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Securing the heights: The vertical dimension of the Siachen conﬂict
between India and Pakistan in the Eastern Karakoram
, Marcus Nüsser
Department of Geography, South Asia Institute, Universit
at Heidelberg, Im Neuenheimer Feld 330, 69120 Heidelberg, Germany
Cluster of Excellence: Asia and Europe in a Global Context, Heidelberg, Germany
a r t i c l e i n f o
Available online xxx
High altitude warfare
The Siachen conﬂict between India and Pakistan is often referred to as the coldest war, or, the endless
war atop the roof of the world. The high altitude and extreme climate create a hostile environment that
has caused by far the most casualties and imposed tremendous costs on both sides. This environmental
setting is usually only cited to underline the absurdity of this more than 30 year old conﬂict. We,
however, argue that rather than being a constraint upon the conﬂict, the terrain itself is central to the
genesis and continuation of the conﬂict. Further, the vertical dimension is the focus of contestation and
the site where mountaineering practices, cartographic imagination and military logic intersect. The
inaccessibility imposed by the terrain also implies that far from being a frozen conﬂict there is a temporal
dynamism, as improvements in technology and logistics alter the possibility of maintaining the status
©2015 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND
The military conﬂict between India and Pakistan in the vicinity
of the Siachen glacier is now more than thirty years old. In 1984,
Operation Meghdoot launched by India used helicopters to drop
soldiers onto the Siachen glacier to preempt its occupation by
Pakistan. Given that India and Pakistan have fought several wars,
this particular conﬂict would not be unusual, if it wasn't for its
location. In the wider geopolitical context, this area lies at the
world's only nuclear trijunction, where the overlapping boundary
claims of three nuclear powers, China, India and Pakistan, converge.
The positions occupied by the soldiers are at heights of up to
6700 m (Tahir-Kheli &Biringer, 1998) and in temperatures that can
reach minus 50
C. It is a logistical challenge to supply the soldiers,
which in India's case can only be done using helicopters. Pakistani
positions are closer to the road heads, but the ﬁnal stretch can only
be covered using porters and mules.
In spite of the horrifying cost in terms of human lives and lo-
gistics, this conﬂict has remained in a stalemate even after
numerous diplomatic efforts, including thirteen rounds of bilateral
negotiations over the last three decades. It has become a perma-
nent war, taking on the character of what Sidaway (2001, 2008)
calls a “banal geopolitics”. This term describes the state of general
popular acceptance that the Siachen conﬂict has entered, where
this war has become unremarkable and everyday, and only rarely
forces its way back into public awareness.
In April 2012, the conﬂict regained attention when a huge
avalanche hit a Pakistani army camp at Gayari (also spelled Gyari or
Ghyari), killing around 140 people, mostly soldiers (Shaheen, 2012;
Walsh, 2012). There were impassioned pleas for peace and a
withdrawal from the area, even from key actors like the Pakistani
Army Chief and Prime Minister (Walsh, 2012). The hope of progress
on negotiations did not last long in spite of public support, (Khan,
2012) mostly because of the strong opposition of the Indian Army
to any peace moves (Swami, 2014).
Media coverage of this conﬂict has often tended to focus on the
futility of ﬁghting in the extreme environment where the soldiers
are stationed (Bearak, 1999; Fedark o, 2003; McGirk &Adiga, 2005;
Moore, 1993). Natural conditions are deadlier for soldiers than
enemy action, and cause their physiology to progressively deteri-
orate, so that they must be rotated periodically. Even then, they
*Corresponding author. Department of Geography, South Asia Institute, Uni-
at Heidelberg, Im Neuenheimer Feld 330, 69120 Heidelberg, Germany.
Tel.: þ49 6221 548928.
E-mail addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org (R. Baghel), marcus.nuesser@uni-
heidelberg.de (M. Nüsser).
Tel.: þ49 6221 548922.
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
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0962-6298/©2015 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).
Political Geography 48 (2015) 24e36
often end up spending as long as six months at a time at these
altitudes. Additionally, attention has been drawn to the uselessness
of the territory whose control is ostensibly the rationale of this
conﬂict. For instance, India and Pakistan have been compared to
“two bald men ﬁghting over a comb”(Cohen, 1999). Hyperbole
about the senselessness of this conﬂict, trivialises a three decades
old conﬂict that continues to have very real effects on the lives,
bodies and security of people in two nations. Secondly, it makes
implicit assumptions about the correct, presumably western forms
of geopolitics in which militarised conﬂicts are about acquisition of
“What else but burning hatred could drive men to battle over an
alien, airless wilderness, so high and forbidding that even skilled
mountain climbers spoke of it with awe and fear? Yet the In-
dians and Pakistanis had been ﬁghting over this icy massif for a
decade, and showed no sign of relenting. It was madness on a
grand, militarized scale”
Margolis, 2000, p. 119.
This example (see also Bearak, 1999; Cohen, 1999; MacDonald,
2007) neatly ﬁts the trope in which the rationality of peace, so
obvious to the Western mind, is always belied by the emotional
irrationality of the Oriental (Said, 1979, p. 48). As Tuathail and
Agnew (1992) have argued, actors within powerful institutions of
the hegemon state, deﬁne the “central drama of international
politics in particularistic ways”(Tuathail and Agnew, 1992, p. 195),
which then become the lens through which even localised regional
conﬂicts are seen.
In recognition of these problems with many analyses of the Sia-
chen conﬂict, we have tried to avoid the most obvious lines of inquiry.
We eschew an examination of the relative rationality of India and
Pakistan as geopolitical actors, and dispute the idea that the people of
either country are especially passionate about war. We also believe
that the case for peace has been made very well, and there is a broad
recognition of the necessity to end the conﬂict, though the means to
achieve thisare contested. In ana ttempt to engagemore meaningfully
with this case, we call into question the idea that this conﬂict would
“make sense”in a more hospitable environmental setting.
We instead place it in its political and equally importantly,
topographical context to identify why this dispute exists where it
does. We proceed by offering a short chronological overview
(Fig. 1) to identify important elements in the development of the
conﬂict. We also bring in a discussion of the Dolomites front
during World War I as an example of a conﬂict in similar extreme
topography, but in a European (“western”) setting. The speciﬁc
elements of high altitude warfare, also called Gebirgskrieg,
developed at this time, are a forerunner of contemporary military
tactics. Our use of this term is intended to historically situate the
emergence of a particular kind of warfare; identify the strategies
that emerged in this particular kind of terrain and thereby point to
the strategic and tactical continuity with Siachen. After identi-
fying important and overlooked aspects of the conﬂict we place it
alongside recent discussions of the vertical dimension in political
geography. The present article complements those by discussing a
high altitude war where air-power and the human body are at
their vertical limits.
This article is based upon a critical analysis of publicly available
documents, news reports and secondary literature, with an
emphasis on primary accounts of direct participants in the Siachen
conﬂict. As the source material is at times highly biased, we have
endeavoured to offer a balanced reading. We used satellite imagery
and historical maps to illustrate the spatial dimension and to un-
cover the contribution of cartography to the conﬂict. A major
limitation we faced was the lack of access to classiﬁed and
restricted documents. We were also unable to visit the area for
direct observation. Despite the lack of access to previously un-
known primary data, we believe a new theoretical framework can
produce a deeper understanding of this conﬂict.
