Trouble Is Brewing on Roof of the World

Nearly three years after her father, Maj. C.B. Dwivedi, was killed by enemy fire on a strategic peak overlooking the disputed Kashmir Valley, 14-year-old Neha Dwivedi remembers every little detail surrounding the day she heard the tragic news.

It was July 3, 1999, at the height of a high-tension, high-altitude border conflict that erupted after India launched airstrikes against Pakistani-backed forces that had infiltrated Indian-administered Kashmir.

Along with her little sister and some of their cousins, Neha had been dispatched to a nearby ice cream parlor for a special summer treat. But when she returned to her uncle's home in New Delhi, India, where she was spending the holidays, she saw her mother weeping in a corner.

"There were lots of people in the house and when some of them saw me, they started crying," she recalls during a phone interview with "Then my older cousin told me, 'Your dad has attained martyrdom.' But I at once told him to stop lying — even though I knew people wouldn't lie about such things."

Maj. Dwivedi was just one of more than 400 Indian soldiers who lost their lives in the blustery, shivering war fought on the frozen peaks of the western Himalayas in the summer of 1999 in a bid to win the strategic heights of Kashmir.

While Dwivedi fell to hostile fire, a number of casualties in the 1999 conflict were victims of the punishing rigors of fighting at altitudes of 18,000 feet and more, where avalanches, snowstorms and the very air — a rarefied atmosphere that can cause fatal conditions such as pulmonary and cerebral edema — pose a greater threat than enemy fire.

Almost three years after the armies of India and Pakistan fought what is popularly called "the war on the roof of the world," a blustery fight that cost the two impoverished South Asian nations an estimated $1 million a day at its height, the armies of the two rival nuclear nations are gearing up for yet another confrontation.

Amid intense international pressure to arrange a face-to-face meeting between Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf at the sidelines of a summit in Kazakhstan, the international community has warned that a likely full-scale war between the two nuclear nations would be, in the words of U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, "somewhere between terrible and catastrophic."

Heights of Fear

Catastrophe is lurking on one of the world's dizziest and most spectacular landscapes, a soaring terrain sandwiched between the fertile plains of the Indian subcontinent and the vast wastelands of Central Asia that has, through the centuries, captured the imaginations of men yet persistently rebuffed the greed of conquerors.

In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great's troops mutinied after trekking through this blustery terrain, putting an end to his dreams of conquering the world. And in the 1800s, Britain and Russia waged a game of spying and stealth — which came to be called the Great Game — rather than subject their armies to the hell of waging war in such impossible topography.

But today, violence is threatening the entire Himalayan region. In the mist-drenched mountains of western Nepal, Maoist rebels are staging a brutal guerrilla campaign that threatens to slide the once-serene Himalayan nation, home to the world's highest mountain peak, into a vicious civil war.

A year after Crown Prince Dipendra killed nine members of the royal family — including his father, King Birendra — before shooting himself, Nepal's political woes have been steadily multiplying.

More than 2,000 people have been brutally killed in the past six months in the remote western region of Nepal, in a ratcheting up of a six-year rebellion that has claimed more than 4,000 lives and received scant international attention.

Meanwhile, in the hotly contested Kashmir region, more than 60,000 people — militants, soldiers, civilians, men, women and children — have been killed in a seemingly intractable 13-year insurgency that has seen a daily routine of shootings, bombings, kidnappings, threats and an all-pervasive fear.

And across the unconquerable ranges that divide Nepal from the Himalayan tablelands, Tibet has seen a simmering of tensions, the full extent of which is not known to a world caught between a New Age admiration of Tibetan culture and a diplomatic cowering to China, the communist country currently controlling the Buddhist heartland.

Two years ago, the Karmapa Lama, the third most important Tibetan leader who was being groomed by Beijing as a key element in its control over Tibet, fled to neighboring India. This year, after a series of mysterious explosions across Tibet, Chinese authorities arrested a senior Tibetan monk in connection with the attacks.

