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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 8 New Delhi February 13, 2016

One Death: Several Questions

Sunday 14 February 2016


After battling against death for eight days, Lance Naik Hanumanthappa Kopad breathed his last at the Army Research and Referral Hospital in New Delhi this morning. The poignancy of his death becomes more acute when it is borne in mind that he has left behind his young wife and a two-year-old daughter. The very fact that he could keep himself alive for five long days after an avalanche buried him and several others under 35 feet of snow at an altitude of 19,600 feet atop the Siachen Glacier till he was rescued, is a marvel. The others who were with him died the very day. Death ultimately triumphed but the battle for survival that Hanumanthappa fought was glorious indeed.

His tragic death once again raises the question of the rationality of India’s holding on to the Siachen Glacier since 1984 when our Army occupied it by Operation Meghdoot. The temperature in Siachen goes down to minus 60oC in winter— something that cannot even be imagined by people living in the plains. The desolation, the feeling of absolute isolation, the extremes to which the body has to accustom itself and the total dependence of survival on regular air-dropping is enough to turn a person mad. But this is not all. The Army personnel who are ‘defending’ Siachen have also to face snowstorms and avalanches like the one that hit Hanumanthappa’s camp on February 3.

Deaths and mental derangements take place regularly but individual cases are seldom reported in the media. This writer has never been to Siachen but he has a first-hand experience of visiting an Army observation post (one of many) near the Chinese border in Arunachal Pradesh at an altitude of 16,000 feet way back in 1969. It was a concrete bunker with three slits on three sides through which our jawans kept a continuous round-the-clock watch on the three routes by which the Chinese could approach. Only five jawans manned the bunker. Except for them there was no soul for miles around. This writer learnt that many soldiers became mental patients after living in such hostile conditions for a long period of time. So, the duration of stay of the soldiers at such posts has been considerably reduced. They also depend for their survival on air dropping.

At Siachen, the Indian Army is at a strategically advantageous position, occupying the top of the glacier. The Pakistanis are down below. According to the Indian Army, our presence at the top prevents the Pakistani troops from climbing up and occupying it. For India the strategic importance of Siachen is that it lies above Khardung La. If Pakistan is able to capture Khardung La, it will be able to dominate Leh by bringing in artillery and rockets in Nubra valley and linking up with the Chinese at Aksai Chin. But the cost of maintaining Indian presence on the Siachen Glacier is enormous —both in terms of money and human life. The terrain and the climate are so inhospitable that except for George Fernandes no other Defence Minister visited Siachen on a regular basis.

The only way out for India and Pakistan is to agree to leave Siachen alone and remove their respective troops. But the possibility of India and Pakistan ever agreeing to withdraw their troops is practically nil. So the costly exercise of holding on to a glacier in the high Himalayas where there is no human habitation and nothing grows will continue, even if it means tragedies like the death of Hanumanthappa.

February 11 B.D.G.