Books | They Make a Desolation and Call it Peace

This essay by the author is part of the anthology called Himalaya

Amitav Ghosh

Amitav GhoshOn the morning of 24 August [1998] I boarded an Indian Air Force plane with [George] Fernandes and his entourage. The plane was a twin-engined AN-32, an elderly and unabashedly functional craft of Soviet manufacture.

We had lunch at a large military base in eastern Kashmir, Fernandes met with a warmly enthusiastic reception: it was clear that he was very popular, among soldiers and officers alike.

At lunch I found myself sharing a table with several major-generals and other senior officers. Some of their names were familiar to me: they were from old soldiering families and I had read about their relatives in books of history. Their fathers and grandfathers had fought for the British Empire in Flanders, North Africa, Italy and Burma, But their sons and daughters, I was interested to learn, had for the most part broken with these family traditions, choosing to became computer engineers, bankers, lawyers and the like. Evidently, even among those for whom being a general was a family business, soldiering in the Indian Army no longer held its old appeal.

I was interested to learn of these senior officers’ view of the nuclear tests, but I soon discovered that their curiosity on this score far exceeded mine. Did I know who was behind the decision to proceed with the tests, they asked. Who had issued the orders? Who exactly had known in advance?

I could no more enlighten them than they could me: only in India, I thought to myself, could a writer and a tableful of generals ask each other questions like these. It was confirmation, at any rate, that the armed forces’ role in the tests had been minimal at best.

HIMALAYA: ADVENTURES, MEDITATIONS, LIFEI soon learnt also that the views of military personnel were by no means uniform. Many believe very strongly that India needs a nuclear deterrent; some feel that the tests of 11 May have resulted in certain security benefits for both India and Pakistan by bringing their secret nuclear programmes into the open; that the two countries would now exercise greater caution in their frequent border confrontations.

But some others expressed private apprehension. ‘An escalation of hostilities along the border can happen very easily,’ a major-general said to me. ‘It takes just one officer in the field to start off a series of escalations. There’s no telling where it will stop.’

None of the generals, I was relieved to note, appeared to believe that nuclear weapons were harmless icons of empowerment: in the light of some of my earlier conversations around the country, there was something almost reassuring in this.

After lunch we went by helicopter to Surankote, an army base located on the neck of territory that connects Kashmir to India. Fernandes was to inspect the base and address a gathering.

The base was set in a valley, between steep, verdant hills. The sunlight glowed golden and mellow on the surrounding slopes as we landed. The base was fenced off, and the perimeters of the garrison were manned by guards with machine-guns ready at their waists.

We were whisked off the landing pad and taken quickly into the interior of the base. I found myself riding in a vehicle with a young major.

‘What’s it like here? I said.

‘Bad.’ He laughed. ‘Bordering on terrible.’ He had the coiled alertness of someone whose nerves have been wound to the extreme edge of tautness.

The Pakistani front lines were just a few miles away, he explained. It took just a day to walk over the hills. This camp lay astride the main route used by those who wanted to cross from one side to the other. Nowhere in the state was the tension so great as it was here.

Fernandes had mounted a podium with several other politicians and local dignitaries. A crowd of a few hundred people had gathered to hear them. Behind them were green hills, capped by clouds.

The major pointed at the hills. ‘While we’re standing here talking there are half a dozen operations going on in those hills, right there.’

He led me aside. ‘Let the politicians talk,’ he said. ‘I’ll show you what’s happening here if you want to know.’ We went into a tent and the major seated himself at a radio set. ‘This is where we listen to them,’ he said. He scanned the wavelengths, tuning into several exchanges.

‘Listen,’ he said, turning up the volume. ‘They’re speaking Punjabi, not Kashmiri. They’re mercenaries who’ve signed up on two-year contracts. They’re right there, in those hills.’ The voices on the radio had a slow, dreamlike quality; they were speaking to each other unhurriedly, calling out cheerful greetings in slow-cadenced rural Punjabi. I had no idea who the voices belonged to.

As we were leaving the tent, the major darted suddenly into a group of people and took some rolls of film from a photographer. ‘I can’t trust them,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what they’ve taken pictures of. I can’t trust anyone here.’

