Indian troops fight a fake war at 6,000 metres
Amrit Dhillon in New Delhi
The Indian Defence Ministry has confirmed newspaper reports that soldiers posted in Siachen - the highest battlefield in the world, where Indians and Pakistanis glare at one another across a frozen landscape - have been faking enemy deaths.
An investigation by the Hindustan Times newspaper last week revealed that a military court of inquiry was examining evidence of a massive fraud with officers of the 5/5 Gurkha Rifles being photographed pretending to be 'dead' Pakistani soldiers, and fake videos being made showing concocted 'military action'.
However, the ministry strongly denied media reports that soldiers had been claiming bravery awards for imagined gallantry. 'The system of awards and citations is absolutely foolproof. There is no question of anyone receiving awards and citations on false claims,' a ministry spokesman said.
In one case, soldiers attempted to ensure that their portrayal of 'enemy activity' on videotape looked realistic by building a 'Pakistani' air defence bunker on the Indian side of the war zone. Then, using Indian rockets and mortars, they destroyed it.
Siachen is the focus of a little-known, low-intensity conflict between India and Pakistan inside Indian-administered Kashmir. But for people in the subcontinent, it is the ultimate symbol in the dispute over Kashmir - maintaining their respective positions on the Siachen glacier has come to symbolise their resolve in the decades-long antagonism between the two nuclear-armed neighbours which has exploded into open warfare on three occasions since 1947.
Troops in Siachen are stationed at elevations higher than most North American, European or African mountains. At 6,300 metres, India has deployed forces at these astonishing heights at an estimated cost of up to US$1 million a day and is reluctant to back off for fear that Pakistan might walk in.
But the conflict is a logistical nightmare. It is also a psychological ordeal for soldiers whose toes and fingers drop off from vicious frostbite and who see colleagues going mad in the loneliness of the frozen wastes all around them amid raging blizzards and winter temperatures of 70 degrees below zero.
Ironically, Indian experts dispute the strategic importance of the glacier, with many analysts saying the country is wasting its time and money. But as long as Pakistan and India remain in deadlock over Kashmir, troops will remain in Siachen.
Despite the hardship, plenty of Indian soldiers volunteer for the posting, hoping it will boost their careers. That seems to have been the motivation behind the fake claims of enemy deaths and action that took place last year between July and November.
Given that Siachen is a low- intensity conflict, it is surprising that the army failed to question the abnormally high number of enemy deaths recorded. Or that no one thought it odd that there was no retaliatory fire from the 'enemy' when deaths occurred.
But the scandal only came to light when one of the officers involved, Major Surinder Singh, blew the whistle on his colleagues after a disagreement with his battalion's commanding officer, Colonel K.D. Singh. Major Singh described the fraud to top army commanders, saying that about a third of 50 enemy claimed dead in an engagement were fake.