Verticality, war and geopolitics
The historical development of the Siachen conﬂict shows that
verticality has been an intimate element at all stages. In a discus-
sion of military landscapes that is especially relevant to the present
case, Woodward (2014, p. 41) identiﬁes three conceptualisations of
landscape as being material, representational and experiential. The
material aspect of the area relates to the patterning and
morphology of the terrain; the representational aspect relates to
the landscape as text or image and the third experiential aspect
relates to the way we engage with landscapes physically and
emotionally. Siachen as a material landscape affects military
strategy, the emplacement of soldiers, and constrains actions. The
representational aspect of landscape can be seen most directly
when it comes to cartography and the imaginary lines that stand for
the reality of power exercised over space. But, there are numerous
other ways in which this landscape is read as a pristine wilderness,
a strategic gateway or a military prize, and as Forsyth (2014) point
out it is also a space for camouﬂage and militarized disappearance.
The experiential aspects include the actual physical experience of
presence on the glacier, but equally the vicarious emotional expe-
rience of this landscape as a national symbol, or an environmental
disaster (Nüsser &Baghel, 2014).
Verticality modulates these properties of the landscape in four
speciﬁc ways. First by making it attractive to mountaineers; sec-
ond by complicating its cartographic representation; third, by
making the heights key to military success; and fourth, due to the
physiological effects of such high altitudes which lead to the
notion of heroism against nature. These aspects however are not
separate but shape each other. For mountaineers, a difference of a
few meters in height might have a disproportionate effect on the
perceived accomplishment as it might differentiate a “seven-
thousander”from an “eight-thousander”. For the army it might
mean an altitudinal limit on supply chains. Experientially high
altitude imposes a loss of oxygen, low temperature and new
threats to the human body.
The Siachen conﬂict contains many elements like territoriality
(Raffestin &Butler, 2012), boundary claims (Paasi, 1999, 2009),
border disputes (Newman, 2006; Toft, 2014) and borderlands (van
Schendel, 2002) that are prominent research topics in political
geography. Recently, the role of the vertical dimension has
received increasing attention (Adey, 2013; Bridge, 2013; Elden,
2013a, 2013b) which can be extended to the present discussion.
This attention has emerged from a focus on the military role of the
air and the sea in geopolitics, thus leading to the idea of volume,
which also includes sub-surface structures like tunnels (Elden,
2013b). One important aspect these discussions overlook is the
human experience of these volumes, instead projecting a kind of
empty space inhabited by machines, sometimes occupied by
humans. The Siachen conﬂict materialises this volume by focus-
sing on embodied human presence in the vertical, where oxygen
availability decreases with altitude, where the human body rea-
ches its limits, and where helicopters exceed their ﬂight envelope.
One of the most explicit examinations of the vertical terrain of
warfare, including its strategic and symbolic aspects comes in the
work of Eyal Weizman (2002; 2007). However, the groundedness
and materiality of military presence in the vertical dimension,
that he describes, is something that has not been appreciated
enough, perhaps because much of the discussion of volume and
R. Baghel, M. Nüsser / Political Geography 48 (2015) 24e36 25
verticality has emerged from a study of aerial warfare. By placing
the Siachen conﬂict in the historical military tradition of Gebirg-
skrieg, we discuss a kind of land warfare in which the vertical has
always been of primary importance. Our use of “secure the
heights”in the title is not only an allusion to the military imper-
ative of Gebirgskrieg but also a call to attention for another kind of
In this paper we examine the role of the vertical dimension in
the Siachen conﬂict in three ways. Firstly, it makes cartographic
representation ambiguous and difﬁcult. This attribute also marks
the different ways in which the landscape is imagined as icy
wasteland, desolate heights, strategically important or heroic
summits. Secondly, we examine how verticality shapes practices in
this landscape. These practices relate to both climbing and military
strategy. Thirdly, there is the experiential aspect of this militarised
landscape. The altitude creates a third enemy for both armies as
well as for climbers. This lends a heroic aspect to this experience, in
the sense that mere presence at these heights is by itself seen as
sufﬁcient proof of heroism.
Seen in its vertical dimension, the conﬂict becomes even if not
more rational, certainly less ambiguous. This has consequences for
exploring the impact of verticality in political geography in general,
which goes beyond a characterisation of Siachen of a two-
dimensional war being fought at a height; to identifying the cen-
trality of this height to the continuance of the conﬂict. The conﬂict
might seem to be restricted in terms of spatial movement, however
the temporal dimension cannot be lost sight of either (Flint, 2010).
For the Indians every day they hold on to the glacier becomes
easier, due to technological advances, new weapon systems and
rising defence expenditure; and in their understanding the
Fig. 1. A chronology of the Siachen conﬂict.
R. Baghel, M. Nüsser / Political Geography 48 (2015) 24e3626
disparity in economic growth between India and Pakistan makes
the ﬁnancial burden steadily more difﬁcult for Pakistan to bear.
By focussing on the vertical dimension we identify shared ele-
ments with conﬂicts that are far separated in space and time. This
focus on commonalities offers a way out of the cultural excep-
tionalism, informed by orientalist ideas about South Asia that has
been applied to this conﬂict. Further, this also means that the Sia-
chen conﬂict itself is not an oddity but can supplement current
discussions of the vertical dimension in other contexts. The
evolving nature of Gebirgskrieg suggests that war in extreme en-
vironments is not necessarily a relic of the past, but possibly also
presages wars of the future.
We now offer a short historical background of the Siachen area
in order to highlight its continued geopolitical importance from the
time of its “discovery”during British rule.
Colonial exploration: between science and geopolitics
Thomas Longstaff conclusively established the location and
extent of the Siachen glacier in 1909, and determined that its length
was at least 70 km. This implied that it pierced what was till then
supposed to be the main axis of the Karakoram. and it lay further
north. The geopolitical consequence of this was that the Indus e
Yarkand water parting, and therefore the “natural boundary”be-
tween Chinese Turkestan (present day Xinjiang province of China)
and the British empire (present day India and Pakistan) was now
estimated to lie along a line drawn from K2 to Teram Kangri and
then the Karakoram Pass
(Longstaff, 1910). Longstaff exulted: “we
had stolen some 500 square miles from the Yarkand river system of
Chinese Turkestan, and joined it to the waters of the Indus and the
Kingdom of Kashmir”(Longstaff, 1950, p. 192). This incident shows
one of the most important aspects of the Siachen glacier dits
function in establishing a “natural boundary”.
