lives?
Once again, we are lamenting the death of soldiers; the brave sons of the soil who were tragically killed at the highest battlefield in the world, while we slept comfortable and warm in our cosy beds.
It is indeed a great tragedy to hear that such young men have been crushed under tonnes of snow – men who could have done so much for their country and for their families. What a painful way to die, and what an unjust way to reward all that they have done for us. They, of all people did not deserve this. Yes, the casualties may be 135 (124 soldiers and 11 civilians) but the loss is so much greater than this number as each amongst them was undoubtedly a son, a father, a husband, or even a lover.
However, as a country we have become more or less indifferent to such tragedies. When a bomb explodes, all we ask for is the death toll; we feel a bit of remorse, discuss it, and that more or less sums up our debate. Whatever this may be, a gift or curse of humanity – we forget all with time and move on to another day. But today, this time around, I am not going to just forget.
Why were our soldiers there in the first place?
Why do we continue to invest so heavily in protecting a block of snow, with no human inhabitation, except the soldiers who so precariously guard it against foreign intruders?
This is not only true for Pakistan, but also for Indians; there is an equal possibility that the tragedy could have taken place on the Indian side of the border. Both the Indian and Pakistani army units could have been buried in the snow.
Why are we just standing here, dedicating our BBM and Facebook statuses to the soldiers who died? Why aren’t we demanding the reason behind why they were stationed there?
According to careful estimates by defence analysts, Pakistan spends approximately Rs15 million a day to maintain three battalions at the Siachen Glacier. This translates in to Rs450 million a month, and Rs5.4 billion a year. On the other hand, the deployment of seven battalions at the glacier costs India Rs50 million a day, Rs1.5 billion a month, and Rs30 billion a year.
The economic cost of maintaining an infantry brigade group at Siachen to guard the desolate, super-high altitude, mountain passes and approaches leading to it from the Saltoro Range to its west, has been estimated to range between Rs3 crore to 3.5 crore per day – Rs1,000 to 1,200 crore annually.
All this expenditure is incurred despite the ostentatious amounts of poverty stricken people living in each country – people who don’t even have enough money to afford one meal a day.
According to unofficial figures, over 3,000 Pakistani soldiers have lost their lives on the blood-laced Siachen Glacier between April 1984 and April 2012. Over 5,000 Indian casualties have also been documented. At one point, one Pakistani soldier was killed every fourth day, while one Indian soldier was killed every other day.
Over 1,300 Pakistani soldiers died in Siachen between 1984 and 1999. Almost all of the casualties on both sides have been due to extreme weather conditions.
Many of us will remember the seminal drama “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie” which clearly depicted the hopelessness of those fighting in such a woe-begotten territory. The drama depicted the glory and honour of a soldier standing proud on a mountain peak, holding the country’s flag staff, standing on the heaps of his fallen enemies. What it also depicted was the gory triviality of it all, when the same hero had to have his limbs cut-off due to constant exposure to inhumane conditions.
The question that one should really ask is, is Siachen really worth all this fuss? Why do our soldiers continue to stand eye-to-eye defending hopeless territory? Many of them will actually never return to see their sons, wives, daughters or beloved. And the others who will be fortunate enough to return may be handicapped or suffer permanent mental damage.
The death of so many young men was indeed a calamity beyond all measures, but could it have been avoided?
This tragedy also gives us a chance for introspection and to question the real need for Siachen. Maybe the time has now come for the two leaderships to de-militarise Siachen, and take it back to the pre-1984 times when both armies refrained from coming to the area. By doing so, the Indian and Pakistani Army may lose out on some strategic gains, but the question to be asked is whether all this strategy is more important than human lives.
Read more by Rafeel here.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.