Saturday, 7 April 2012

Latest update of avalanche in Pakistan which kills 135 people.

Update: Sunday 0200 GMT.

The number of people feared dead in an avalanche in the disputed Kashmir region has risen to 135, the Pakistan army has said.

Spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told the BBC 124 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians were missing after 70ft (21m) of snow engulfed a military camp near the Siachen Glacier on Saturday.

The incident happened near the Siachen glacier in the eastern Karakoram branch of the Himalaya mountains.

Thousands of troops are deployed in the remote area, which is claimed by both Pakistan and India.
The avalanche struck the base in the Gayari district at about 06:00 local time (01:00 GMT).

They are from the Northern Light Infantry regiment.

The military says its "priority is to save lives", and helicopters, sniffer dogs and troops have been sent to the area to help with the rescue.

Weather conditions in the area are said to be good.

The Siachen glacier is in a remote mountain area claimed by both Pakistan and India Kashmir has been partitioned between India and Pakistan since 1947.

Failure to agree on the status of the territory by diplomatic means has brought India and Pakistan to war on a number of occasions.

The Siachen glacier is known as the world's highest battlefield, and soldiers have been deployed at elevations of up to 6,700m (22,000 feet).

However, more soldiers have died from the harsh weather conditions there than in combat.

I have travelled extensively in the mountain regions of Pakistan and climbed in a number of areas, Just two days ago  I reread that well written book 'The Long road to Siachen, The Question Why' written by  Kunal verma and Rajiv Williams. This extensively researched book will answer a lot of questions for people wondering why so many soldiers live in the mountainous border region.

Here is a summary:

In the 60 years since Independence, entire generations of Indians have seen their country locked in conflict with both Pakistan and China, invariably over the so-called Kashmir problem.

The strategic significance of Kashmir (including Jammu and Ladakh) is not a modern day issue but dates back 200-odd years to the beginning of the Great Game whose ramifications were felt by England, Russia, France, Tibet, China and shaped events in the subcontinent.

'The Long Road to Siachen: The Question Why' is a recent book by Kunal Verma and Brigadier Rajiv Williams that takes the reader through an incredible journey that presents a comprehensive picture of the events through the ages.

Published by Rupa &Co. the major part of the book is authored by Kunal Verma who is well known for his path breaking documentaries on the Indian Air Force, the Kargil War, and the film on the National Defence Academy (Standard Bearers). Drawing on the vast exposure he has had with all three Services of the Armed Forces, he has adopted a unique style of telling the story; sometimes even writing in the first person which makes the narrative engaging.

The reader is drawn into the vagaries of the terrain in Jammu, Kashmir, Zanskar and Ladakh at the very onset as Verma talks of his early days as a trek manager with Tiger Tops Mountain Travel in the 1980s. His chance encounter with a French tourist after crossing Umasi La in 1981 that resulted in his obtaining USAF maps which depicted the entire region north and east of Tortuk as PAF overflying areas and the subsequent events makes the entire book part memoir, part history lesson, part analysis and his ability to take stunning photographs, part photo essay!

The narrative goes back and forth as present incidents are linked to the past to provide the reader with an appreciation of the entire chain of events. It indeed is a Long Road to Siachen as Kunal Verma traces the history of various exploratory expeditions launched in the region during the 'Great Game years' and then subsequently the post Partition and Independence era, when various mountaineering forays from the Pakistani side.

The Indian side of the story unfolds as Colonel Narendra 'Bull' Kumar's attempts are documented along with other major expeditions.

The subsequent race between India and Pakistan to be the first to establish their dominance over the region provides an exciting edge.

                              The mountains of Kashmir, scene of a violent territorial dispute

The intricacies of Geo-Politics, alas so rarely understood by Indian leaders, then unfold as Verma gets into the nitty-gritty of hard-core Military History, starting with the broad Indian canvas which narrows down on Kashmir. The emergence of the Sikh Confederacy under the legendary Ranjit Singh; Gulab Singh's establishing of the Dogra Empire and the role played by Hari Singh and the Congress Party are looked at minus the Anglo-Saxon spin on the events and personalities which we in India have generally inherited unquestioningly.