The Workman couple explored the glacier in its full extent, and
paid considerable attention to the etymology of local names for
physical features in the area, establishing many of the toponyms
used today (Workman, 1914). They identiﬁed the name Siachen as
deriving from the wild roses (Rosa webbiana) growing near the
snout. There were subsequent scientiﬁc expeditions, the most
prominent of them being one led by De Filippi in 1912e13 and
another carried out by Dainelli in 1929. The latter faced serious
problems in organising supplies for his four month expedition on
the glacier (Dainelli, 1932), foreshadowing the logistic difﬁculty of
deploying troops to the area. Scientiﬁc research carried on in the
area sporadically. As part of the International Geophysical Year
(1957e58), the Geological Survey of India studied several glaciers
in the Karakoram, including Siachen (Verghese, 1962, p. 153). A
research expedition from the Imperial College, led by Shipton,
approached the area via Pakistan in 1957 (Miller, 1958).
The Superintendent of Frontier Surveys in British India warned
against attempting to control this area, stating:
“[T]he vast wilderness of snow-clad mountains which encloses
them, intersected by narrow valleys buried beneath over-
hanging masses of cliff and crag (too narrow to do more than
support a scanty and hardy population of mountaineers), is too
difﬁcult of access, and too remote from civilised centres, to be a
source of anything but periodical embarrassment”
Holdich, 1905, p. 103.
The perspicacity of this comment in relation to the complete
absence of natural resources, its use as a mountaineering arena and
the difﬁculty of military control of Siachen, was borne out by sub-
Cartography as aggression?
Tellis (1997) argues that following the partition of British India
in 1947, the successor states of India and Pakistan, were both left
unhappy for different reasons:
“India viewed Partition as unnecessary and tragic, but essentially
complete. Pakistan viewed Partition as inevitable and necessary,
but fundamentally incomplete because Kashmir, a Muslim ma-
jority state, remained with India”
Tellis, 1997, p. 8; emphases added.
This led to several Pakistani attempts to alter the situation
through military actions in Kashmir (in 1948, 1965 and 1999) and
ongoing sub-conventional warfare through support of insurgency
(Fair, 2014; Paul, 2014). The disputed borders of the two countries
were sought to be settled through the Simla agreement in 1972
through the creation of the “Line of Control”(LoC). It stated
“neither side shall seek to alter [the LoC] unilaterally, irrespective of
mutual differences and legal interpretations”.
The LoC was itself based upon the positions that existed
following the end of hostilities between India and Pakistan in
December 1971. With minor deviations, it was identical to the U.N.
monitored Ceaseﬁre Line (CFL) created through the Karachi
following the ﬁrst war over Kashmir in 1948. The
demarcation based on ground surveys was conducted up to the grid
point NJ9842 (Fig. 2) and the CFL was to run “thence north to the
glaciers”(Karachi Agreement, 1949, p. 280). The line was not
delineated further because it was solely intended to mark ceaseﬁre
positions, and point NJ9842 was chosen arbitrarily as it formed the
corner of the map closest to the northernmost presence of troops
when ﬁghting ended in 1948 (Raghavan, 2002, p. 22).
Further, the regional topography made it difﬁcult to conduct
ground surveys. Combined with the ostensibly provisional nature
of the CFL and the seeming impossibility of war on the glaciers
produced a no man's land. The same combination of cartographic
difﬁculty and military logic produced through this topography
meant that even after the CFL was converted to the LoC, the line was
still left undemarcated beyond the northernmost grid-point.
However, cartographers elsewhere could not abide the gap in
the boundary created by this arbitrary point, and extended it in
different directions to connect it to the ChinaePakistan border. One
example of this was an aviation map issued to US Air Force pilots,
which extended the boundary to the Northeast in a straight line
from point NJ9842 to the Karakoram pass (Defense Mapping
Agency, 1983). This placed the previously undemarcated area
around the Siachen glacier, including a major Indian military base
at Dzingrulma within the territory of Pakistan. Other derivative
maps followed this line, so that it became a cartographic conven-
tion to connect point NJ9842 to the Karakoram Pass, thereby rep-
resenting the area as Pakistani territory (Wirsing, 1995, pp 78e83).
In this unpopulated region, boundary claims are tenuous and
maps and atlases, even inaccurate ones, are often used to support
them (Lamb, 1964). Therefore the Indians saw this not just an
inaccurate representation of ground reality, but instead a way of
obtaining control of the area by stealth, a kind of cartographic
aggression. Kunal Verma narrates that he obtained one such map
from a French backpacker in 1981, but on observing the represen-
tation of the IndiaePakistan border on this map, an Indian Army
ofﬁcer quickly sent it up the chain of command until eventually the
Army Chief, Defence Minister and even the Prime Minister had seen
it (Verma &Williams, 2010, pp. 44e46). According to the Pakistani
General in charge of the area, they became aware of Indian pres-
ence in the area at the same time through a report in the National
R. Baghel, M. Nüsser / Political Geography 48 (2015) 24e36 27
Geographic magazine reporting on an Indian mountaineering
expedition (Khan, 2001, p. 224).
As per the ChinaePakistan border agreement of 1963,
boundary in the area near the Siachen glacier runs along:
“the top of the Broad Peak, the top of the Gasherbrum Mountain
(8068), Indirakoli Pass [sic] (named on the Chinese map only)
and the top of the Teram Kangri Peak, and reaches its south-
eastern extremity at the Karakoram Pass”(Bureau of Intelligence
and Research, 1968, see Fig. 3).
Importantly, China signed this agreement with Pakistan as the
party in control of the area, and Article VI of the agreement states that
following a settlement of the Kashmir dispute, negotiations will be
reopened if the sovereignty of the area is with India (Bureau of
Intelligence and Research, 1968, see also Lamb, 1964). The control of
Siachen area by India places the status of Pakistan as the party in
control of the area in question, by shifting the presumed
IndiaePakistaneChina trijunction from the Karakoram pass, almost
100 km to the west, near Indira Col. Secondly, if a settlement of the
IndiaePakistan boundary is reached byextending the LoC up to Indira
Col, it would require China to renegotiate this section of the boundary
with India. This complex three-way cartographic contest makes Sia-
chen even more intractable, due to the contradiction it creates
between cartographic representation and actual control (Fig. 2).
Quite apart from such strategic considerations, and perhaps
surpassing it in importance, is the special role that cartography
plays in the imagination of the Indian nation itself. After
eschewing ethnic, linguistic and religious bases for identity, if not
the sole then certainly the most important determinant of Indian
identity is a clearly demarcated space called India. According to
Krishna (1994, p. 508), having these boundaries threatened
evokes a postcolonial anxiety of being suspended in a status be-
tween “former colony”and “not-yet-nation”, which he calls
“cartographic anxiety”.Winichakul (1997) speaks of the “geo-
body”as a creation of, and a condition for the existence of the
modern nation. Discussing how the progressive ﬁxing of a
boundary on land made the creation of Siam as a nation possible,
that author describes how the outline of the map becomes a
stand-in for the nation itself, and a “ﬂoating signiﬁer”that is al-
ways recognisable as a shared national symbol.
