War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet
by Eric Margolis; Routledge, New York; 2000; pp 250; USD 22; ISBN: 0415927129
The Himalayan watershed of South Asia is an area of intense tension. Potential flashpoints could now lead to regional conflagrations that test the nuclear forbearance of the two main players. Geopolitical and internal disputes have created a belt of uncertainty from the Karakoram to the Eastern Himalaya, fading off into the Burmese Highlands. This stretch of mountain hosts some of the most inhospitable and beautiful terrains in the world, and mountaineers eye them with interest. Sadly, because these regions happen to be disputed frontiers, vast areas remain closed.
The area of the Himalaya across India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China, has been the focus of attention in some recent books. One of these is Humphrey Huxley’s Dragon Fire, a fictionalised account of conflict in this belt that steadily builds up to a nuclear climax involving China, India and Pakistan. Huxley’s deft handling of geopolitical and military realities makes his account highly readable and credible. Besides, Dragon Fire does not pretend to be anything other than a plausible work of fiction. In contrast is Eric Margolis’ War at the Top of the World, which outlines a similar scenario but presents it as analysis of the ground situation based on a study of facts. Yet, in many ways, Margolis’ description of his travels and his futuristic predictions sound more fantastic than Huxley’s fiction. If Margolis lacks Huxley’s sure touch, it is surely because of his inadequate grasp of regional geopolitics and of even elementary facts.
The author attempts to provide a strategic analysis of the ongoing disputes and their likely trajectory. The book’s claim to authenticity of analysis and credibility rests on Margolis’ brief visits to some areas of this Himalayan belt. But to be convincing, a study of this kind, requires in the first place a capacity for dispassionate analysis. Moreover since this is an area which many have visited, a place where armies camp, much has already been written about it. Consequently, any study of the subject ought to be based on meticulous observation and scrupulous adherence to known and incontrovertible facts. Margolis seems to have dispensed with both these requirements. The book is deeply flawed by coloured judgements and factual errors. One reads it as though through a cracked mirror because at the core of this work is the author’s evident and palpable dislike of India.
It is likely that in his perambulations Margolis had an encounter with the ubiquitous Indian ‘Babu’, which perhaps soured his disposition. The book is replete with disparaging remarks of all things Indian, a country he describes as “quaint, exotic and a Third World derelict”. He delights in characterising Indian politicians as “local warlords, powerful feudal land owners, caste-based party bosses and gangsters”. The vibrancy of Indian democracy is casually written off in a few phrases. The police forces are “undisciplined thugs of little military value”, the temples are “pornographic”, the roads are death traps, and Indian airline pilots are “notorious for drink and incompetence”. In fact, Margolis’ baleful and jaundiced eye never misses an opportunity to frown at anything ‘Indian’. On the other hand, the “Islamic Warrior” is his brother deserving of constant praise—”tall, true, fierce, ferocious formidable”. There are stories of “Fadil the Kurd”, “Musa the Warrior” (“I like to fight wherever there are Indians”) and “Commander Nadji the Egyptian”. Only K.P.S. Gill finds favourable mention, and even that is backhanded. Perhaps, the author got frightened by the Punjab tamer.
Since Margolis has kept India at an arm’s length, it is no wonder that his assessments go awry. The Sh.. lowness of his knowledge is evident in his comments on the caste system, where he commits the common mistake of all pseudo-intellectuals— of equating class with caste. Margolis should have read research on caste by such authorities as Ashley Montague and Andre Betteille. His account is tendentious in other matters as well. Despite evidence to the contrary, the author continues to portray the Kargil War as an incursion by 800 motivated Mujahideen. There is no disputing the courage of the Afghan and the Pakhtoon, and their earlier success against the Russian juggernaut. But the fact is that these redoubtable warriors and their mercenary brethren have failed in Kashmir, a far grudgingly acknowledged by the, author, who attributes it to skilful Indian diplomacy in isolating the Mujahideen, overwhelming Indian troop presence in the area, Israeli help to India in sealing the borders, and the brutal repression of Kashmiris, among others.
