Why Siachen is a purposeless world record for India to hold

Why,Siachen,is,a,purposeless,world,record,for,India,to,hold
Why Siachen is a purposeless world record for India to hold
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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.

Glocal pride

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.

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In photos: Raised in laboratories, these Bangalore beagles are finding real homes

In photos: Raised in laboratories, these Bangalore beagles are finding real homes
Photo Credit: Ajay Palekar
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“Debbie actually chose me,” said Seemanthini Channamallikarjuna, who adopted one of the 23 beagles up for adoption at a recent camp in Bengaluru. Channamallikarjuna had never seen laboratory beagles before, and even though she had done her research, she was tentative about how to approach the dogs. While some beagles walked around freely, others seemed to huddle in a corner as if unsure of what was going on. Channamallikarjuna remembers seeing Debbie, who was getting her infected eyes cleaned. “I went and sat in a corner near these introverted beagles,” Channamallikarjuna said. “She just came and lay down on my lap.”

For Channamallikarjuna and her husband, Debbie’s gesture meant that they had found a new member of their family. And despite all the challenges associated with getting a seven-year-old beagle acquainted with the real world, the couple took Debbie back to their home in Mysore.

Debbie was part of the third round of laboratory beagle adoptions conducted in recent years by animal rescue NGO Compassion Unlimited Plus Action. Animal testing is legal and beagles are among the most common test subjects along with mice, rats, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, cats and monkeys. As one of the oldest known dog breeds – one that hasn’t been genetically moulded by breeders – beagles are not predisposed to genetic diseases that affect many pedigree breeds. They are also small, compact and easily transportable.

The beagles in the current batch being rehabilitated have not had tests performed on them. Some of them have been used for breeding purposes, while others were in captivity while research projects were pending approval and eventually scrapped. The dogs have been confined to laboratory environments and have spent most of their lives in small cages.

Source: Seemanthini Channamallikarjuna
Source: Seemanthini Channamallikarjuna

“Beagles are very docile,” said Chinthana Gopinath, a volunteer with CUPA and coordinator for the adoption camp. “Even when they are kept in a cage and hands are constantly going in and pulling them out for injections or dissections, even then they are not given to aggression.”

Waiting for adoption day to begin. Source: Ajay Palekar
Waiting for adoption day to begin. Source: Ajay Palekar

Gopinath has earlier seen dogs as young as a year old or as even old as 11 emerge from the laboratory having been tested with chemicals for drug toxicity.

“Usually, it is very common with laboratories that once they are done with testing, they euthanise the dogs,” said Gopinath. “The one thing animal NGOs ask is that once testing is done, release them into NGOs care to give them a shot at life with peace and love and all of those things.”

Swapping number tags for collars and names. Source: Ajay Palekar
Swapping number tags for collars and names. Source: Ajay Palekar
Finding new families. Source: Ajay Palekar
Finding new families. Source: Ajay Palekar

In a few days, around 30 dogs are set for another round of adoptions. The adoption camps are a brief happy interlude in the dogs’ lives. Readjustment and recovery is a long process, as their new pet parents well know.

“These dogs have a hell of a time coping with pathogens once they are brought out,” said Srilakshmi Amirtheshwaran, a dog psychologist who has been working with canine adoptions for about 12 years. “The microbes in the atmosphere immediately latch on to their underdeveloped immunity and that is a challenge for vets.” Used to near-silent facilities, the beagles are often terrified by noise. The presence of other dogs might be stressful to them and human touch can be intimidating.

Yet, for families across Bengaluru, Mysore and Chennai the challenge is worth it. Channamallikarjuna has seen how quickly Debbie is learning to adapt to her house, from starting to eat normally to climbing up and down stairs. “When there is an unfamiliar sound or movement she just freezes, but if you leave her alone she comes back to normal. On the first day, if we spoke even in low voices she would tuck her tail between her legs,” she said. “These might be the last years of their lives and I just wanted to give one a chance to live in a happy home.”

Debbie learning to use the stairs. Source: Seemanthini Channamallikarjuna
Debbie learning to use the stairs. Source: Seemanthini Channamallikarjuna
Debbie in her new home. Source: Seemanthini Channamallikarjuna
Debbie in her new home. Source: Seemanthini Channamallikarjuna

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Here’s what to do if you’re ever hit by an avalanche. Tip No 1: Swim

Here's what to do if you're ever hit by an avalanche. Tip No 1: Swim9.6K
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The discovery of a soldier still alive six days after being caught in an avalanche on the Siachen glacier is nothing short of a miracle and seasoned mountaineers agree to this. A rescue team found Lance Naik Hanumanthappa Koppad under a block of ice on February 8, where he had been trapped since the accident on February 3. Koppad was part of a 10-member team of soldiers caught in an ice fall at 19,600 feet above sea level.