In India the outline map has tremendous emotional resonance
as Bharat Mata (Mother India), that is exploited in political posters,
public media and nationalist discourse (Ramaswamy, 2002). Tiny
Pakistani postage stamps carried outline maps with Kashmir
explicitly labelled as disputed territory, and the Northern Areas
(renamed Gilgit-Baltistan in 2009) shown as part of the national
territory. Indian outline maps always include the province of
Jammu and Kashmir and various disputed boundaries are drawn to
the full extent of the Indian claim. This can also explain why some
boundaries, such as that with China are always spoken of in terms
of a national betrayal (Gerwin &Bergmann, 2012; van Schendel,
2007). This further means that even a cartographic error in a
foreign map (Defense Mapping Agency, 1983) can still be experi-
enced as an attack on the geo-body of India itself. One reason for
this is the origin of many post-colonial states in the practices of
Fig. 2. The location of the Siachen glacier showing the physical terrain, overlapping boundary claims, and de facto borders of India, Pakistan and China. The grey square marks the
area covered by the satellite image in Fig. 3.
R. Baghel, M. Nüsser / Political Geography 48 (2015) 24e3628
colonial boundary-making, as in the case of the Radcliffe line that
produced the modern states India and Pakistan, and led to the
displacement of millions of people. The continued historical trauma
of this partition can be gauged from the metaphors of vivisection,
dismemberment and amputation in wh ich it is spoken of ( Chatterji,
Traditionally, the role of both the cartographic anxiety and that
of the geo-body were manifested in the repeated mantra, “India is
one from Kashmir to Kanyakumari”. However in 1988, in the highly
symbolic Independence Day speech, the Indian Prime Minister,
Rajiv Gandhi subtly changed this to “India is one, from Karakoram to
Kanyakumari”(Kapadia, 2010, p. 100). Siachen had now become
part of the Indian cartographic imagination.
Oropolitics: showing the ﬂag on mountaintops
The Karakoram Range, running over a length of around 500 km,
forms an extreme high mountain environment. In mountaineering
terms it is the area with one of the highest density of high peaks in
the world; 4 of the 14 peaks higher than 8000 m, K2, Gasherbrum I
and II, and Broad Peak are located at the uppermost portion of the
Baltoro glacier in Baltistan, controlled by Pakistan. At 71.4 km, the
Indian controlled Siachen glacier is the second longest glacier
outside the polar regions (based on satellite data from 2013,
see Fig. 3).
The relative inaccessibility of the Karakoram Range till the
1960s, limited the number of climbers in the area. The construc-
tion of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) connecting Pakistan and
China via the Khunjerab Pass in the western Karakoram was
completed in 1978. This access to a little known region, brought in
not just trekkers and climbers, but also ﬁlm makers whose works
aroused further interest in a broader audience (Ponc ar, 1978). This
and the existence of a number of challenging peaks led to a surge
in the number of climbers (Isserman &Weaver, 2010;
Kreutzmann, 1991). The increased interest of climbers in this
area also arose from the fact that all 14 peaks above 8000 m had
been climbed by 1964, so that numerous challenging “seven-
thousanders”in this area suddenly became desirable for them. Yet
Fig. 3. Satellite image with toponyms, altitudes and villages of area surrounding Siachen glacier. The 71 km long glacier runs diagonally from top left at Indira Col to its snout near
Dzingrulma, the last Indian military camp. The Indian Army positions run along the Saltoro ridge, west of the glacier, along a line connecting Indira Col, Sia La, Bilafond La and Gyong
La. The Pakistan Army has camps at Goma and Gyari and access over the Baltoro glacier to the Conway Saddle and glaciers in the southwestern part. The area controlled by China is
located north of the ridge from K2 to the Teram Shehr plateau.
R. Baghel, M. Nüsser / Political Geography 48 (2015) 24e36 29
another factor was that in 1974 Pakistan lifted the ban on foreign
mountaineering expeditions to the Eastern Karakoram that had
existed since 1961. The availability of new roads, and the waiver of
royalties on several mountains only increased the number of
climbers (Wirsin g, 1995, p. 78). Partly due to the conﬂict itself, the
area around Siachen has the largest number of unclimbed peaks in
the world, of which the Saltoro Kangri II (7705 m) is the highest
(Kapadia, 2010, p. 209).
There is a close link between mountaineering and militarisation
of the Siachen glacier (Kapadia, 1999), which has been called
“Oropolitics”(Sircar, 1984). However, the present mix of military
interests, geographical knowledge, climbing and geopolitics is not
new. After the Government of India began accepting proposals for
mountaineering in the Himalayas in the 1890s, the geopolitical
implications of sending climbers to the Karakoram region placed
mountaineers and the colonial government at cross purposes. On
the one hand, there was the idea of British explorers serving as
representatives of the British Empire in the borderlands, thereby
bringing back geographical knowledge and marking out the British
frontier and beyond. At the same time, there was the fear of
mountaineering expeditions creating diplomatic difﬁculties with
Afghanistan or China (Hansen, 1996). This suggests that moun-
taineering in areas with disputed claims has never exclusively been
a sport, but has had the ancillary function of symbolically enacting
border claims, explicitly in case of expeditions by army soldiers, a nd
implicitly through the giving out of climbing permits.
As early as October 1984, barely 6 months after acquiring control
over the area, mountaineering teams were invited to go on a joint
Indo-British expedition to the area. The ﬁrst such expedition took
place in 1985, receiving logistical support from the Indian army
(Venables &Wilkinson, 1986) and included a scientiﬁc component
(Osmaston, 1986). One member of this expedition, Stephen Ven-
ables, had just the year before travelled royalty free in the Eastern
Karakoram from the Pakistani side (Venables, 1985), which illus-
trates the way mountaineers served to enact boundary claims.
The combination of cartographic representation of the area with
military mountaineering expeditions, and questions of the right of
granting access to what had previously been a tacit no man's land
led to the next stage of active militarisation of the area.
Operation Meghdoot: securing the heights
uta (cloud me ssenger) is a Sanskrit poem wr itten (c. 400
CE) by K
asa, considered one of the greatest Indian poets, about a
message of love carried by a cloud to the Himalayas. This poem
served as the code-name of the military operation launched by
India to gain control over the ridges adjacent to the Siachen glacier.
There was dark humour in the choice of the code-name, as Oper-
ation Meghdoot, launched on 13 April 1984, consisted of Indian air
force helicopters carrying assault troops to the area to obtain
control of key ridges and passes. Pakistan had also planned Oper-
to capture the same ridges, but the Indians came to
know of it and moved ﬁrst. The attack of the Pakistanis was un-
successful as by then the Indians already held the commanding
positions on the passes (Musharraf, 2007, pp 68e69).
Even though it has been presented at times as the ﬁrst military
incursion into the area, there had been mili tary activity prior to this.
The Indian air force ﬁrst landed helicopters on the glacier in 1978
(Ministry of Defence, 2014). The Indian army moved a large number
of troops on foot to the base of the Siachen glacier in 1983, and they
had been trained for several weeks to be able to ﬁght there (Indian
Army, 2014). The Indian General in charge of the operation,
acknowledged that he had been one of a small group of inﬂuential
ofﬁcers who had begun lobbying for an aggressive Indian policy on
Siachen already in the late 1970s. However he stated that operation
was intended to be just a show of force, and not the permanent
occupation that it later became (Wirsing, 1995, pp. 208e209).