Margolis starts with a cursory visit to Afghanistan after which he zooms in on Kashmir, and particularly on the role of Afghans in the region. His account of alleged Indian repression in Kashmir is particularly merciless. He also makes the entire Himalayan region an area of dispute vis-à-vis India. For example, in one place he talks of “Chinese Sinkiang and India held Ladakh”. The ‘occupation’ of the latter he compares with the Chinese annexation of Tibet. It is obvious that Margolis has not heard of the famed Ladakh Scouts, sons of the soil, one of the most highly decorated regiments of the Indian Army, willing and successful defenders of Ladakh in all of India’s wars. Can he find a Tibetan army fighting for the Chinese?
Eric Margolis, subtly and not so subtly, draws attention throughout the book to his vast travels and his reportage of the various conflicts that plague the globe. His smug conclusions are based on this obviously wide-ranging but depth-less experience. As one ploughs through the book, one cannot but conclude that Margolis does not even know the geography, so important at least in a mountain region. A major faux pas is in the chapters narrating his visit to the Siachen Glacier, a region this reviewer is particularly familiar with. Margolis has clearly been led up the garden path by the Pakistani officials and officers he came in contact with. This is especially evident in his description of travels through Baltistan with one Captain Aziz.
Margolis believes that Mount K2 and Godwin Austin are two different peaks (enough to put off anyone from the mountain-climbing fraternity from the book). More amazingly, in two days, over atrocious roads, he seems to cover the greater part of the conflict areas of Baltistan, including Kargil and Siachen. In this .am journey, Capt Aziz and Margolis leave Skardu at dawn and cross Gol and Khapalu before lunch. After an afternoon nap, they drive along the Shyok river on an atrocious dirt track till they reach the crest of the Ladakh range from where he gets a glimpse of Kargil. The author then makes the interesting observation that from Kargil a road leads on to the Nubra Valley. Thereafter, the drive takes them over the “Bila fond Pass” (sic) at 15,600 feet, followed by a night halt in “a demented village”. The next day’s drive is again over a terrible dirt track which leads the two adventurers to the army base at Dansam at the “foot of the mighty Siachen Glacier a 50 mile river of ice”. Here, of course, he meets his companion of old days, Colonel Youssef, a strapping Pathan from Peshawar who reminiscences about Skendberg, Albania (the country of the author’s mother).
The next day, they drive to the 25 Punjab Regiment base, where the author is received by Colonel Musa, who reminds him of the Ottoman Sultan in GK Chesterton’s poem “Lepanto” (“there is laughter like the fountain in that face that all men feared”). Here the author is given a fire-power demonstration, which includes firing by 130 mm guns. The guns succeed in destroying an Indian artillery position, as reported by the Forward Observation Posts. Colonel Musa points out a commanding peak, held by the Pakistanis, which the Indian Army has been unsuccessfully trying to capture, in one instance even being driven off by an officer who had rappelled down to the top of a peak from a helicopter. The author is then taken to Conway Saddle where he gets a glimpse of Indian positions a kilometre away. At the end of this chapter, the author observes, “No hatred I have ever encountered, save that held by Serbs and Greeks for Muslims, equalled the vitriolic detestation between Indians and Pakistanis.”
As a mountaineer, I have spent some time on these particular chapters as they are of interest to the average Himalayan traveller. They contain many inaccuracies and much undigested vitriol. Throughout his tour, the author makes no mention of encountering any traffic on a road which is the lifeline of a brigade and more of Pakistani troops. The road obviously could not be in the atrocious condition described by the writer. More to the point, Bilafond Pass is not on this road. In fact, it and Conway Saddle are difficult to reach even for experienced mountaineers. And with the Indian army positions overlooking these passes, any attempt to reach there would have resulted in disaster for the visitors.
It is fairly obvious that the redoubtable Capt Aziz took the author some distance along Shyok Valley and not to the crest of Ladakh Range from where he claims he got a glimpse of Kargil. Aziz and his superiors must be laughing through their “ferocious” beards, for what he indicated as Kargil to the author was probably an Indian or even a Pakistani village in the Shyok Valley. This is further corroborated by the fact that the approach to the Nubra is along the Shyok Valley, and not, as Margolis claims, from Kargil from where a good road goes to Leh and thereafter winds up to Khardung La before twisting down to the Shyok Valley. And Nubra. Dansam is on the Dansam river, which is fed by the Kondus, Bilafond, Chumik, Gyong and Chulung glaciers and not the Siachen Glacier, which feeds the Nubra on the Indian side.
