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Siachen conflict – a failure of diplomacy

This piece by me was first published in the IIJNM publication The Observer, on Feb 9, 2016. The Observer is the work of print journalism students at IIJNM. Follow us here.

Stephen Cohen, an American specialist on South Asia, once called the Siachen conflict “a struggle of two bald men over a comb”. Though India and Pakistan indeed resemble the bald men fighting over the largely inconsequential Siachen, the analogy is a bit inaccurate. While bald men have no hair to lose, the two countries are spending crores of rupees per day, often losing soldiers not to the enemy but to nature. All this, even as millions of children go hungry every night on either side of the border.

Surely, nationalistic pride and common sense deserve a relook when two armies are left united battling a common killer. What was it that led Pakistan to offer help to rescue Indian soldiers feared to be buried in an avalanche? The conflict has not remained a conflict against each other.

More soldiers have died of treacherous weather conditions, than because of the conflict itself. The number stands at nearly 3,000 from both sides in the last three decades. We need to stop and think, what is it that we are protecting: a piece of territory, or misguided nationalistic ego?

Soon after 140 Pakistani soldiers deployed at Siachen were killed in a 2012 avalanche, the then Pakistani army chief had issued a statement favouring demilitarization in the region. But the lack of will on the part of both countries to actually take the step is rooted in mutual distrust. When the dismal cost-to-benefit ratio is easily visible, trust is an issue that should easily be resolved with common sense.

As the Narendra Modi government makes an attempt to bridge relations with Pakistan with a calm, calculated approach, the withdrawal of troops from Siachen gains even more context. Siachen is one of the easier choices to make, for the amount of costs it could help both countries to reduce. Moreover, there have been voices from both sides favouring demilitarization already. Environmental experts say that military presence is aiding the fast melting and pollution of the glacier region.

It’s true that armies commit to fight until death in the line of duty, and they are proud of it. But to have them live and die in inhospitable terrains at high altitudes and with dreadfully low temperatures, decade after decade, is a failure of diplomacy.

Our army is largely made up of soldiers from financially vulnerable families. For them to bear the brunt of a diplomatic failure, by exposing themselves to temperatures often below –50 °C, is gross injustice. Temperatures as low and altitudes as high as these are known to cause frostbites, pulmonary oedema, hypothermia, among several other health issues.

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All this is something which both countries must mutually resolve to avoid.

Military conflict comes in when diplomacy fails. The governments must ask themselves whether they have truly given it their all at the diplomatic level.

In June 1989, the two countries came very close to demilitarizing the region. But 27 years later, military presence still exists as a stark reminder of our unwillingness to let go of issues to facilitate peace, step-by-step, for peaceful regional cooperation.

The larger Kashmir conflict does not seem to die down, but when there are easy steps to cement at least a semblance of a peace process, the opportunity must be taken.

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