The initial plan was to deploy troops to three passes on the
Saltoro range that controlled access to the Siachen glacier, from
north to south, Sia La, Bilafond La and Gyong La (Fig. 3). However,
after these positions were secured, the two armies began to
compete to gain higher ground nearby.
The belief that if one side did not capture a height then the other
would, led to the militarisation of the entire ridge-line. This rapidly
increased the number of troops required by the Indian army to hold
the commanding positions, and made the logistics of the operation
even morecomplex. This large deployment combined with a so-
phisticated logistic chain created the fear that India might attack
the Northern Areas (since 2009 called Gilgit-Baltistan) territory of
Pakistan, which ended up escalating the number of Pakistani sol-
diers in turn (Raghavan, 2002, pp 41e43).
In spite of previous training, the extreme cold and high altitude
produced very high casualty ﬁgures. Of the 29 Indian soldiers who
landed at Bilafond La, one had to be immediately evacuated.
Another soldier died on the second day of High Altitude Pulmonary
Edema (HAPE), and 21 of the remaining suffered frost bites
(Gokhale, 2014). Many of the medical conditions that developed at
such high altitude could not even be diagnosed at ﬁrst, and it was
only after 1986 that some of the conditions and ways of dealing
with them became known (Anand, 2001). The Pakistani army
termed the psychological effect of ﬁghting at high altitude “Siachen
syndrome”, describing the progressive change in personality of its
soldiers at such extreme altitudes from normal to selﬁsh, then
introverted and ﬁnally irrational (Ali, 1991, p. 12).
India had been conducting research on high altitude mountain
warfare since its defeat in the 1962 war against China, much of
which was fought in the Himalayas. As part of this a 200 bed
hospital specialised in high altitude medicine, which is today the
main hospital supporting Indian troops on Siachen, had been set up
in Leh shortly thereafter (Bewoor, 1968). The “High Altitude War-
fare School”was established at the same time and created a large
cadre of well trained military mountaineers. This also meant that
Indian climbing expeditions almost always included army ofﬁcers
(Sircar, 1984; Raghavan, 2002, p. 32). This military presence in fact
was one reason why Pakistan was extremely suspicious of Indian
mountaineering expeditions that had entered the Siachen area
(Khan, 2001, p. 224). Another reason India was willing to station
troops around the year, unlike Pakistan, was that it already had
soldiers with experience in the extreme conditions of Antarctica.
The preparations for the ﬁrst year round occupation of the Indian
Antarctic research station, Dakshin Gangotri, began in December
1983, with the construction and scientiﬁc team primarily consisting
of people drawn from the Indian army (Stewart, 2011, p. 384). These
same ofﬁcers were subsequently in charge of organising the
training and logistics for the year-round occupation of the Siachen
glacier (Sharma, 2001, pp. 209e303).
As early as 1993, the hot war initiated by Operation Meghdoot
began to become a frozen conﬂict. Wirsing (1995) quotes a
general of the Indian army summing up the military situation at
“Environmental casualties …were down dramatically eby 90
percent eto a rate less, than that of an ordinary military unit
elsewhere in the country …there were no ﬁghting related ca-
sualties. The economic costs of Siachen were routinely inﬂated
by the media; India …could bear them indeﬁnitely”(Wirsing,
1995, p. 214, emphases in original).
A total of 846 Indian soldiers have died in the conﬂict between
1984 and 2012 according to ofﬁcial ﬁgures (Ministry of Defence,
R. Baghel, M. Nüsser / Political Geography 48 (2015) 24e3630
2012). However, the casualties have varied over the years and other
estimates are that the Indian army lost around 30 soldiers per year
till 2003, when a ceaseﬁre began, after which fatalities reduced to
around 10 deaths per year, and subsequently to 4 per year (Pubby,
2008). This signiﬁcant reduction in number of casualties is one
reason the Indian Army did not feel compelled to withdraw from
the glacier (Thapar, 2006).
This complacence of the Indian Army regarding the stalemate
was challenged by the Pakistan Army in the Kargil War in 1999,
which took place along the LoC. The possible strategic rationale for
“A Pakistani nuclear capability would paralyze not only the In-
dian nuclear decision, but also Indian conventional forces, and a
bold Pakistani strike to liberate Kashmir might go unchallenged
if Indian leadership was indecisive (Cohen, 1984, p. 153)”.
Pakistan had become overtly nuclear in 1998; and at the time of
this conﬂict, India was being run by a minority caretaker govern-
ment, conditions that ﬁt the above scenario.
The Kargil War was planned to be a “reverse Siachen”so that the
Pakistan Army would occupy high mountain positions along the
LoC while they were vacated during the winter, preempting the
Indian Army's reoccupation (Tufail, 2009). Although this would be a
violation of the Simla Agreement of 1972, in the Pakistani
perspective, India had already violated it by militarising the Siachen
area. Pakistan claimed to have no control over the ﬁghters, alleging
that they were Kashmiri freedom ﬁghters. The use of heavy artillery
and identity documents on the corpses of these ﬁghters, made this
very unlikely. A taped conversation between the General in charge
of the area, and the Pakistan Army Chief, (later President) General
Musharraf incontrovertibly established that the ﬁghters were
Pakistani soldiers (Swami, 1999, p. 33).
An ofﬁcial Indian government report on the Kargil conﬂict also
noted the aspect of this attack being Operation Meghdoot in reverse,
but interestingly proposed a response diametrically oppo sed to that
“[India] must not fall into the trap of Siachenisation of the Kargil
heights and similar unheld, unpopulated ‘gaps’in the High
Himalaya along the entire length of the Northern Border”
(quoted in Nair, 2009, p. 37, emphasis added).
This conclusion perfectly illustrates the dilemma of preemptive
occupation of heights and the logistical problems created as a result
Gebirgskrieg: military logic from the dolomites to the
Almost a century earlier, a different part of the world had been
the site of the highest war. The Dolomites mountain range was the
location of the Alpine front between Italy and AustriaeHungary
between 1915 and 1918 during World War I which was at the time
called the highest war. There are striking similarities between
Siachen and the Dolomites. Even though battles in Siachen have
been fought at higher altitudes as compared to the Alpine front, it
was in a comparable topographical setting. Additionally, unlike the
present day, soldiers then were equipped only with woollen coats
and scarves, making their experience considerably worse
(Thompson, 2009, p. 203). The methods of mountain warfare that
developed at the time (von Lichem, 1981, p. 139e142) are similar to
those used in Siachen, with the emphasis continuing to be on
occupation of heights by small units. Pakistani ofﬁcers and soldiers
underwent training in mountain warfare in Germany, France and
Italy, and international instructors also visited Pakistan to offer
training (Cloughley, 2000, p. 291), so there is at the very least, an
indirect inﬂuence of the Dolomites experience on Siachen.
The war was notable for the large number of deaths due to the
conditions created by the physical environment. Heavy snowfall in
December 1916 triggered avalanches all along the Dolomites front,
causing the death of 10,000 soldiers (Thompson, 2009, p. 204).
