Kashmir's Siachen glacier a frigid outpost in India-Pakistan conflict

India and Pakistan have talked about removing troops from the world's highest battlefield in the disputed Kashmir region, but military outposts of the two nuclear powers remain in the frozen Himalayan terrain.
Indian army soldiers return after a training session at the Siachen glacier base camp in Kashmir on July 19, 2011. (Channi Anand/Associated Press)

India and Pakistan have talked about removing troops from the world's highest battlefield in the disputed Kashmir region, but military outposts of the two nuclear powers remain in the frozen Himalayan terrain.

More troops have died from hostile weather conditions in the Siachen glacier area than from military action since sporadic fighting began there nearly three decades ago. A ceasefire came into effect in 2003.

Indian army soldiers climb an ice wall at the Siachen base camp on May 5, 2007. (Mustafa Quraishi/Associated Press)

Avalanches have taken their toll in the region, where the altitude rises to 6,700 metres, temperatures plunge to –70 C and frostbite can set in within seconds.

"It's totally insane to be fighting a war at these altitudes," Rifaat Hussain, who teaches political science at Islamabad's National Defence College, told Time magazine in 2005.

An avalanche at the entrance to the Siachen glacier on April 7, 2012, buried more than 100 Pakistani soldiers. Another 24 Pakistani troops were killed in 2010.

Up to 20,000 troops deployed

Conflict in the area began in 1984 when India occupied the heights of the 78-kilometre-long glacier, fearing Pakistan wanted to claim the territory. Pakistan also deployed its troops.

Reuters has reported that since then, up to 20,000 Indian and Pakistani forces combined have faced off against each other in the mountains above the glacier, which has melted to half its earlier size.

The conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and other areas of disagreement goes back more than 50 years.

While Mahatma Gandhi and his followers were spreading non-violent resistance against British rule, another movement was making headway in India. Muslims were demanding greater say in government. Hindus were the majority and therefore held most of the political power.

In August 1947, a solution came for both causes. India won independence from British rule, and a new state, a Muslim state, was created. This new state was given the name Pakistan, which means "land of the pure."

A history of war

The old country was split, with various regions holding votes to decide whether they wanted to be a part of India or of Pakistan. The results came in and the new borders drawn up. But the transition had more than a few problems.

For one, the announcement of the new borders caused the greatest migration in human history as millions of Muslims left India for Pakistan while millions of Hindus left Pakistan for India.

Secondly, the new nation of Pakistan consisted of two separate chunks of land, which sat at opposite sides of India, a problem that would later lead to the creation, following a bloody war, of yet another new country, Bangladesh.

Then there was Kashmir. With the deadline for the vote passed, Kashmir had failed to choose whether it wanted to be part of India or Pakistan, leaving the issue unresolved. It didn't take long for Pakistan and India to begin fighting over it.

Only two months after independence was won, tribesmen from Pakistan's North West Frontier province invaded Kashmir. At the time, the population of Kashmir was about 80 per cent Muslim.

The invasion caused Hari Singh, the Maharajah of Kashmir, to sign an accord joining Kashmir with India. Indian troops were sent in to defend what was now Indian territory.

'Line of control'

The war ended on Jan. 1, 1949 with the United Nations creating a ceasefire line, known as the "line of control." Azad Kashmir, a region in northwest Kashmir, was given to Pakistan.

In 1965, war broke out again in Kashmir and continued until both governments signed a ceasefire agreement negotiated by the British.

Kashmir has remained a contentious issue. Since 1989, more than a dozen Islamic militant groups have been fighting for Kashmir's independence from India or its merger with neighbouring Pakistan.

More than 68,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the conflict.

India and Pakistan resumed peace talks that were interrupted by the Mumbai attacks in 2008.

The United States has offered a $10 million US bounty for the founder of the Pakistani militant group blamed for the attacks that killed 166 people.

Hafiz Saeed founded Lashkar-e-Taiba in the 1980s, allegedly with Pakistani support to pressure India over Kashmir.

Bombings in Mumbai in 2003 were also blamed on the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Mumbai police attributed 2006 train bombings to Islamic militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir.

With files from The Associated Press