There’s little you can do when you’re in an avalanche, said Wing Commander Amit Chowdhury, vice president of the Indian Mountaineering Federation, who has also had the frightening experience. Your body is rolling in all directions and you may not know which way is up and what is down. When the mayhem of the falling ice or snow ends there are four factors that determine survival – access to air, whether a victim’s airway is clear, how badly she has been injured in the fall and time.

Anil Gutroo, professor of medicine at Lady Hardinge Medical College explains why finding Koppad alive was so unexpected. “There is a 90% survival chance if you are found in 15 minutes. If you are buried for 90 minutes the survival chance falls to 20%,” said Gutroo, who survived an avalanche at Siachen nine years ago. Gutroo and two others were hit by a snow avalanche and he was buried in the snow for hardly five minutes before member of the Indian Army who were in the vicinity dig them out. Even though being caught in a slide of snow is less damaging than being hit by blocks of ice Gutroo had severe injuries –broken ribs, an injured back and wounds on his head that needed at least 20 stitches.

Here are some that Gutroo and Chowdhury recommend to increase your chances of surviving an avalanche.

Swim: Mountain climbers in avalanche prone regions are often told to try to “swim” in the snow. The thrashing motion of swimming helped a climber on Mont Blanc in Italy ride an avalanche for about 700 meters till it came to a stop.

Create an air pocket: After the avalanche the immediate problem is for a person buried in in the snow to find air. “After the avalanche settles, because it is cold an often below zero degree Celsius, snow freezes very quickly. What was fluid quickly becomes solid,” said Chowdhury. “What you must do is to draw your hands out in such a way that you quickly make a gap around you head and keep as much of air around you as possible till someone can dig you out.”

Protection from wind and cold: Up at the high altitudes where avalanches occur, cold is a big killer. But the avalanche-experienced know that being buried under snow and ice offers automatic insulation from the cold. If you are in a position to breathe easily and otherwise safe, stay protected from the wind.

Conserve energy: It’s going to be hard to tell how long you might be stuck on a snowy mountain. One of the smartest things you can do is to conserve you energy by remaining calm and not exerting yourself. “Without food and water, you can survive for seven days to a two weeks,” said Gutroo. “When temperature falls and there is hypothermia, the body’s metabolism slows and conserves energy. A cardiac arrest patient who has been buried in an avalanche has a better chance of being revived of he has survived, because cold preserves and sows down the metabolism and oxygen uptake. With slower metabolism the body can recover.”

If you see light, dig your way out: Having said that though, here’s a tip to figure out how deep you may be buried. “If you are under more than a meter of snow, then here won’t be any light. You may not even know which side is up,” said Chowdhury. “But if you are on a slope and you can actually see some light, then it’s worth trying to dig yourself out.”

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The blockade is over but Nepal’s young Madhesis are determined to keep their agitation alive

The blockade is over but Nepal's young  Madhesis are determined to keep their agitation alivePhoto Credit: Anumeha Yadav
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Madhesi protestors have lifted the four-month blockade of the India-Nepal open international border at Birgunj. On February 5, the first trucks rolled across the Maitreyi bridge, which connects Raxaul in Bihar’s East Champaran to Birgunj in Nepal, just 150 km away from the capital Kathmandu.

The agitation began in September, shortly after Nepal’s parliament ratified the country’s new Constitution, as Scroll.in reported earlier in this series. The Madhesis – a term for several communities living in Nepal’s central and eastern plains who have close cultural and family ties to India – fear that the new statute will perpetuate the discrimination they have long faced. Kathmandu, however, accused India of imposing an unofficial blockade on the landlocked country, a charge denied by New Delhi.

The agitation caused an enormous shortage of fuel and essential goods in Nepal.

Since last weekend, the tents and bamboo poles blocking the Maitreyi bridge, the most visible symbols of the protest, have disappeared. What is left is the memory of the human cost – 55 civilians and seven policemen lost their lives in the agitation – and an over-arching question: How has the turmoil shaped the views of youth in towns like Birgunj, which were at the epicenter of the protests?