We walked back to the crowd to listen to the speeches. “The politicians talk so well,’ the major said, his eyes flickering over the crowd. ‘But what we have here is a war. Does anyone know what’s happening here? Does anyone care?’

The crowd was quiet and orderly; the people in it looked as though they had dressed up for the afternoon. After Fernandes had spoken, he was besieged by petitioners, asking for jobs, roads, schools.

Fernandes is very well acquainted with the situation in Kashmir: he knows it better than almost any other Indian politician. During one of his terms as a minister he functioned as a special reporter on Kashmir. He talks often of those days and of how he drove into the Kashmir countryside, all but alone, meeting insurgents informally, militants and local leaders, listening to people’s grievances, to their stories of brutalization at the hands of the police and the army. Not the least of the many ironies of Fernandes’ present position is that he was once the country’s most prominent campaigner against human rights violations by the army. He is on record as having once described an Indian Army operation as ‘a naked dance of a bunch of sadists and criminals in uniform’.

As I watched the petitioners clamouring around Fernandes, I began to wonder what it would be like to try to live an everyday life, the life of schools and jobs, in a village that was sandwiched between that base, with its bristling perimeter fence, and the mountains beyond with their hidden guns and disembodied voices. A line quoted by the Kashmiri poet, Agha Shahid Ali kept coming to mind: ‘They make a desolation and call it peace.’ But here peace was not even a pretence.

Next day we flew to Leh, the principal town in Indian’s northernmost district, Ladakh. As the crow flies, Ladakh is only a few hundred miles from the valley of Kashmir, but it is a world apart, a niche civilization, as it were — a far outpost of Tibetan Buddhist culture that has flourished in a setting even more extreme, in climate, altitude and topography, than that of Tibet.

Leh’s altitude is twelve thousand feet. On landing, we were handed pills to prevent altitude sickness and warned of short-term memory loss. In the afternoon, driving towards the Siachen glacier, we went spiraling over the 18,300 foot Khardung Pass. A painted sign announced this to be the world’s highest motorable road. Ahead lay the Karakoram mountains: among the peaks in this range is the 28,000 foot K2, Mount Godwin-Austen, the second-highest mountain in this world.

The landscape was of a lunar desolation, with electric-blue skies and a blinding sun. Great sheets of glaciated rock rose sheer out of narrow valleys: their colours were the unearthly pinks and mauves of planetary rings and stellar moons. The mountains rose to sharp, pyramidal points, their ridges honed to fine, knife-like edges. Their slopes were covered with pulverized rock, as though they had been rained upon by torrents of gravel. Along the valley floors, beside ribbon-like streams, there were trees with whispering leaves and silver bark. On an occasional sandbank, dwarfed by the vastness of the landscape, there were tidy little monasteries and villages, surrounded by fantailed green terraces.

Outside the polar snows there is perhaps no terrain on earth that is less hospitable, less tolerant of human claims, than the region around the Karakorams. There are no demarcated borders here. In Kashmir there is a Line of Control that serves as a de facto border. This agreed-upon line stops short of this region, ending at an observation post named NJ 9842.

The Line of Control was a product of the first war between India and Pakistan. In 1948 both countries signed an agreement on this line. At the time neither India nor Pakistan thought of extending this line into the high Karakorams. ‘No one had ever imagined,’ a Pakistani academic said to me in Lahore, ‘that human beings would ever wish to claim these frozen places.’

But it was the very challenges of the terrain that led to the making of these claims. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, several international mountaineering expeditions ventured into this region. They came through Pakistan and used Pakistani-controlled areas as their roadheads. This raised suspicions in India. It was discovered that maps were being published in the United States with lines drawn through the region, suggesting delineated borders where none existed. There was talk of ‘cartographic aggression’.

It was these notional lines, on maps used mainly by mountaineers, that were eventually to transform the Siachen glacier into a battleground. It is generally agreed that the glacier has absolutely no strategic, military or economic value whatsoever. It is merely an immense, slowly moving mass of compacted snow and ice, seventy miles long and over a mile deep.

In 1983, in order to stake India’s territorial claims, the Indian Army launched a massive airlifting operation and setup a number of military posts along the glacier. Pakistan responded by putting up a parallel line of posts. There was no agreement on which posts should be where: shoving was the only way to decide.