Other more conservative estimates for the Alpine front suggest at
least 6000 soldiers died in one week alone, and at least 60,000
soldiers died due to avalanches over a period of three and a half
years (von Lichem, 1983, p. 56). Thompson (2009, p. 204) succintly
states, “…the elements were a third army, one that would kill them
all, given a chance”.
The similarities between Siachen and the Dolomites suggest the
value of taking the perspective of Gebirgskrieg, the unique logic of
mountain warfare. The lessons that can be drawn from these are
ﬁrstly the importance of holding heights, the impossibility of vic-
tory and the static nature of the front. The example of the Dolomites
suggests that the “frozen”conﬂict is frozen precisely because of the
speciﬁc military nature of this conﬂict. The crucial importance of
heights and persistence in the face of natural hazards in this case
suggests that the maintenance of the status quo is the only
achievable military objective, for both sides. Also, the resolution of
this conﬂict is unlikely to be due to victory or a successful offensive,
but only as a corollary of other developments. As for instance in
case of the WW I, the end of the war by treaty eventually led to the
closure of the front.
A senior General of the Indian Army evocatively describes the
military strategy in this conﬂict:
“The Saltoro, consequently, became an example of the ‘hold
every height’doctrine, a linear chessboard of two rows. Each
player needed to occupy and defend all his squares, while trying
to thwart the other's moves. The chessboard was different in
each square. Loss of a square was unacceptable and the Pak-
istanis were seeking to impose just that situation on the Indian
forces”(Raghavan, 2002, pp. 77e78).
When compared to the Gebirgskrieg tactics from the Dolomites,
what was new in terms of mountain warfare was the extensive use
of helicopters to support positions at high altitudes. and small
forward observation units, whose main function was to direct ar-
tillery ﬁre. This naturally magniﬁes the importance of controlling
eminent positions (Raghavan, 2002, p. 96). Even one observation
post at a height can make a big difference and disrupt logistics of
the other side. This is yet another reason why the armies are so
hesitant to withdraw from the highest positions, even though the
soldiers are placed at the limits of human physiological and psy-
The draw of heights in military contests is not solely due to
practical reasons, the capture of peaks also serves an important
symbolic function in terms of demonstrating complete dominance
over the territory. In this sense Gebirgskrieg is not just warfare in
the mountains, but it is characterised by a war for mountain peaks.
In the Siachen conﬂict, the best example is that of an observation
post on the Saltoro ridge at a height of 6400 m, overlooking
Bilafond La. This position was occupied in April 1987 by a team of
Pakistani commandos using ropes and ladders to climb a vertical
cliff without being observed by the Indians (Hussain, 2012). The
prestige of the post was such that it was named “Quaid Post”after
Mohammad Ali Jinnah, considered the founder of Pakistan. On the
other side, an Indian General called it “unacceptable militarily and
an embarrassment politically”(Raghavan, 2002, p. 88). The ﬁrst
Indian attempt to capture this post failed, but in the second
R. Baghel, M. Nüsser / Political Geography 48 (2015) 24e36 31
attempt some soldiers made it to the top and the post was
captured (Raghavan, 20 02). An interesting aspect of this operation
is that it was called “Rajiv”, after the Army ofﬁcer who died
leading the ﬁrst attack. After the capture of the post it was named
“Bana Post”after the Indian soldier who led the successful charge
and later received the highest military award for it. This set a
precedent and various Indian Army post are known by the ﬁrst
names of soldiers to honour and personalise masculine bravery on
A counterattack by the Pakistanis failed to recapture this post,
and the associated loss of lives brought it to the attention of the
press, discomﬁting the Pakistan Army (Khan, 2001, p. 228). In
September 1987, another attempt to capture a position on the
Saltoro ridge by attacking at Bilafond La failed, and caused the
death of more than 150 Pakistani soldiers (Kapadia, 2010, pp.
133e135). The symbolic aspect of Gebirgskrieg becomes obvious in
the domestic aftermath of this loss, when the Pakistani politician
Benazir Bhutto took out a march in Pakistan carrying bangles on a
plate for Pakistani Generals, taunting them “wear these bangles if
you cannot ﬁght on the Siachen”(K apadia, 1998, p. 25). At the time
Pakistan was under military rule and “wearing bangles”was a
cultural signiﬁer for the loss of masculinity and bravery of the
dictator General Zia, and of the entire Pakistan Army leader ship. In
1988 General Zia died in a plane crash, and Bhutto was elected as
the Prim e Minister, shortly af ter which she vi sited army posts ne ar
the Siachen glacier, and even created a fund for “the widows, the
orphans and the physically handicapped of Siachen”(Bhutto,
The symbolic importance of holding the heights can also be seen
in the case of the Dolomite front for the Col di Lana (2462 m). From
1915 to 16 Italian troops repeatedly attempted to dislodge Austrian
troops from its summit. It is estimated that around 18,000 Italian
soldiers and a similar number of Austrians died on this mountain in
these attempts (Keller, 2009, p. 263). Eventually, the Italians
captured the peak after mining under the Austrian positions
(Anonymous, 1916; Thompson, 2009). The resulting explosion was
so large that it permanently disﬁgured the summit, leaving behind
a massive dual crater. This was no isolated incident; the symbolic
importance of removing enemy presence from the peaks (regard-
less of military necessity) was such that this tactic was used 34
times on the mountain fronts of Tirol alone (Ily
es, 2010, p. 228).
Another example is the ascent of Elbrus (5642 m) in August 1942,
during WW II. In the Battle of the Caucasus, a mountaineering team
of German soldiers climbed this mountain to plant the German ﬂag
as a way of asserting a symbolic victory, even though the ascent
served no practical military purpose (Bauer, 1976). In turn, a team of
soldiers of the Soviet Union was sent to make the difﬁcult ascent in
April 1943, in order to remove the German ﬂag from the summit
and reclaim it by ﬂying their own ﬂag (Anonymous, 1943).
Banal geopolitics: heroes, martyrs and bureaucrats
Although thirteen rounds of diplomatic negotiations on Siachen
have taken place between India and Pakistan, the issue remains
unresolved. This is partly because of the military logic of Gebirg-
skrieg coming up against the political desire for a settlement.
General J.J. Singh of the Indian Army was widely credited with
wrecking a round of negotiations over Siachen, by stating the
army's opposition to it in public (Wikileaks, 2006). Taking a public
stance in opposition to civil policy was until then something un-
heard of in the Indian case; usually discontent with government
actions was kept private and the Indian Army followed the political
directions given to it (Ray, 2008, pp. 141e142). The rationale for this
opposition given by General Singh was:
“In 2005, my ﬁrst year as chief, we suffered just two fatalities,
way lower than a similar formation in a peace-time location in
the plains would on average …There was, simply no reason to
give up this position of advantage unless the AGPL [Actual
Ground Position Line] was authenticated. If Pakistan did not
authenticate the AGPL, it could cross it again dand we'd have to
send up our boys to die”(Swami, 2014).