State brutality

On January 15, when negotiations between a coalition of Madhes-based parties and the three major Nepali political parties were still in progress in Kathmandu, protestors had for the first time since September allowed two-wheelers onto the Maitreyi bridge.

A few kilometers away, at the clock tower on a busy crossroads at the center of Birgunj town, a large crowd thronged an exhibition of photographs chronicling the agitation.

Chandan Gupta, a 19-year old student of business administration, was in the crowd. Gupta, clad in the signature t-shirt and jacket of the young, said he had taken part in several of the protests.

“This photograph shows a man impersonating Sushil Koirala [Nepal’s prime minister from February 2014-October 2015], wearing shoes around his neck because Koirala ratified a biased Constitution,” said Gupta, as he walked along the exhibits, pausing occasionally to point out photographs of special interest.

“This next one shows Newar women, a community from the hill region, supporting the Madhesi agitation… Here, a goat is dressed as current Prime Minister KP Oli, little children are leading it… Men, women, and children had formed a 1,100 kilometer-long human chain all along the plains from east to west, but Oli called us a swarm of flies for organising it.”

Gupta’s family migrated to Birgunj 12 years ago from a village in the adjoining Bara district to set up a small hardware business. Though communities from Nepal’s hills and plains had struggled together for a democratic Constitution, the hill communities – who had greater numbers in parliament – had ratified a Constitution inimical to Madhesi interests, he claimed.

This, he said, was in line with Nepal’s history, throughout which Madhesis had been given “no rights to their civilisation” and were slightingly referred to as “Dhotis” and “Biharis”, among other pejorative terms.

Gupta, who by then had been joined by some of his classmates, recalled that last September, Nepal Armed Police had fired at protestors marching towards this same clock tower. One of his friends fished out his mobile phone to show images of bullet-ridden bodies of protestors that had been circulated on WhatsApp. “The government was sending the army here dressed as policemen,” said Chandan.

Chandan’s friend Harish believes there was an ethnic bias in how security personnel were deputed during the protests. “The government gave only sticks to Madhesi security personnel and put them on the frontline,” he claimed. “The Pahadi security personnel stood behind, and fired at Madhesi protestors with powerful guns.”

Eleven people, including children, were killed when the police fired on protestors in Birgunj.
Eleven people, including children, were killed when the police fired on protestors in Birgunj.

Social and institutional polarisation

Mainstream Nepali publications provided little ground reportage of the protests, but young Madhesis living in Kathmandu and abroad have been publishing analysis and news on independent web platforms such as Madhesi Youth.

Local FM radio stations took sides. “The media in Kathmandu was speaking the official line, and Terai’s local media became the voice of the movement,” said Suresh Bidari, a radio jockey with Narayani FM. Once the protests picked up steam, the radio station changed its format. Where once it focused on film music, it now began broadcasting interviews with protestors, farmers, and political activists through the day, he said.

Bidari, in his 20s, belongs to a community from the hilly regions; his family had moved to the Terai seven years back. Despite being a “Pahadi” he supports the Madhesi movement, though he does not agree with all of its demands.

“The Madhesis have been ruled for 250 years by people from the hills,” said Bidari. “They must be treated as equal citizens, and get full citizenship even if they have cross-border marriages.” But he did not support seemankan, the demand that provincial boundaries be redrawn.

A key demand of the alliance of Madhes-based parties is that the plains be divided into no more than two provinces. The government for its part has proposed seven provinces, drawn such that in four of five provinces in the plains, areas with large Madhesi population have been merged into hill regions. Madhesi leaders have demanded that Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari districts in the east be included in a contiguous Madhes province, which will have access to water from the river Kosi in the east.

Said a young professional who did not wish to be named: “What will I, as a resident of Birgunj, get if we get a Jhapa district? Instead, it would be better if they asked for a hill district so we can access hydel power.”

Such sharp differences over issues, and over the question of who participated in the agitation and who did not, have polarised younger people. “For me, the main issue is that Madhesis face discrimination,” said Aashu Saraf, a 21-year old photojournalist and undergraduate student. “I don’t support the demarcation demand and yet, since I have started speaking about the andolan actively on Facebook, my friends of several years from school and college have distanced themselves from me. I had never thought this would happen.”

Members of a band called Sanskriti jamming in a restaurant in Birgunj.
Members of a band called Sanskriti jamming in a restaurant in Birgunj.

‘At least, we will live with dignity’

In peri-urban areas and villages, where most of the young protestors came from, there is a wider acceptance of the demand for demarcation and a willingness to continue the agitation in some form.