Since that time, every day, for fifteen years, the Indian and Pakistani armies have been exchanging barrages of artillery fire at heights that range from ten to twenty thousand feet.

We stopped to visit a dimly-lit hospital ward. There were some dozen men inside. None of them had been injured by ‘enemy action’: it was the terrain that was their principal adversary. They were plainsmen mainly: in the normal course of things snow would play no part at all in their lives. They were not volunteers: only officers volunteer for service on the glacier. Some of the men were in their twenties, but most were older, some possibly in their late-thirties and perhaps even early forties — family men, whose bodies had no doubt begun to slow down a little even before they were sent here. They stared at us mutely and we stared back, trying to think of something cheerful to say. One of them had tears in his eyes.

At some posts on the glaciers, temperatures dip sometimes to -40 and -50 degrees centigrade. At these altitudes wind velocities are very high. The soldiers live in tents that are pitched either on the surface of the glacier or on ledges of rock. Shooting at the other side takes up very little of their time. They spend much of their time crammed inside their tents. Such heat as they have comes from small kerosene stoves. These are kept going all night and all day. Kerosene produces a foul-smelling grimy kind of soot. This soot works itself slowly into the soldiers’ clothes, their hair, their eyes, their nostrils. When they walk back to their base camps, after their three-month tours of duty, they are enveloped in black grime.

The posts on the glacier are supplied mainly by helicopter. The craft used for this purpose is the Cheetah, a lightweight helicopter, descended from a French prototype, the Alouette. The Cheetah has been in production in India for some thirty years. On the glacier it is frequently required to perform beyond its capabilities. The Cheetah requires a two-man pilot team which means that on some sorties the craft can carry a load of only twenty-five kilograms — about one jerrycan of kerosene. High winds and bad weather strictly limit the number of days on which sorties can be flown. In fine weather, the helicopters frequently have to fly under fire.

On the higher reaches of the glacier, the soldiers’ dependence on the helicopters is absolute. It sometimes happens, a major-general told me, that the men become besotted with these craft and begin to pray to them. This is just one of many species of dementia that come to afflict those who live on the glacier.

Supply problems are particularly acute on the Indian side of the glacier, where the military outposts are separated from their roadheads by long stretches of punishing terrain. Helicopter-time is too precious to be spent on ferrying men between their bases and their posts. Soldiers make their way across the glacier on foot, hefting loads that are often in excess of those carried by Sherpas on Himalayan expeditions. Because of the glacier’s constantly-moving surface, each unit must chart its own route. Crevasses appear and disappear in a matter of hours. Some of the posts require a walk of twenty-three days.

‘We allow ten extra men per battalion for wastage,’ an officer told me. Relatively few of the casualties on the glacier are chalked up to hostile fire: the environment imposes a heavier toll on both sides than do the guns of either army. Every year some 1,000 Indian soldiers are believed to sustain injuries on the glacier — about the equivalent of an infantry battalion.

The basic equipment for every Indian soldier on the glacier costs Rs 60,000 — about eleven times what the average Indian can expect to earn in a year. An expert once calculated that every chapatti eaten by a Pakistani soldier on the Siachen glacier bears a cost of about Rs 450 (roughly the average monthly wage for the country).

The Siachen glacier, a senior officer told me, costs India the equivalent of about 20 million U.S. dollars per day: this adds up, in the course of a year, to about one billion dollars — about one-tenth of the country’s entire defence budget. Pakistan’s costs are much lower but still substantial. The total cost of the Siachen conflict is probably of the same order of magnitude as that of the nuclear programmes of India and Pakistan combined. If the money spent on the glacier were to be divided up and handed out to the people of India and Pakistan, every household in both countries would be able to go out and buy a new cooking stove or a bicycle.

In 1992, there were signs that both countries had reached an agreement on a simultaneous disengagement from Siachen. It was India reportedly that torpedoed the agreement. The diplomats who had negotiated the settlement were told by top politicians: ‘A retreat from Siachen will look bad in an election year.’ The election came and went leaving the soldiers still at their posts.

We spent a night at a base close to the glacier. In the evening, in the mess, I said to a group of junior officers, ‘Do you think the glacier serves any purpose for either country?’

