News of the tragic avalanche on Siachen which buried ten Indian soldiers reminded me of the glacier’s place in the Guinness Book of World Records. As a schoolboy, I had large sections of the British edition of that book committed to memory. It was no deliberate effort but the automatic result of being fascinated enough by the information it contained to read through it repeatedly. I convinced my mother to buy me the American version as well, but found it preoccupied with things in which I had no interest, like the the National Football League. The British edition was more substantial and less parochial.
I recognised early on that Indians held very few world records. The great swimmer Mihir Sen found mention, as did the invincible hockey teams of undivided India. Predictably, the longest recorded legal dispute had taken place in India. Then there was a man boasting the world’s longest moustache, and Shridhar Chillal, who had the world’s longest fingernails. Kharagpur’s railway platform, over a kilometre long, was listed in a section on edifices and constructions.
Years later, I took a train to Calcutta that stopped at Kharagpur. As the station approached I grew tensely excited, for the longest platform on the planet was to me the equivalent of a world heritage site. The train was late and the January night cold and misty. I got off onto the famous platform, walked as far as the engine, and stared into the distance. The shelf of concrete stretched further than I could see. Afraid the train would start rolling again, I returned to the seat and gawked through a window as we travelled the platform’s length. When I settled back, a question popped into my mind for the first time. Why on earth had they made a platform so much longer than the longest passenger train? I assumed there was a reason, but I’ve never been able to discover it.
Kharagpur is no longer the Everest of train platforms, having been surpassed by Gorakhpur a few years ago. Gorakhpur’s residents celebrated news of their taking possession of a world record when its 1.3 km platform was inaugurated. In interviews, they said they were proud because the town would no longer be seen as a dead-end mofussil. No news reports mentioned why such a long platform was necessary, or even helpful.
The Kharagpur experience made me realise that records could be meaningful or purposeless. The feats of Mihir Sen and our hockey team, achieved against strong competition in widely popular athletic disciplines, were meaningful, while the railway platform and Sridhar Chillal’s fingernails, (which had grown so long, they fused together rendering one hand unusable) struck me as falling in the latter category. After the Limca Book of Records began to be published, along with an accompanying television show, Indians developed an affinity for purposeless feats. Individuals specialised in doing things that nobody in their right mind would want to do, such as chewing light bulbs or staying in a cage full of snakes or cycling backwards.
Since 1984, Siachen has held a place in the book of records as the world’s highest battlefield. It seems like a record that is obviously meaningful. Hundreds of lives have been lost on the glacier, tens of thousands of crores of rupees spent on maintaining troops there. Surely, we ought to be proud of the valour and determination of our soldiers, battling the elements as well as the enemy for decades. And yet, why are they there at all? In 1972, a Line of Control was established as part of the Simla Accord that followed the Bangladesh war. The map makers divided peaks and valleys carefully, till they reached a point where no human habitation could conceivably spring up. At that point they just made the general remark that the line of control would continue north. Indians assumed this meant due north, and Pakistan and the United States decided it meant continuing along the route as marked all the way to the Karakorum Pass, which meant going north-east rather than due north. To assert its own interpretation, Pakistan began permitting mountaineering expeditions into the zone. India responded by sending troops to occupy the barren wedge.
Like an absurdist film
The Indian action was justifiable in and off itself, but appears not to have been thought through. What were the troops supposed to do once up there? Apparently guard a place in perpetuity that nobody but extreme sports enthusiasts would ever want to visit, and which had no economic value. Soldiers have been posted there in rotation these past 32 years, living in misery, suffering hypothermia and frostbite, all for a wilderness of interest only to Doctor Strangeloves obsessed with strategic heights. As the globe has warmed and the glacier retreated, it has not made life on Siachen any more comfortable, for the change in degrees Celsius is marginal, but appears to have increased the land’s perilousness, and not just for Indians. Two years ago, an avalanche buried 129 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians in the Gayatri sector not far from the glacier.
In retrospect, it’s obvious India should have tried diplomacy instead of launching a preemptive military operation. It’s also clear to those of us who would put the world’s highest battlefield in the category of purposeless records, that we should try to extricate ourselves as fast as possible, cleaning up what we can of the toxic mess we have made in a formerly pristine ecosystem. When I read about the avalanche last week, I thought of Bob Dylan’s words, slightly paraphrased, “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?”
Each death makes the Siachen conflict more absurd to people like me. Those who consider Siachen profoundly meaningful, though, think very differently. To them, each death hallows that land further, obliging us to defend it with more soldiers and more resources, for anything less would be a betrayal of those who gave the last full measure of devotion on those icy mountains. For over three decades, the assertive nationalists have has won the popular vote, and India has remained more interested in celebrating martyrdom than in reducing the need for sacrifice. It will be a long while before Siachen is returned to those who had sole possession of it for millennia, the snow leopards and ibexes.