In Barjari, near Jaleswar in Mahottari district, the protests were so intense that Neha Jha, a student of commerce in class XI, could not attend school for nearly two months. On a January afternoon, she was returning after her final exams, walking down a path that led to her house in the village. “The demarcation issue is crucial because right now, the main Madhes province is between two rivers and we have access to neither of them,” she said. “This means farmers will get no water for irrigation. What will people do then? Already, Madhesis are denied jobs in government.”

Though she had stayed at home, her family members and neighbours had taken part in the protests, and Neha has vivid memories of the chaos. “The police were coming towards this path here in their vehicles, firing from inside, and people were running, and throwing stones at them.”

She recalled how Rohan Chaudhary, a secondary school student from her neighbourhood, was fatally shot in the chest while he was returning from private tuitions. Two days later, Rohan’s grandfather Ganesh Chaudhary was shot in the head by the police when he went to the market to purchase things for Rohan’s cremation.

“The police were oppressive,” Jha said. “The andolankari set a police chowki on fire, they killed a policeman, setting him on fire – they also didn’t do the right thing.”

Jha found the violence and the political impasse exasperating. “The government will not agree to demarcation, and leaders here won’t agree to wait for more months,” she said. “If the Nepal government will not give us rights, then I think it will be alright for us to fight for a separate nation. Why fight again and again over demarcation? Even if more people die in a future agitation, at least we will live with dignity.”

The sentiment Neha Jha articulated had been already voiced ten years earlier by armed secessionist groups in the region. While the strength of these groups has ebbed over time, the demand for an independent Terai state has been raised repeatedly in recent years by Chandra Kant Raut, a computer scientist and political campaigner.

In 2014, the Nepalese government charged Raut with sedition and has arrested him twice. Last month, Raut’s acquittal was upheld by Nepal’s Supreme Court.

Secessionism as final solution?

Madhes-based parties have consistently argued that if their agitation for a separate province within Nepal fails, it will pave the way for more extreme secessionist demands, such as Raut’s.

On a visit to Delhi recently, Raut argued that the failure of Madhes-based parties this January to get the Constitution amended as per their demands proved that Nepal’s parliamentary politics was “a step in the wrong direction”.

Raut said his plan is to hold fresh elections independently in every village in the Terai, elect a constituent assembly, and form an interim Terai government. “Till we do this, and till have our own army, Madhesis will never have control over their natural resources or the economy,” he said. “First and foremost, Madhesi youth have to fight for their freedom.”

Chandrakishore Jha, a political analyst and writer who lives in Birgunj, said the demand for a separate state is not feasible, and would only invite more state repression.

However, though Raut has been actively campaigning for a free Madhes only since a couple of years, his campaign has successfully reached a wide range of youth across social classes, and spanning the political spectrum. Rajat Pandey, a 16-year old studying in boarding school in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand, who was on a visit to his home in Pipra village near Janakpur, said he regularly read Raut’s Facebook page for updates, and that he backed the demand for an independent Terai state as “timely and legal.”

Chandan Gupta, the business administration student in Birgunj, said he had been deeply moved by Raut’s speech at Birgunj’s clock tower the day Raut was arrested in 2015. “Raut is a scientist and he has studied Madhesi history,” Gupta said. “He has been saying for two years that we will not get a fair Constitution, but these political parties did not pay any attention.”

He added: “Dard bhara speech hai uska (His speeches are filled with emotion). The day he was at the clock tower to deliver a speech, hundreds of policemen came to arrest him but the students would not let them take him.”

Given the sense of alienation that prevails, some young people see Raut’s strategy as an inevitable option. “Madhesis were doing a peaceful Gandhivaadi andolan, but the government heartlessly fired at them,” said Ram Lal Das, a 22-year old teacher from Duhabi panchayat in Dhausa district. “It is a cruel khaswaadi political regime. It does not consider the Madhesis its people.”

Ram Ratan Das, a 30-year old mason in Janakpur, said he had read out Raut’s pamphlets on secessionism at political rallies at Madhwapura near his village. “We will fight in the current course till we are able,” said Das. “Otherwise, we will ask for a separate state. That will be like a surgery, the final treatment.”

Charred motorcycles lie at a chowk in Janakpur, where a curfew was imposed after three youth died in police firing on January 21.
Charred motorcycles lie at a chowk in Janakpur, where a curfew was imposed after three youth died in police firing on January 21.
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