A Fake War in the Himalayas?

NEW DELHI (IPS) – This week’s stunning confessions by two Indian soldiers that they helped stage fake encounters with Pakistani troops on Siachen, often called the world’s highest, coldest and costliest battlefield, has renewed calls for demilitarizing the Himalayan glacier.

On Monday, rifleman Shyam Bahadur Thapa told a military court that he not only demolished a fake “enemy-held” objective with a rocket launcher in August 2003 but also acted the part of a Pakistani soldier killed in the action as video cameras whirred away.

Thapa said he did this at the behest of a company commander, Maj. Surinder Singh. “He asked me to remove my jacket and cap and lie there (near the demolished objective).”

Thapa is one of four soldiers who have testified before a court of inquiry to say that they had been forced by their officers, including a colonel and two majors, to participate in fake military encounters on Siachen in August and September 2003.

“Obviously this scandal involves the top brass, perhaps even generals – there is no use victimizing middle-ranking officers and ordinary soldiers,” a well-known writer on military affairs, N. Kunju, told IPS in an interview.

Kunju, a former army man himself, is among analysts who believe that the whole Siachen conflict, now running into its 20th year, is actually a huge fraud being played on the Indian people by successive governments and one mirrored by the generals in military-dominated Pakistan.

India spends a million U.S. dollars a day air-maintaining troops on Siachen, a desolate glacier in disputed Kashmir that falls on the tri-junction between India, Pakistan and China and overlooks the Karakorum highway.

The origins of the conflict lie in the drawing up of the Line of Control or ceasefire line in 1949, following a brief but inconclusive war between India and Pakistan over what was until then the independent princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.

The South Asian neighbors have effectively carved up Kashmir, the focus of much of their decades-long animosity. Pakistan controls the Northern Areas and what it calls “Azad (free) Kashmir” and India retains the remaining two-thirds of the territory, which include Jammu, Ladakh and the Srinagar valley.

In 1949, no one thought of Siachen because of its sheer remoteness and inaccessibility. But in a pre-emptive move in 1984, the Indian army airlifted troops onto the glacier in a bid to gain the commanding heights it affords at around 22,000 feet.

There is reason to believe that Pakistan’s 1999 action crossing the Line of Control and seizure of the heights of Kargil, further down on the Line of Control in Kashmir, was carried out in retaliation for Siachen, which it values for the strategic link to Islamabad’s “all-weather” ally, China.

According to Brahma Chellaney, professor of security studies at the Centre for Policy Research, a well-known think tank, the Indian army’s withdrawal from Siachen could “facilitate Pakistani troops joining up with Chinese troops at the Karakorum Pass.”

Such a situation is not unthinkable since China occupies the Aksai Chin region of Kashmir and also holds territory ceded to it by Pakistan.

A joint study carried out by the Pakistani scholar Samina Ahmed and Varun Sahni, who teaches international relations at the Jawaharalal Nehru University in New Delhi, acknowledges that control over Siachen would “support India’s defense of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir against Pakistani and/or Chinese threats.”

According to Ahmed and Sahni, Pakistan’s objective is to “drive the cost of occupation high enough to force India to make concessions in any future settlement on Siachen.”

The soldiers’ confessions this week will only worsen public perceptions of what the real costs are of maintaining Siachen, not only to the exchequer but also in human terms, said Kunju.

Indeed, the potential for the whole conflict over Kashmir to siphon away money and resources that could have better gone into development, besides causing avoidable human tragedies, is currently under discussion in India’s Parliament under a new Congress Party-led government.

The Congress Party, while it was in the opposition, was always been critical of the way India’s relations with Pakistan were handled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government.

The BJP-led government lost the April and May elections after six years of rule, a period that saw peace overtures alternating with the undeclared conflict in Kargil in 1999 with Pakistan, and the costly mobilization of close to a million troops for a full-scale war in 2002.

Soon after the Kargil war, George Fernandes, who held the defense portfolio in the BJP government, was indicted by the Controller of Audits and Accounts for the importation of aluminum caskets at $2,500 apiece to carry back the bodies of dead soldiers.

This controversy led to the opposition accusing politicians of lining their pockets from the conflict.

According to the book Cost of Conflict Between India and Pakistan recently released by the Mumbai-based International Center for Peace Initiatives, the costs need to be measured “on the basis of varied parameters such as discounting of Gross Domestic Product growth, terror economy growth, negative transformation of institutions, politicide, diplomatic losses, education costs, value deficit and most important human costs.”

It also points to the distinct possibility of India and Pakistan resorting to using their nuclear weapons against each other as a result of maintaining continued conflict at ever higher high costs and the resultant domestic turmoil from these tensions.

The book is remarkable, among other things, for an insightful foreword by Niaz Naik, Pakistan’s former foreign secretary. He says: “While people are aware that costs are incurred in the hostility between India and Pakistan, they often believe that such costs are manageable.”