Allow me to recommend to you two fine new books on the Siachen conflict. The Long Road to Siachen: The Question Why (Rupa, Rs 1,500) is by Kunal Verma, a filmmaker and journalist long associated with the armed forces, and Rajiv Williams, a retired brigadier who took part in one of the hardest-fought India-Pakistan encounters around the glacier, the battle for Quaid Post/Bana Top in 1987.
And Siachen Glacier: The Battle of Roses (Rupa, Rs 495) is by Harish Kapadia, longtime editor of the Himalayan Journal and one of India’s better-known mountaineers. He is also the father of Nawang Kapadia, a young and newly commissioned army officer who was killed by militants in Kashmir a decade ago, on November 11, 2000.
Most of the first book is by Verma, which is good because few soldiers know how to write books. Verma’s tale is more than a military chronicle. As a young man he was an expert trekker and led expeditions in Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir and Ladakh. He has been to Siachen several times. The book is full of photographs taken from helicopters and MIGs, showing a merciless landscape of snow, ice and rock.
But he also worked as a journalist and is plainly interested in history. So he does not isolate past from present. To tell the story of Siachen, he starts at the beginning. He describes the habitual battlefield tactics of medieval Indian rulers, leading gradually via strategy and diplomacy to the inclusion of Kashmir and the Karakorams in the whirlpool of Asian imperial politics. He focuses on the sharp-witted Dogra rulers who shook themselves free of the self-destructive court of Ranjit Singh after the great Sikh’s death, and cobbled together the enormous kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir.
He carefully surveys the handful of missions led by Europeans that first entered the Karakorams in the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the more eccentric travellers wandered about the uncharted Aksai Chin, and assigned it to the Dogra kingdom though the Dogras had no actual control over the area. That bit of India, which Indians never really held, is what we are unhappy to have lost to China in 1962.
Curzon’s Great Game extended, Verma says, into the 1940s. The British wanted to keep control of Gilgit in the northern areas, now held by Pakistan, because it offered a direct route to Central Asia. If he is right, that strategic thinking played a role even in Partition — for, Verma says, Partition secured the British, via a grateful and pliable Pakistan, their door to Central Asia. Even the 1999 Kargil war, which Verma analyses in some detail, was in part about testing the viability of India’s hold on the glacier.
Harish Kapadia’s book is better written and organised, though it covers a little of the same ground, especially the history of the exploration of the glacier and its environs. The joy of this book is the access — albeit faint and secondhand — it offers to the fierce exhilaration of mountaineering. Up where the air is thin and there are no backups, one must have an accurate estimation of one’s own capacities and those of one’s colleagues.
No wonder that, despite the stress of serving at 20,000 feet for months at a stretch, soldiers look forward to their Siachen posting. Perhaps they see it as a test, or a vindication. Yet clearly it is almost unbearable. Verma’s co-author Rajiv Williams describes how the soldiers at the forward posts, some above 20,000 feet (Bana Top is at over 21,000 feet), are supplied, kept alive and motivated. Both he and Kapadia write of the calamitous pollution the Siachen region has suffered. When one helicopter at that altitude can carry just one soldier at a time, where is the question of removing garbage? How to clean up a 7,000-litre kerosene oil slick on a glacier?
Kapadia is probably right when he says the only recourse is to dedicate Siachen as an international “peace park”. If not, he concludes with a horribly chilling observation, the time may soon come when India has to defend the eastern flank of Siachen as well. On that side is the Shaksgam Valley, a strategic strip at present not firmly under Pakistani, Indian or Chinese control. But the Chinese, he says, have begun “cartographic aggression” — in other words, they sanction international climbing expeditions for that region, which they may not actually own. It is the very same action that alerted the Indian army to Pakistan’s intentions in Siachen in the 1980s.