For Indians 13 April translates as a day of celebrations due to the festivities of Baisakhi. However, the day also marks the beginning of the longest operation in the annals of the Indian Military: Op Meghdoot – the Army’s unending tryst with the frozen mountains abutting the Siachen Glacier. Thirty-two long years have gone by from the day when Indian troops planted the Tricolour on Bilafond La,  the gateway to the Siachen Valley. And despite the three decade long uneven fight with nature and the enemy, the spirit of the Indian soldier remains defiant in the face of all odds – the martyrdom of Lance Naik Hanumantappa, still fresh in the memories of the nation exemplifying the point.
Siachen’s geo-strategic importance for India, by virtue of its location, and when seen through the prism of the continuing Indo-Pak-China three sided strategic competition is not only immense but invaluable.
Called the ‘Siachen Ghani’ in the (local) ‘Balti’ language, translating as the place ‘abounding with wild roses,’ Siachen is actually a glaciated wasteland which shot into prominence because the (continuing) Indo-Pak conflict was extended to these ‘Heights of Madness in the early eighties.’ With its agglomeration of Grade 1 Peaks, frozen mountains and frigid landscape, on one hand, the region is synonymous with snow, ice, blizzards, howling winds and bone chilling temperatures reaching 70 degrees minus, at the same time, it is a sterling example of the grit of the Indian soldier and the Forces for whom courage and fortitude remains a norm.
The Strategic Importance of the Sector
The Siachen Glacier from whom the Indian sector gets its name flows between the Karakoram and Soltoro ridges in a Southeast direction where it transforms as the Nubra River, a tributary of the mighty Shyok River which flows from the Chinese held Aksai Chin to the Pakistan held portion of Baltistan. The Indo-Pak face off is for domination of the Soltoro Ridge, which flanks the glacier to its west. While this brings out the importance of the Soltoro Ridge and the advantage it provides to India, at the same time, it is equally important to mention that to the north and east of the sector are the mighty Karakoram Mountains, east of which is the Chinese occupied Aksai Chin and to the north is the Shaksgam Valley. Enclosed by the Aghil Mountains, and it was this valley of Kashmir that was (illegally) ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963. Thus, as can be inferred from the map above, Siachen’s geo-strategic importance for India, by virtue of its location, and when seen through the prism of the continuing Indo-Pak-China three sided strategic competition is not only immense but invaluable.
It is in this context that apart from the Indo-Pak face where India dominates Pakistan in military terms, it is pertinent to mention that the sector also has vast unmanned frontiers with China overlooking the Shaksgam Valley in the north, and this extends to the Karakoram Pass, further to the east. Also, immediately east and beyond the Karakoram Mountains are the rolling (tankable) plains of Aksai Chin, which not only continue to be under the occupation of China since the fifties, but were the scene of serious face offs, in the not so distant past. Thus, between the Karakorams and the Soltoro, the toe hold India in the form of the Siachen Sector gives immense strategic advantage to India – a reality that needs to be clearly understood in the corridors of power in New Delhi.
…while the answer to demilitarise the region is noble, it cannot be de-linked from the larger question of the future of the Gilgit-Baltistan region and of Kashmir, especially in the light of the heightened Sino-Pak collusion.
The position on is that the Siachen Valley is enclosed by the Karakoram and the Soltoro Ranges and has a limited width of 40-50 Kms; by virtue of its shape and location, this Indian held sector thus acts as a strategic wedge between Pak and China. It is also important to highlight that while presently China is linked to Pakistan through the Karakoram Highway, the Shyok River Axis offers a much shorter and direct way between Chinese held Aksai Chin and Pak held Baltistan. Since both have their own interests in the region, its importance, juxta positioned between them is invaluable for India. It also needs to be reiterated that the triangular standoff which exists in the sector, is just one component of the larger India – Pak – China conflict and therefore cannot be seen in isolation.
Thus, when seen in the larger perspective, the importance of this sector has long term implications with insurmountable strategic implications for the country. It is in this context that while de-militarisation and making the Mountains of Siachen ‘monuments of peace’ are inspiring sentiments, in the world of real politicks, when India is faced by a hostile China and a belligerent Pak, with whom there is a continuing trust deficit, this might be a distant dream in the geo-strategic environment that prevails.
That having been said, for the benefit of the Nay Sayers, three fundamental questions provide the answer for India. First, ‘can any demilitarisation by Pakistan be verifiable and accountability apportioned? With Pak’s track record, this is highly questionable. Second, does demilitarisation mean that Pakistan accepts the Indian interpretation of the LC/ AGPL running along the watershed of Soltoro till the Karakorams. Third, will this guarantee that China who already controls the Shaksgam Valley and Aksai Chin, will not be shown further largesse by Pak or make her own moves southwards. India needs these answers before any ‘self-defeating’ decision is taken.
It is in this context that Dr. Subhash Kapila’s Article, India: Government Set to Repeat Strategic Blunder of Aksai Chin in Siachen? is enlightening. At the beginning of the article, Dr Kapila quotes President Nixon of USA, and he co-relates it with the Siachen situation and highlights how India with her indifferent policies, continues to marginalise itself in its far flung peripheries. This quote which is apt for the military situation in Siachen is reproduced. “The pages of history are littered with the ruins of countries that were indifferent to erosion of the balance of power. Losses on the periphery where a country’s interests appear marginal, never seem to merit a response or warrant a confrontation with the enemy. But small losses add up. Expansionist powers thrive on picking up loose geographical change. When it comes, it usually takes place under the worst possible circumstances for those on the defensive.”
