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Kashmir Tensions Remain High, Despite Improving India-Pakistan Relations

This past Saturday, April 7, over 130 Pakistani soldiers were buried alive in a horrific avalanche that hit their post at the base of the Siachin Glacier in the Karokaram mountain range.  The Pakistani troops, as well as eleven civilian military employees, still lay under over 80 feet of snow as rescue efforts thus far have been futile in recovering anyone dead or alive.  This barren and desolate area, known famously as the highest battleground in the world, has claimed the lives of almost 4,000 Pakistani and Indian troops. Despite this, neither country will back down from its obstinate claim of a region with no strategic value.

The Siachin Glacier, found in the northern tip of the divided Kashmir region, has been a point of contention between Pakistan and India for almost four decades. Not having been clearly demarcated when the region was divided in the Shimla Agreement of 1972, both nations have claimed the territory at different periods of time. Originally, mountaineering expeditions applied to Pakistani authorities for access to the region, giving assumed control of the glacier to Pakistan. Sensing the danger of letting such a practice go on, India launched Operation Meghdoot in 1984, decidedly taking control of the glacier and two of its northern passes, Sia La and Bilafond La, by placing 300 troops high in the mountains.

Since then, Pakistan has tried five times to reclaim the land, including the infamous 1999 Kargil affair, which proved a disaster. A 2003 ceasefire has eased has ended skirmishes over the wasteland, but troops continue to die and suffer from frostbite, altitude sickness, high winds, and avalanches. Having had two uncles who served for decades in the Pakistani army and spent the worst part of their service in Siachin, I’ve heard first-hand accounts of the horribly difficult conditions in this stark frozen region. Getting out alive, and with your full senses, was no small feat for a soldier patrolling the death trap. I’ve also heard accounts of the many friendly exchanges between the unfortunate Pakistani and Indian soldiers stuck there. Spending months at fairly close range in the desolate, frozen hell often inspired camaraderie between the “enemies.”

By all accounts and measures, Siachin and its surrounding areas have no political, military, or economic value. This glacier is nothing but a symbol of the enduring animosity by hard-line elements on both sides of the border. In the past decade, many aspects of Pakistani-Indian relations have normalized. Cross-cultural artistic collaborations, increased tourism, political visits by heads of state, and frequent athletic, educational, and professional exchanges and events have brought the two countries closer together than perhaps they have been in their short histories. But the Kashmir dispute, highlighted by stubbornness over Siachin, fails to make any progress between the nuclear states.

In both countries, right-wing political parties refuse to allow room for negotiation over an area so remote, it is completely uninhabitable. In Pakistan, groups like the Council to Defend Pakistan and in India the Bharatiya Janata Party have made progress on a settlement over Siachin nearly impossible. Using the Siachin as a political and patriotic test, hardliners have failed to see the warming of general relations as an opportunity to resolve the dispute. 

Now, after another tragic incident has taken the lives of dozens more young men for nothing other than political and military posturing, let's hope Pakistan and India realize it's time to end the quarrel. Peace activists on both sides have urged their governments for years to stop wasting lives and money over Siachin, some even asking that it be made a “PeacePark.”Certainly, a Siachin resolution would be the easiest first step in a settling the larger dispute over Kashmir. If they remain immovable over something no one really wants, there is little hope for resolving Kashmir.  For both Pakistan and India, this should be a no-brainer. Negotiating a final line of demarcation and bilateral retreat will finally allow Pakistani and Indian soldiers to stop guarding, and losing their lives over, the worthless glacier.

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