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Barfis & chartered plane for Diwali

New Delhi, Nov. 4: Defence minister George Fernandes has ordered the resumption of chartered flight services for troops in Siachen — “the world’s highest battlefield” — after a Diwali tryst with them during which he distributed chocolate barfis.

Fernandes spends his Diwali the way he spends his Christmas — among the troops manning posts at the Siachen glacier. Fernandes left early Saturday morning by a special Indian Air Force aircraft with a planeload of chocolate barfis specially ordered from a sweet shop in Delhi.

Across the wide front with Pakistan, troops are returning home after Operation Parakram was ordered to be wound up last month.

But in Siachen, Indian and Pakistani armies have been eyeball to eyeball since 1984, when Indian soldiers occupied strategic positions under Operation Meghdoot.

Military experts are divided on the logic of the standoff in Siachen with even a former director-general of military operations calling for its de-militarisation because of a colossal waste of men and materiel.

But others insist that holding the glacier gives India a strategic advantage over alleged Sino-Pak designs in the Karakoram. One estimate puts the financial cost of the Siachen face-off at Rs 200 crore per month.

Fernandes addressed the troops at Thoise — the staging post for Siachen — distributed sweets and had a hot cup of tea. During the informal interaction, the soldiers complained to him that the courier flights that used to be chartered to transport the soldiers had been discontinued.

Soldiers going on leave from the harsh posting spent nearly seven days of their leave reaching the nearest railhead — in either Jammu or Chandigarh — before they could finally take the train home.

Earlier, the ministry of defence used to charter special flights to and from Leh, Thoise and sometimes Srinagar. These had been discontinued. Fernandes has now ordered their resumption. The aircraft are chartered from the IAF and/or the Indian Airlines.

On Sunday, Fernandes was accompanied by minister of state for external affairs and Samata Party colleague Digvijay Singh. This was the 73-year-old Fernandes’ 27th visit to Siachen. For Fernandes’ private secretary Ashok Subramaniam, it was the 21st.

“I must visit the glacier at least once every three months,” he is known to tell his officers. The troops in Siachen are “turned around” every three months. “I must have a personal rapport with each of these men.”

Fernandes’ opening lines during his interaction with the troops over tea are invariably: “Kaise hain' Kab chhutti mein ja rahen hain'” (How are you' When are you going on leave') It was during such a conversation that the troops told him the absence of the chartered flights means that much of their leave was spent travelling.

The minister visited Sonam on Sunday after speaking to the troops at Thoise.

Sonam is a post held by the army on the northern glacier at more than 18,000 feet where the daytime temperature is minus 16 degrees Celsius. The defence minister is not known to need acclimatisation.

At Thoise, he promised the troops he would be back for Christmas. In the Christmas-New Year week, Fernandes is known to order cakes for the troops in Siachen from his favourite confectioners’ in Bangalore.

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