Siachen: 31 years later, the agony continues

Last Updated: Tue, Feb 16, 2016 12:06 hrs
7th Central Pay Commission visits Ladakh

The Indian Cricket Team had a good run till the semi finals in the Cricket World Cup 2015. 

When the team reached the semi-finals, the country was euphoric. The media, the common man on the street, everybody was showering love on the cricketers and even when the team lost in the semis, the conversations were positive..."We love our boys..." shouted one headline. "Lost semis, but won hearts..." screamed another.

Somewhere in the entire noise, the fact that this is a team of highly paid professional cricketers was lost. This was not a ragtag team that was quickly assembled before the CWC. These were players who were supported by a battery of professional support staff. 

When this team reached the semis, our country reacted as if the team had achieved a heroic victory for the country. We forgot that these players are among the highest paid sportspersons not only in India, but possibly worldwide. We ignored the fact that the game itself has been tainted by allegations of matchfixing, drugs and dirty deals.

As a nation of cricket lovers, we are willing to turn a blind eye to all the uncomfortable truths staring us in the eye. "We won't give it back" becomes a war cry. The collective heartbeat of the nation stops when an Indo-Pak match is underway. 

All the foibles that mark the game, all the dirty dealings, all the questions raised are forgotten....all is forgiven and forgotten as long as 'our boys in blue' keep winning matches or at the bare minimum, keep defeating Pakistan.

But what about our other set of boys? The 'boys in fatigues'? Doesn't the nation owe them anything? For every match that our pampered cricket team wins, there are scores of border and internal skirmishes that have been avoided or diffused, due to the ceaseless efforts of our Indian Army troops. However neither their strength nor sacrifices have been noticed and appreciated to date.

Most Indians would not even be aware that the month of April 2015 marks the 31st year of the Siachen conflict. The beginnings of the Siachen conflict can be traced back to April 1984 and since then India and Pakistan have fought intermittently. In order to protect its national interests, India has maintained permanent military presence in the region.

There are estimated to be 3000 Indian troops posted at Siachen- the highest and most hostile battlefield on the Earth. At an altitude ranging from 14000 ft – 22000 ft, and with winter temperatures dropping as low as -50 degree C and snowstorms lasting 3 weeks, the Indian Army has not one, but many enemies to battle – the insurgents , the Pakistan army, the cruel terrain, the never ending harsh winter and last but not the least, the battle with loneliness.

It is estimated that over the last 31 years, approximately 1000 people have lost their lives due to the Siachen conflict. At least 50 Indian soldiers have lost their lives in just the last three years.

The region is unpopulated apart from the presence of the Indian and Pakistani armies. The nearest civilian settlement is the small village of Warshi, 10 miles downstream from the Indian base camp. The region is also extremely remote with negligible road connectivity. On the Indian side, the road goes up to the military base camp at Dzingrulma, 72 km from the head of the glacier.

The terrain is so treacherous that if a soldier dies, his body may never even be found. The body of Havaldar Gaya Prasad from 15 Rajput Battalion serving in Siachen was found after 18 long years – imagine the trauma and plight of the family that does not get closure for nearly two decades.

An average duration of a soldier's posting at Siachen is 90 days. Thus, during this time, he is physically disconnected from his family. At the Glacier, even technology gets defeated. The technology that helps us bridge chasms of distance and keep loneliness at bay – whether it is email, social networking sites, mobiles, phone apps- none of these are of any use to the lone warrior at the border outposts.

The simple act of surviving at Siachen means overcoming all mental, physical and spiritual limits. If a soldier's bare hand touches his gun for 15 seconds, he can get extreme frostbite- leading to loss of his entire hand. The oxygen at Siachen is 10% of what it is on the plains. 

Not only that, the human body is not built for enduring beyond 17000 ft and it reacts in many ways – sleep disorders, speech blurring, memory loss are some of the afflictions that can strike anytime. While a cricket match is called off because of the rains, a soldier continues protecting his nation in all kinds of weather and terrain.

When M S Dhoni does not return to India to see his new born daughter, it is front page news. We laud his selflessness because he put cricket before family... the fact that if India wins the CWC under his captaincy, his professional interests will get a boost is not even acknowledged.

But has anybody spared a thought for the ordinary soldier who does not see his family for many months at a stretch? He does not get millions of rupees, high profile endorsements, love of fellow countrymen, a slew of awards etc. for risking his all at the remotest battlefield in the world. 

Instead this ordinary soldier would live and die an extraordinary life but nobody would know and worse a callous nation would not even care. For most of us, patriotism starts and ends with defeating Pakistan in cricket. And that is the tragedy of our nation.

But in true spirit of the Indian Army, reads the scroll of honor at the Siachen base camp –

"Quartered in snow, silent to remain. When the bugle calls, they shall rise and march again."

Aditi Kumaria Hingu is a marketing graduate from IIM Calcutta, currently working in an MNC. She comes from an army background.