War Of Words As Highest Battlefield Prepares For First Tourist Invasion
17 September 2007
New Delhi: For almost two decades, the Indian and Pakistani armies have fought a near-war along the freezing peaks of the Himalayas. But now the world's highest battlefield is to become an adventure playground for trekkers and mountaineers. The Indian army yesterday took what analysts described as an 'inflammatory' step and announced it would 'encourage mountaineering and trekking expeditions' across the Siachen glacier. It is a beautiful and forbidding terrain. There are no trees, no scrub and no animals, just an unending desert of snowy white. Siachen is barren except for the 3,000 soldiers who live in igloos and puffy white snow suits. Temperatures can drop to minus 50, and the air is so thin there is not enough oxygen to light a match. It costs $1m (£500,000) a day to keep the troops eyeballing each other. Both New Delhi and Islamabad lay claim to the glacier, which is held by India. No shells have been fired since a ceasefire in November 2003, and the absence of war has, in effect, transformed the world's highest battlefield into an icy oasis. Taking advantage of the lull in hostilities, the Indian army has been quietly ferrying civilians around the towers of ice and snow. A 16-member Indo-French expedition recently scaled Mamostong Kangri peak, 20 miles east of the Siachen glacier. The Indian army is to organise 'trekking trips' as a 'civilian adventure activity'. Next week a mixture of Indian students and army cadets will climb to 16,000ft on a three-week trek. There is no risk of coming under fire, say experts, as the Indian army holds all the ridges overlooking the glacier. PCS Rautela, a retired Indian air force officer who now heads the Indian mountaineering association, told the Guardian that 'foreigners and [Indian] civilians will be welcome'. 'There are 100- odd peaks that we want opened and points of the glacier that rise up to 24,000ft. It is a very special area,' he said. However, India's plans to open up Siachen, the world's largest glacier outside the polar regions, to tourists has infuriated its nuclear-armed neighbour. In Islamabad the Indian deputy high commissioner was summoned to the foreign ministry for a dressing down. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said India's representative was told 'plans to open up the disputed territory for touristic purpose was viewed with deep concern by Pakistan'. In Pakistan's view the glacier is a conflict zone, and moves to make it a tourist hotspot could 'vitiate the atmosphere for the ongoing peace process'. Although the two sides have been close to a deal on Siachen, peace has been not easy to find. Each side accuses the other of 'cartographic aggression'. In 1949, just after India and Pakistan fought their first war over adjoining Kashmir, the two neighbours agreed to a ceasefire line that ran north of the region and stopped short of Siachen. That point is still known by its map coordinates NJ9842. For decades the triangle between Pakistan, China and India was empty save for mountaineers and trekkers sucked in by the challenge of the icy wasteland. Many tourists came in through Pakistan, which began to label Siachen as its own. For India this was tantamount to seizing territory by redrawing a map - hence the charge of 'cartographic aggression'. The coldest war on the planet began in late 1983, when Pakistan granted a permit to a Japanese expedition to climb Rimo peak, east of Siachen. A few months later, the Indian army captured Siachen in a daring military raid. Rimo peak has just been climbed by a team from the Indian Mountaineering Federation. 'I think you can call this an inflammatory step,' said Ajai Shukla, a former colonel in the Indian army and a writer and broadcaster on military affairs. 'In India alarm bells rang in the early 80s when Pakistan took trekkers into the area for tourism and we reacted with force. If you do the same thing now, how can you be surprised to upset Pakistan?' A few years ago, there was much speculation that the peace process would see Siachen transformed into a demilitarised zone dedicated to scientific research on extreme climatic conditions and adventure training for elite mountaineers. In 2005 the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, said: 'The time has come that we make efforts that this battlefield is converted into a peace mountain.' Analysts say there is an awareness on both sides of the border that the standoff in the mountains is an unacceptable drain on the two countries, which have lost more soldiers to altitude sickness and the cold than to hostile fire. 'It is a question of trust here. India won't bring down its troops without Pakistan officially authenticating the positions they hold. Pakistan won't do so because they don't want to endorse India's hold on disputed territory,' said Radha Kumar of the Delhi Policy Group, a thinktank based in the Indian capital. 'Personally I think it is a great idea to have some new ski slopes in the Himalayas, but not without peace breaking out.'