High above the Siachen Glacier there is only one season: winter. Even when the valleys of the Karakoram range on the India-Pakistan border feel the first heatwaves of summer, the thermometers up there, at 6,400 meters, still barely rise beyond zero. In December the temperature regularly measures between minus 20 degrees Celsius and minus 40. Heavy snow storms are a daily occurrence. All of which makes it hard to believe that anybody lives there at all.
And yet the Siachen Glacier is home to thousands of people – or more exactly, thousands of soldiers. The glacier and the surrounding mountain passes have been the site of a military standoff between India and Pakistan since 1984. This conflict goes back to the Karachi Agreement of 1949, which drew a line of ceasefire that ended the first war between the two nations, but that also managed not to draw a clear border in the Siachen area.
India used this vacuum at the beginning of the 1980s to claim some of the area for itself. Pakistan reacted swiftly, sending troops into the mountains. Since then there has been a military stalemate in this elevated area of the state of Kashmir, one that has cost the governments in New Delhi and Islamabad a fortune.
So that the soldiers can survive on the glacier, pipelines were laid in the ice around a decade ago. Convoys of soldiers and locals now drive up to the well-equipped base camps on both sides regularly, bringing supplies to the glacier. Helicopters fly to the most remote outpost and throw packages of supplies and oxygen flasks down to the soldiers.
All of this begs the question: Why are India and Pakistan fighting about this absolutely inhospitable mountain range? The political scientist Stephen P. Cohen once described the scrap as “a struggle of two bald men over a comb” – but in fact there are a number of reasons.
Should Pakistan control this entire glacier region then the Pakistani territory would stretch all the way to China, and the country would also have access to the fertile Nubra valley. That is something that New Delhi does not want to happen. Additionally the Siachen Glacier is of great interest to Pakistan when it comes to the politics of water supply. It could help Pakistan to stock up on meagre water reserves in the future.
But perhaps the most important reason of all is that the glacier has become a symbol of ownership: Whoever controls it, has the upper hand in Kashmir. Its symbolic character was already obvious in 1987 when Pakistani troops took over the Saltoro ridge, a strategically important pass, and opened their Quaid outpost. The camp was called this because Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founding father of modern Pakistan, was also known as Quaid-I Azam (or “great leader”).
When Indian troops later managed to wrest control of the camp back, they re-christened the settlement Bana. This was a sign of disrespect to the Pakistani folk hero as the new name came from the Indian general who had led efforts to wrest control of the camp from Pakistan.
This kind of symbolism during the fighting has not become any less relevant right up until today and it seems unlikely that the Siachen conflict will improve in the future. Even though there has been a ceasefire agreement in effect since 2003, which means there is no more armed conflict, people still die up on the glacier.
Reports say that around 1,000 Indian soldiers have died on the icy mountainsides. Only 220 of them died from gun shots. Most were killed by the extreme weather conditions and things like avalanches.