It is most likely that the author was taken along the Bilafond glacier, where 25 Punjab Regiment’s posts are located. The peak shown by Colonel Musa is most likely the former ‘Qaid’ Peak, captured in a fine feat of arms by Subedar Major Bana Singh and men of 8 Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry in 1986. This place was the backbone of Pakistani defence. They have never reconciled themselves to its loss, and the Pakistani public at large still remains unaware of this debacle. The previously mentioned helicopter incident actually happened in 1992 in the Chulung Complex, where a brave Pakistani officer tried to reach a commanding height by helicopter and perished in the attempt. That particular battle also resulted in the death of a Pakistani brigadier. There is no Indian artillery gun position under observation by Pakistan, for the simple fact is that in Siachen, despite horrendous odds, the Indian Army holds the heights. Pakistani forces do not have any view of the Siachen Glacier, let alone driving Margolis to that place!
The “hatred for Hindus” that Margolis repeatedly talks about is not reciprocated by the Indians. The Indian Army has enrolled a fair number of Muslims who have fought most gallantly on the Siachen and won gallantry awards. The Indian Army’s motivation is based on other factors, and hatred of Muslims is definitely not one of them. This is war between two nations and not two communities, unlike what Margolis chooses to believe.
In another passage, the author turns the rationale of the Siachen conflict on its head by claiming that Indian mountaineering expeditions triggered Pakistani army activity on Siachen, whereas the entire mountaineering fraternity knows that foreign expeditions to the glacier originating from Pakistan, 14 in all, combined with ‘cartographic aggression’, provoked India into occupying Siachen. The climbing expeditions accompanied by Pakistani liaison officers, provided the rationale for Pakistan to lay claim on the glacier. Maps began to be published in Europe showing the extended line of control joining the Karakoram Pass in the east following the Pakistani claim (the line along the glacier had earlier been left undefined— see Himal on Siachen, December 1998). These maps conceded the entire Siachen Glacier to Pakistan, and showed Pakistan and China sharing a long common border to the east of Siachen. The Indian Army occupied Siachen in 1984 when Pakistan gave permission to a Japanese expedition to attempt Rimo, a peak located in a side valley east of the Siachen and overlooking Aksai Chin, which would have linked Pakistan controlled Kashmir with China, along the historic trade route that leads to Chinese Turkestan over the Karakoram Pass.
It is also worth remembering that any solution to the border dispute in the Himalayan frontiers would ultimately rest on the watershed principle. Himalayan borders, since the MacMahon Line was drawn, follow the ridge from where all rivers flowing south go to India, and rivers flowing north go to China/Tibet. In Siachen because of the Saltoro Ridge, which is the dividing line, rivers that flow west and south from the ridge will be with Pakistan, and those which flow east and south with India. This is a principle Margolis conveniently ignores.
The later part of the book is devoted to the Tibetan conflict. The author, as is his wont, puts the blame for the Chinese occupation of Tibet on India, an idea that is, to say the least, innovative. In his tirades, Sikkim (now a state of India), Bhutan and Nepal also feel threatened by Indians. His prejudiced narration of events constantly stresses that it is India which wanted to control Tibet. And after considering various aspects of Chinese history and its leadership, Margolis speculates about the possible break-up of China, like the Soviet empire, and who is to grab which areas in such an eventuality— as if nations are available like a scattered bag of peanuts. Margolis titles the last chapter, “The Fate of Asia”. What he forgets is that the fate of Asia, whichever way it goes, will now be decided by Asians, and no amount of uninformed prescripts by ‘parachute authors’ will have any effect. Eric Margolis has based his book on cursory personal experiences, which seem to only reinforce his stereotyped predetermined prejudices.
It is exactly such a skewed view of the region and its conflicts, that the world should be wary of. That’s what got us into this mess in the first place.