One of the officers laughed. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘once, while climbing an ice face, I asked myself exactly the same thing.’ Another officer added quickly: ‘But of course we have to stay.’ ‘Why?’

‘National prestige — this is where India, Pakistan and China meet. We have to hang on, at all costs.’

I was interested to note that Indian soldiers always spoke of their Pakistani counterparts with detachment and respect. Usually they referred to the other side collectively as ‘He’; sometimes they used the term dushman, ‘enemy’. I never once heard any soldier utter a denigratory epithet of any kind.

‘Most of us here are from north India,’ a bluntly spoken major said to me. ‘We have more in common with the Pakistanis, if you don’t mind my saying so, than we do with South Indians or Bengalis.’

One morning, in a Cheetah helicopter, I followed Fernandes through the gorges that lead up to the glacier. It was cloudy and the brilliant colours of the rockfaces had the blurred quality of a water-washed print. There was a majesty to the landscape the like of which I had never seen before.

We dipped and turned through a sand-braided river valley, trying to make our way up to a post on the glacier. The men at the post, the pilot said, were waiting eagerly for Fernandes. Before him no Defence Minister had ever thought to pay the glacier a visit.

But the landing was not to be. The cloud-cover was too thick. We headed towards the black, moraine-encrusted snout of the glacier. Under an open hangar a burra khana had been arranged in Fernandes’ honour — a kind of feast. Fernandes left the officers’ table and began to serve the other ranks, taking the dishes out of the hands of the kitchen staff. The men were visibly moved and so was Fernandes. It was clear that in this job — arrived at fortuitously, late in his career — Fernandes had discovered some kind of vocation, a return perhaps to the remembered austerity and brotherhood of his days as a seminarian or his time as a trade-unionist.

I was introduced to an officer who had just come off the glacier after a three-month tour of duty. He talked proudly of his men and all they had accomplished: injuries had been kept to a minimum, no one had gone mad, they had erected a number of tents and shelters.

He leaned closer. While on the glacier, he said, he’d thought of a plan for winning the war. He wanted to convey it to the Defence Minister. Could I help?

And the plan? I asked.

A nuclear explosion, he explained, inside the glacier, a mile deep. The whole thing would melt and the resulting flood would carry Pakistan away and also put an end to the glacier. ‘We can work wonders.’

He’d just come off the glacier, I reminded myself. This was just another kind of altitude sickness. The next day, sitting in his plane, I talked to Fernandes about Pakistan.

‘The soldiers are of the same stock on both sides,’ he said. ‘We cannot win against them and they cannot win against us. Their strength may not be evenly matched against India but their motivation is much greater. This is the reality.’

‘Isn’t it possible for both sides to disengage from the glacier?’ I asked. ‘Can’t some sort of solution be worked out?’

‘Does anyone really want a solution?’ He said quietly. In his voice there was the same note of despair I’d heard before. ‘I don’t think anyone wants a solution. Things will just go on, like this.’

Not for the first time, I wondered why Fernandes had taken the risk of bringing me with him. Was it perhaps because he wanted the world to know of his despair and its causes, hoping perhaps that that knowledge would somehow help avert whatever it was that he feared most?

Later, in Pakistan, the defence-affairs specialist, Shirin Mazari, said to me: ‘The feeling about Siachen in Pakistan is that we’re bleeding India on that front. So let them stay up there for a while and bleed.’

‘But Pakistan is bleeding too surely?

‘Not as much as India; they’re bleeding more.’

I came to be haunted by this metaphor, because of its undeniable appositeness — its evocation of the vendettas of peasant life along with its reference to the haemorrhaging of lives and resources on the glacier: how better to describe this conflict than through an image of two desperately poor protagonists, balancing upon a barren mountaintop, each with a pickaxe stuck in the other’s neck, each propping the other up while waiting for him to bleed to death?

To visit the Siachen glacier is to know that somewhere within the shared collective psyche of India and Pakistan, the torment of an unalterable proximity has given birth to a kind of deathwish, an urge that is rising ever more insistently to the surface.

(In 1998, after India tested five nuclear devices in Pokaran and Pakistan tested nuclear devices of its own soon after, Amitav Ghosh visited Siachen Glacier, among other places, to understand the motivations behind the tests. This essay, excerpted from Countdown [2008], describes his visit to the glacier)

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