The next serious chance for resolution came following the re-
marks of the Pakistani Prime Minister and Chief of Army in the
aftermath of the Gyari avalanche of April 2012. This was followed
by a statement by the Defence Minister in the Indian parliament
that the government was pursuing “meaningful talks”on Siachen.
Just two weeks later, the cover story in the leading English maga-
zine in India asked, “Could the PM gift away to Pakistan what Army
has won?”(Sawant &Aroor, 2012). While refusing to take a public
position this time, the Indian Army had hit the “panic button”
(Sawant &Aroor, 2012) and quoted retired Generals, and “leaks”
about the views of the serving chief, on the importance of holding
on to the heights in Siachen. The article included allegations that
the Prime Minister was willing to sell out the strategic heights in
return for a Nobel peace prize. Any chances of a political resolution
from the Indian side were effectively ﬁnished from then on.
This episode not only brings out the unusual lengths to which
the Indian Army was willing to go to avoid withdrawing from its
positions in Siachen, but also its ability to inﬂuence this decision
points to the changing civil-military relations in India. Siddiqa
(2011) ascribes this change, amongst others, to the emergence of
an aggressive domestic public and diaspora; the involvement of the
Indian Army in internal security and the increasing ignorance of
Indian politicians in military matters, due to which they are
dependent on the Army for advice. The aversion of politicians to
negative publicity provides the Army another way to maneuver for
inﬂuence through direct appeals to the domestic public. Dasgupta
(2001) however proffers an overlooked dynamic that is equally, if
not more relevant, which is the changing balance between the
Army and the bureaucracy. The subservience of the Indian Army to
political control has been exercised through civilian bureaucracy,
and traditionally it has had much more inﬂuence compared to the
Army. However, due to the emotive appeal of Siachen, the Army
managed to break out of this inferior role to gain unprecedented
access to the political leadership. The deﬁning moment of this
change is perhaps when the Defence Minister sent three bureau-
crats to Siachen for “familiarisation with the conditions”under
which the Army operated, as punishment for blocking their request
for snowmobiles (Joshi, 1998; Popham, 1998). Following this,
equipment was never denied to troops at Siachen, “but this
exceptionalism remained limited to Siachen”(Thapar, 2014).
As this is not the only conﬂict the Indian and Pakistani armies
are participating in, and other deployments can be much more
dangerous, the special appeal of Siachen requires examination. As
an example, the counter-insurgency duties of the Pakistan Army in
Waziristan or that of the Indian Army in Kashmir, are much more
dangerous for the average soldier, with a higher number and pro-
portion of fatalities. Considering other examples of public adula-
tion, as for instance in case of the Kargil conﬂict, the celebration of
heroism was temporary, and the soldiers who continue to be
deployed at the LoC since then do not evoke quite the same level of
passion. A retired General brings out the banal geopolitics around
“The ongoing conﬂict in Siachen has become embedded in the
Indian public consciousness as a symbol of national will and
determination to succeed against all odds. Siachen has acquired
R. Baghel, M. Nüsser / Political Geography 48 (2015) 24e3632
a sanctity of its own, which is part folklore, part military legend,
part mythology, and a substantial measure of national pride”
(Raghavan, 2002, p. 2).
Much of the heroism ascribed to the soldiers of both armies
stationed in the Siachen region, is because of the extreme topog-
raphy and physical environment that place them at the limits of
human endurance. Even issues related to their clothing and
equipment rapidly become politicised national issues in India
(Dixit, 20 09; Popham, 1998). Popular television series in Pakistan
valorise soldiers in Siachen as performing a sacred defence of their
“state-under-siege (Rajput, 2005) and a Pakistan Army ofﬁcer
writes of those dying in Siachen as being specially chosen by the
Prophet (Ali, 1991).
Periodic statements on territorial inviolability can be seen
within the rituals of banal nationalism as part of what Billig (1995,
p. 96) calls the “rhetorical reafﬁrmation of the national topog-
raphy”. An excellent illustration of the way the discrete symbols of
“banal nationalism”are brought together to produce a “banal
geopolitics”can be seen in a popular performance of the Indian
national anthem near the Siachen glacier (Anand, 2014). This video
produced by the Indian Army, shows the entire apparatus that
supports the Indian positions: logistics helicopters lined up in a
row; artillery pieces used by the Indian Army; ofﬁcers and soldiers
in camouﬂage and climbing gear, roped together to avoid falling
into crevasses; and a solitary soldier unfurling an outsized ﬂag on a
high ridge in slow motion while snow gusts around him.
Interestingly, a video released only a few days following the
Gyari avalanche by the public relations branch of the Pakistan
Armed Forces (2012), sought to reframe the disaster within a
“standard narrative”of martyrdom. Beginning with a soldier saying
goodbye to his mother, it shows soldiers training, praying next to
the national ﬂag, playing cricket on a glacier, learning about
battleﬁeld positions. They are told to be alert about only two things:
the weather and the enemy, however a death due to either of them
is to be embraced as martyrdom. This is followed by the closing
image of an advancing avalanche. In contrast with nuanced debate
within Pakistani media which included questions about the
“senseless deaths”of soldiers and the very rationale for their
deployment (e.g. Gauhar, 2014; Shah, 2012); this framing banalises
their deaths as a sort of “everyday martyrdom”. A recent visit by
India's Prime Minister Modi to mark the festival of Diwali with a
visit to troops at the Siachen glacier, on the way to inspect ﬂood
damage in Kashmir (Pandit, 2014), can be seen as completing the
restoration of banality to this conﬂict.
The relation of affect and the vertical can be seen in multiple
practices that are involved in human presence at such heights and
at such places. What is felt at this height is an inseparable mixture
of the physiological response to the environmental conditions and
emotional response to a military landscape. A soldier at this height
may be feeling feel cold, brave, exhausted, bored, scared, light
headed, depressed, perhaps unknowingly in the throes of a cerebral
oedema or a frost bite. The physiological aspect of emotion is here
especially prominent. The mountaineer's presence is naturally also
inexplicable without an inclusion of affect ewhy go to the summit
at all? The mountaineers' and soldiers' feelings that are produced
through their embodied presence, also offer a pointer to the dis-
embodied presence of politicians, citizens, family at these heights
which they experience vicariously as wonder, pride, envy or fear.
The altitude of this landscape is key to the emotional experience of
it; had Siachen not been located at the vertical limits of the human
physiology, the affect would have been much less signiﬁcant.
Although there has been a broad acceptance of the need to
disengage the two armies and demilitarise the glacier in diplomatic
negotiations, the stumbling block is recording the existing posi-
tions of the Indian side. The proposed demarcation line called the
‘Actual Ground Position Line’(AGPL) follows Indian positions on the
Saltoro ridge. The Indian side, especially the Indian Army, argues it
is necessary to mark the positions they have tenaciously held on to
at tremendous cost, to prevent Pakistan from occupying the heights
as soon as they are vacated. The Pakistani side refuses to do this as
any points marked on the ground might give Indians a legal claim to
an area they have occupied in violation of the Simla Agreement.