Hari Singh, the last ruler of Kashmir, for example, so often branded a villain for his dilly-dallying in 1947, comes across as a thoughtful personality who derailed the British plans during the Round Table Conference by giving voice to what at best can today be described as 'Indian ambitions'. The so-called heroes of India's freedom movement, more often than not oblivious of the larger strategic picture, often come across as unthinking puppets dancing to a preordained script written by the British. That Ambedkar first talked of dividing India on caste lines during the Round Table Conference even before the Muslim League got into the act of promoting the 'Two-Nation Theory' are important events which help unravel the complex jigsaw of the political machinations of those times.

The author also dwells at length on the creation of Pakistan, analyzing the deliberate strategy of the British to look after their own strategic interests post World War 2. The meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt that sealed the fate of British Colonialism, the relationship between Churchill and Jinnah, the evolution of Indian Military Intelligence agencies are important pegs in the book. Even the first Indo-Pak war of 1947-48 is dealt with in some detail, especially the fighting in Poonch.

In the main, the book time and again brings out the disconnect between the early political leadership in India on the one hand and the military and strategic think-tanks on the other. The appointment of Baldev Singh, an industrialist, as India's first Defence Minister by Nehru for political expediency tells its own story.

This alarming situation continues to haunt us even with the Kargil War of 1999. Kunal Verma was involved in filming the conflict for the Indian Army and he puts forth his opinions and insights on the operations from the privileged ringside view that he had. Photographs pertaining to the war, especially those of General Budhwar (GOC 3 Division) and Brigadier Devinder Singh (Cdr 70 Brigade) have added significance in view of the Armed Forces Tribunal recently ordering a re-write of the official Kargil history.

There is an important chapter on two lesser known battles of the conflict: 27 Rajput at Tortuk and 14 Sikh at Chorbatla. Both these sectors were sandwiched between the Kargil and Siachen regions and consequently were beyond the reach of the media during the war. These are tales of great courage and valour which only the Indian Army could have managed. Imagine a battalion of Rajputs recruited from the Jodhpur area, men who had not seen anything higher than a sand dune before joining the Army, now being pushed by a Manipuri Commanding Officer to launch an almost vertical assault at an objective at 18,000 feet.

The entire book is richly illustrated by photos taken by the author over the years, plus other images obtained from various archives.

Photographs of the raider columns in 1947 as the Pakistanis pushed into Kashmir should forever bury the ghost of 'non-state actors', the smoke screen fine tuned and patented by the ISI for decades! There are maps and illustrations, all of which combine to make it an extremely readable tome. One can see the photos of the terrain and admire the cold remote beauty created by Nature. One marvels that an heaven on earth can become such a battlefield but it has.

Brigadier Williams as a young Company Commander watched from Sonam Post his battalion, the highly decorated 8 JAK LI, defend Bana Top as the Pakistani Army launched a major attack. His documentation of both OP RAJIV and OP QIADAT bring out in graphic detail the bitter, horrific fighting in 1984 that saw a post on the Glacier actually change hands. He then dwells on the logistics/supply lines involving IAF fixed wing transports and Army and Air Force helicopters which ensure a permanent link to the Glacier with the rest of the country.

To be honest, a book on Military History is hardly likely to be on the average reader's "must read" list. But the Long Road to Siachen has successfully traversed across that line by linking the past with the present in so many different ways. This is a much needed book which should be made compulsory reading for our people - the citizen and the policy maker alike!

Here is the latest BBC profile on Kashmir

The former princely state of Kashmir has been partitioned between India and Pakistan since 1947, to the satisfaction neither of the two countries nor the Kashmiris themselves.

Failure to agree on the status of the territory by diplomatic means has brought India and Pakistan to war on a number of occasions, and ignitied an insurgency that shows no signs of abating.


When India and Pakistan gained independence from British rule in 1947, the various princely rulers were able to choose which state to join.

The Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, was the Hindu head of a majority Muslim state sandwiched between the two countries, and could not decide. He signed an interim "standstill" agreement to maintain transport and other services with Pakistan.