A Failure of Democracy

The nature, scale and manifestations of these troubles vary widely. But according to Sumantra Bose, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics, the one thing common about the conflicts in Kashmir and Nepal is that "they result from a failure of democratic institutions in South Asia."

"Nepal has been undergoing a troubled and gradual transition to multiparty democracy [from absolute monarchy] since 1990," says Bose. "And while Kashmir is a story unto itself with an international dispute over its status raging since 1947, what led to the [current] disruption was the failure of the Indian state to extend democratic rights to the citizens of Jammu and Kashmir."

Although the genesis of the Kashmir problem lies with the British partitioning of the subcontinent into Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan in 1947, with both countries laying claim to Kashmir, it was not until the 1989 that the current uprising, with its particular brand of bloodshed and brutality began.

Many experts say the cause of the uprising was the 1987 elections, which were widely said to have been rigged by the Indian federal administration in New Delhi.

Outraged Kashmiris took to the streets following the elections in what has in some circles been called a spontaneous showing of discontent. "In the 1980s, it began by disaffected youth railing against New Delhi," says Bose. "It was only later that the ideology [of the uprising] turned into a transnational Islamic uprising."

Democracy’s Teething Pains

Democracy only came to Nepal — a country where the king is believed to be a living reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu — in 1990, when King Birendra replaced an absolute monarchy with a constitutional one.

But Nepal's democracy has been a troubled one, with successive administrations rarely holding onto power for more than a couple of years and its democratic institutions currently in a state of near paralysis after Parliament was dissolved by acting Prime Minister Bahadur Deuba earlier this year.

His move followed a party revolt against his plan to extend a contentious emergency rule to fight the Maoist rebels.

It's a failure of democracy that has fed the growing power base of the Maoist rebels, says Peter Burleigh, a former U.S. ambassador who was posted in the region between 1980 and 1982.

"In my view, the underlying cause [of the uprising] is the disappointment with the democratic system and the apparent inability of the system to deliver services," says Burleigh. "There is extreme poverty in Nepal, and especially in the rural areas, there is a lack of jobs, prospects and hope."

A Royal Disaster

One of the world's 10 poorest nations, Nepal has been bogged by economic misery throughout its modern history, with about 80 percent of its 23 million population living below the subsistence level. But the past 12 months have been economically, politically and psychologically devastating for the Himalayan nation.

Nepalis are still reeling from the events of June 1, 2001, when Dipendra committed patricide, fratricide and regicide in one stroke in a drunken spree that many believe has tarnished the traditional image of the monarchy as a symbol of national unity.

Most analysts agree that following the vastly popular Birendra's murder, the levels of brutality of the Maoist rebels increased exponentially, compelling the new king, Gyanendra, to call in the Royal Nepal Army against the rebels, a prospect Birendra resisted throughout his reign.

The rebels control about a third of the country, analysts estimate, and the violence has crippled Nepal's key tourism industry, forcing the government to slash its minimum fee for climbing Mount Everest, its main tourist attraction, from $75,000 to $25,000 earlier this year.

‘Someone Else’s Father’

But if tourists and mountaineers aren't flocking to the Himalayan heights, the armies — and the militants — in these countries show no such fears.

While acknowledging the astronomical economic and human costs of conducting military operations in altitudes so high that skin, sweat and metal freeze, the Indian Defense Ministry says the Indian military establishment is left with no other choice.

"Yes, it's definitely very costly, in all respects," says P.K. Bandyopadhyay, a spokesman for the Indian Defense Ministry. "But we have no options because we have to control the strategic heights [overlooking the troubled India-Pakistan border]. But our troops go through intense acclimatization training and our troop morale is very high."

And even as she devours the current news of troop buildups along the border in preparation for yet another round of fighting, Neha Dwivedi maintains that her father's death was not in vain.

"I don't believe that I lost my father for nothing," says the self-assured 14-year-old. "In my mind, he is a shaheed [martyr] and I know this is the cost you have to pay. If it was not my father, it would have been someone else's father."