The Indian army has deployed its first female soldier to the 4,700m high Siachen glacier in the Himalayas – also known as the world’s highest battlefield.
On Tuesday the army tweeted that following her posting on the 76km glacier, also claimed by India’s neighbouring nuclear rival Pakistan, Capt Shiva Chauhan from the engineering corps had “broken the glass ceiling”.
Winter temperatures average minus 60 degrees on the disputed glacier, and are accompanied by an even more formidable windchill factor.
“We are extremely proud of Shiva,” Capt Chauhan’s mother Anjali told the Indian Express from her hometown of Udaipur in western Rajasthan state. “She has always been a person with a positive attitude.”
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Her sister Shabnam said her soldier sibling’s tenacity and single-mindedness had led to her “scripting history” by being the first woman to be posted to Siachen, just two years after being commissioned into the army.
A high-altitude cyclist and mountaineer, Capt Chauhan underwent arduous training at the Siachen Battle School, where she received instruction in ice wall-climbing and avalanche and crevasse rescue and survival techniques, which are essential on the glacier.
While on the Siachen for her three-month tenure, Capt Chauhan, who is serving with hundreds of male colleagues in her brigade, will be required to undertake numerous combat engineering tasks in the harsh terrain.
The glacier was occupied by India in 1984, in a move fiercely contested by Pakistan, and for several years the rival armies traded artillery and small arms fire until a ceasefire in 2003.
“Soldiers in Siachen battle the environment more than the enemy,” said retired Maj Gen A P Singh, who was formerly in charge of providing logistics to army personnel deployed on the glacier. Other than the freezing cold, which even in summer averages minus 20 degrees, he said they faced constant breathing problems, frostbite and the danger of loss of limbs and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Others who have served on Siachen said walking even a few steps on the glacier was daunting, with numerous soldiers routinely suffering high-altitude pulmonary and cerebral oedema and hypothermia-related disorders. Soldiers also face the prospect of enduring serious sunburn from scorching ultraviolet rays in Siachen’s rarefied mountainous atmosphere.
Since 1984 more than 900 Indian soldiers have died on Siachen due to climatic conditions, but in recent years the army’s overall infrastructure on the glacier has improved considerably, making existence on the inhospitable slopes relatively more tenable.
Pakistan controls the Saltoro Ridge, west of Siachen, and maintains posts some 1,000m below India’s positions, rendering its army’s position less gruelling.
The two countries, who have fought four wars since independence 75 years ago, came close to agreements on demilitarising Siachen three times, the last being in 2006, but mutual suspicion and mistrust scuttled them all.