In October 1947 tribesmen from Pakistan invaded Kashmir, spurred by reports of attacks on Muslims and frustrated by Hari Singh's delaying tactics.The Maharaja asked for Indian military assistance.

India's governor-general, Lord Mountbatten, believed peace would best be served by Kashmir's joining India on a temporary basis, pending a vote on its ultimate status. Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession that month, ceding control over foreign and defence policy to India.

The mountains of Kashmir, scene of a violent territorial dispute Indian troops took two-thirds of the territory, and Pakistan seized the northern remainder. China occupied eastern parts of the state in the 1950s.


Whether the Instrument of Accession or the entry of Indian troops came first remains a major source of dispute between India and Pakistan. India insists that Hari Singh signed first, thereby legitimising the presence of their troops. Pakistan is adamant that the Maharaja could not have signed before the troops arrived, and that he and India had therefore ignored the "standstill" agreement with Pakistan.

Kashmir is renowned as a source for the fine wool known as cashmere Pakistan demands a referendum to decide the status of Kashmir, while Delhi argues that, by voting in successive Indian state and national elections, Kashmiris have confirmed their accesson to India. Pakistan cites numerous UN resolutions in favour of a UN-run referendum, while India says the Simla Agreement of 1972 binds the two countries to solve the problem on a state-to-state basis.

There has been no significant movement from these positions in decades. In addition, some Kashmiris seek a third option - independence - which neither India nor Pakistan is prepared to contemplate.

Line of Control

The two countries fought wars over Kashmir in 1947-48 and 1965. They formalised the original ceasefire line as the Line of Control in the Simla Agreement, but this did not prevent further clashes in 1999 on the Siachen Glacier, which is beyond the Line of Control. India and Pakistan came close to war again in 2002.

Furthermore an Islamist-led insurgency broke out in 1989 and remains significant. India gave the army additional authority to end the insurgency under the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Pro-Pakistan and pro-independence public protests erupted in the Kashmir Valley in the summer of 2010, and clashes with Indian security forces left more than 100 people dead.

Given that India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons, the stakes in the dispute are high.

A thaw in relations after 2002, which saw some road and rail communications into Pakistan reopened, ended abruptly with the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. India blamed Pakistani and Kashmiri Islamists, in particular the Lashkar-e-Toiba group, for the attacks. Talks between the two countries on improving ties across the Kashmiri Line of Control did however resume in 2010.


The population of historic Kashmir is divided into about 10 million people in Indian-administrated Jammu and Kashmir and 4.5 million in Pakistani-run Azad Kashmir. There are a further 1.8 million people in the Gilgit-Baltistan autonomous territory, which Pakistan created from northern Kashmir and the two small princely states of Hunza and Nagar in 1970.

The government of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has often been led by the National Conference, a pro-Indian party led by the Abdullah political dynasty. Pakistan runs Azad Jammu and Kashmir as a self-governing state, in which the Muslim Conference has played a prominent role for decades.

Jammu and Kashmir is diverse in religion and culture. It consists of the heavily-populated and overwhelmingly Muslim Kashmir Valley, the mainly Hindu Jammu district, and Ladakh, which has a roughly even number of Buddhists and Shia Muslims.

The Hindus of Jammu and the Ladakhis back India in the dispute, although there is a campaign in the Leh District of Ladakh to be upgraded into a separate union territory in order to reflect its predominantly Buddhist identity. India gave the two districts of Ladakh some additional autonomy within Jammu and Kashmir in 1995.

Kashmir's economy is predominantly agrarian. The important tourism sector in Indian-administered Kashmir was hard-hit by the post-1989 insurgency, but has seen some recovery since 2009.

Jammu and Kashmir

Status: State of India

Area: 222,236 sq km (85,806 sq miles)

Population: 10.1 million

Azad Jammu and Kashmir

Status: Autonomous territory of Pakistan

Area: 13,297 sq km (5,134 sq miles)

Population: 4.5 million


Status: Autonomous territory of Pakistan

Area: 72,496 sq km (27,990 sq miles)

Population: 1.8 million


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