There are Indian claims that this refusal is due to the fact that
marking the positions would expose the Pakistan Army to ridicule
by showing that they have never fought on the glacier. A General of
the Indian Army makes this stance very clear by pointedly referring
to the Saltoro conﬂict to emphasise that the armies are facing each
other at the Saltoro Ridge and not on the Siachen glacier
The ofﬁcial legal justiﬁcation for the alignment of the AGPL,
apart from the brute fact of its military reality, is given as the ne-
cessity to follow the watershed principle in marking the boundary,
keeping in mind the Karachi Agreement's statement of the CFL
running “thence North to the glaciers”. The watershed line running
North from point NJ9842 to the Indira Col is almost identical to the
currently held Indian positions on the Saltoro Ridge. A retired In-
dian Army ofﬁcer questions this logic, as the CFL also called for a
separation of at least 500 yards between the ground positions of
the two armies. This separation would require the Indian Army to
move down from the heights, even if the AGPL is marked along the
Saltoro Ridge, and take away their advantage over Pakistani posi-
tions below. That author calls the AGPL legally indefensible as the
LoC runs across several ridges elsewhere, without any mention of
the watershed principle whatsoever (Nair, 2009). The tortuous
justiﬁcations are in many ways reminiscent of the justiﬁcation for
holding on to Golan heights by Israel as the necessity for “defen-
sible borders”(Allon, 1976).
There have been several proposed solutions that emanated from
non-governmental actors and Track II diplomacy. All of these are
based on a sequence of disengagement, demilitarisation and
monitoring followed by alternative use of the vacated area. Some of
the most carefully researched proposals were produced at the
Sandia Labs, with the input of retired army ofﬁcers and diplomats
from both India and Pakistan. One such proposal was for the cre-
ation of a Siachen Science Centre (SSC), that would serve as an
international high altitude research centre, thereby replacing mil-
itary troops with the presence of scientiﬁc research teams (Biringer,
1998). The legal precedent for this would be the Antarctic Treaty of
1959 which would offer the basis for complete demilitarisation,
international scientiﬁc presence and suspension of all territorial
claims. A later derivation on this formula, emphasised joint moni-
toring of the demilitarised zone by India and Pakistan, with the SSC
as a possible extra (Tahir-Kheli &Biringer, 1998).
The Siachen Peace Park (SPP) is an idea about creating a trans-
boundary peace park, especially to restore the environmental
integrity of the area which had been severely degraded by the
amount of garbage and military supplies created by the occupation
of the gla cier. This solutio n would allow both countries to withdraw
honourably, without allegations of defeat; it would not prejudice
the position of either country on Kashmir and it would stop further
degradation of the area (Ali, 2002). This proposal was pushed for-
ward largely by mountaineers familiar with the area, and was
preceded by a joint IndiaePakistan expedition to climb the M
in the Swiss Alps. In India, this proposal faced hostility from the
bureaucracy, though the reaction of the army was sympathetic
(Kapadia, 2004). The establishment of trans-boundary protected
areas is indeed a common response to interstate military disputes,
however the evidence suggests that they are less likely to be set up
R. Baghel, M. Nüsser / Political Geography 48 (2015) 24e36 33
in conﬂicts such as Siachen, which resulted in fatalities (Barquet,
Lujala, &Rød, 2014).
An Indian General states, “we have become specialists at high-
altitude ﬁghting eprobably the best in the world …We can
tolerate the harsh elements. We have made livable conditions”
(Bearak, 1999). An overlooked aspect of the Siachen conﬂict is its
function as a laboratory and training ground for high altitude
warfare for the Indian Army. Indeed the infrastructure, training
and strategies currently used by it began development following
defeat against the Chinese army in the Himalayas in 1962
(Bewoor, 1968). The disputed Himalayan border with China has
acquired renewed military signiﬁcance for the Indian Army, and
it is in the process of adding two mountain divisions, more than
20,00 0 soldiers, to this border. Further, this rapid increase fol-
lows a 37 year long freeze on adding troops to this border (Datta,
2010). This is part of the Indian Army's plan to create a “moun-
tain strike corps”speciﬁcally dedicated to high altitude warfare
against China (Pandit, 2011). In this context of Gebirgskrieg, Sia-
chen is now better understood as a training ground for future
war in a vertical terrain, rather than a quaint military holdover
from a bygone era.
From the Indian side there are no signs that it intends to move
away from the glacier, especially from the Indian Army, whose
soldiers face the brunt of the physical environment. To the con-
trary, it appears that true to the military logic of retaining heights,
it is actually settling in rather than packing up. An example of this
is the laying down of kerosene pipelines over the Siachen glacier
to supply soldiers stationed at advance posts. According to a
statement in the Indian parliament in 1999, a total of 290 km of
pipeline was planned, of which 74 km had been completed by
then (Raghavan, 2002). India is also planning to extend its road
network to Siachen by 2022 (Gilani, 2011) to match current Pak-
Technological advances introduce a temporal dynamic in the
conﬂict, by enhancing the ability of an army to continue its
presence, in an otherwise mostly static battleﬁeld. As early as
2004, the then Indian President, who was previously a senior
defence scientist, advocated the use of unmanned aerial vehicles
(UAV) in Siachen and recently some UAVs, likely of Indian origin,
have indeed been observed over Pakistani positions (Gauhar,
2014). However these are likely to be limited to reconnaisance
because currently helicopters are primarily used for logistics,
which cannot be replicated by drones. Additionally, the local
environment makes ﬂying extremely difﬁcult, and a pilot in a
remote location might ﬁnd it even more difﬁcult to maneuver an
aircraft. New types of shelters with solar panels and wind tur-
bines; new types of space heating devices and oxygen enriched
shelters have been developed for “improved habitability”and
“sustainable deployment”at high altitudes (Salhan, Sharma,
Chauhan, &Oza, 2014). These technologies are key to support-
ing the military rationale of indeﬁnitely securing the heights. The
use of geospatial technologies including handheld GPS, mapping
of crevasses and avalanche hazards using ground penetrating
radar, remote sensing, etc. all help produce a three-dimensional
digital representation of the battleﬁeld. This can then be used
in the simulation of terrain, placement of combat units and
changes in logistics (Shridharan, Kumar, &Pundir, 2013). The use
of longer range missiles, and precision guided munitions is
difﬁcult due to the topography, and is also unlikely due to the
danger of nuclear escalation.
Contrary to the idea that this conﬂict does not make sense
because of where it is, we have argued that this conﬂict makes
sense only here. An examination of the ways in which the verticality
of this space inﬂuences affect, representation and military logic
offers a way of avoiding the trap of environmental determinism in
understanding the present conﬂict. Further, this study also reveals
the multiple ways in which space mediates the tension between
banal geopolitics and exceptionalism. Considering its location at
the trijunction of conﬂicting boundary claims of three nuclear
powers, a better understanding of this conﬂict in all its dimensions
is not only essential, but also urgent.
Conﬂict of interest
We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Cluster of
Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”at Heidelberg
University, Germany for funding our project “Himalayan Glaciers:
Endangered and Dangerous Cryoscapes of Knowledge”. We
would also like to thank all ﬁve anonymous reviewers for their
valuable and constructive comments which helped us improve
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