It is accepted that the conflict for moral ascendency that is being waged in Siachen is the war neither side wanted to fight, certainly not at the scale that is being waged since 1984.
At the same time, while the answer to demilitarise the region is noble, it cannot be de-linked from the larger question of the future of the Gilgit-Baltistan region and of Kashmir, especially in the light of the heightened Sino-Pak collusion. Thus, as Indrani Baghchi has summarised “India needs it (Siachen) for strong strategic reasons– this strategic fact can never be overlooked.
It is accepted that the conflict for moral ascendency that is being waged in Siachen is the war neither side wanted to fight, certainly not at the scale that is being waged since 1984. Notwithstanding, like it has been happening in the rest of the LC, the game continues across the AGPL, despite the unequal struggle with nature. Not surprisingly, the war at these heights, the longest running shooting war between India and Pak has taken its toll on both sides, both in terms of casualties and the economic sustainability of such ventures.
Having said that, both sides also remain acutely conscious of the fact that the faceoff is a part of the larger Indo-Pak conflict and to compound the situation, the incessant Chinese nibbling in Eastern Ladakh and the proximity of the Chinese forces in Aksai Chin, and in Gilgit-Baltistan, are constant reminders of the fact that the faceoff which till now was only limited to the Soltoro Ridge, could well increase in scope.
The Cartographic Aggression. Though unrelated, it is also important to bring out that adding unnecessary complexity to the situation is the unwarranted issue of the cartographic aggression that puts India at great disadvantage. The story goes back to the fifties, when a disparate development placed India in a highly disadvantageous position.
India’s omission became an opportunity for Pakistan and from 1974 onwards, she started encouraging foreign expeditions to carry on mountaineering activities in the region in order to legitimise her control over the new found land.
Since USA had been taking the Tibet-China-Russia route for her U-2 spy missions operating from the Air base at Peshawar, American Aeronautical charts started linking the only two defined points for purposes of navigation and this translated as a straight line which was extended from NJ 9842, the last defined point of the LC to the KK Pass, the other recognised point on the Sino-Indian IB, a distance of 140 kms.
By default, this placed the territory north of this line under the Northern Areas under Pak occupation. This practice of the violation of India airspace only come to light in 1962 when Americans using the same charts, commenced their landings at Leh in support of India in the Sino-Indian war. However, at that stage, the violation of what India perceived her territory was glossed over; presumably, under the circumstances the Indian Government might have considered it inopportune to rake up the matter with their benefactors.
Having said that, the irony of the Indian position is difficult to fathom. While the situation in the difficult times of the Chinese aggression can be condoned, it defies logic that this continues even to date. In 1963, when the Sino-Pak border agreement of Shaksgam was reached and made the Chinese as India’s Karakoram neighbour, the implications should have been realised, but this was again not taken up with the USA.
Later, the Shimla Agreement provided the ideal opportunity to rectify this ‘omission,’ but again for inexplicable reasons, the Indians let the matter rest. Like it had happened so many times in the past, this unpalatable issue was conveniently never raked up, despite the fact that many nations, taking the lead from the Americans and the Pakistanis, started showing the demarcation line between Indian and POK in their maps and atlases, a fact that did not correspond to the situation on ground.
Siachen is a part of the erstwhile Princely state of J & K and it is the continued occupation of Kashmir that needs to talk to Pakistan about and not Siachen.
India’s omission became an opportunity for Pakistan and from 1974 onwards, she started encouraging foreign expeditions to carry on mountaineering activities in the region in order to legitimise her control over the new found land. The mountaineering expeditions ‘allowed’ by her included ones to the peaks of Apsaras, Terim Kangri and the Singhi Kangri group, which marked the so called new Sino-Pak watershed. All these expeditions, by and large transited through the Bilafond La, which also acted to legitimise Pak’s control over the northern part of the Soltoro Ridge. This not only added to her cartographic knowledge and the climatic conditions, but most importantly, in a way, it legitimised her control over the region at the expense of India.
The details of the various mountaineering expeditions were given in the American Alpine Journal and significantly showed the area in which these expeditions had been mounted as ‘territory under the control of Pak.’ The ‘omission’ had come to roost. This increased levels of foreign activities at her cost naturally alarmed India and it was this that led to the military deployment in the sector.
Three lessons from the Siachen saga stand out and need to be highlighted as they carry major lessons for India:
- Pre-emption, which afforded India to gain a dominating position in the sector remains a valuable strategy. An active strategy makes the adversary react and not the other way around.
- India cannot make the mistake of granting strategic concessions to Pakistan yet again. Siachen is a part of the erstwhile Princely state of J & K and it is the continued occupation of Kashmir that needs to talk to Pakistan about and not Siachen.
- It is in this context that there is no place for China in this bilateral issue between India and Pakistan – this includes Saksgam, a fact that even China acknowledges.
…the Indian leadership needs to correct the (many) mistakes of the past…
In view of the changed Indo-US dynamics, the USA has to correct the perception and the travesty that led to the cartographic aggression by Pakistan.
At the same time, it is admitted that the Indo-Pak conflict on Siachen is neither necessary, nor warranted. However, since Pakistan has time and again shown the propensity to grab what remains un-held, India is forced into a deployment which both sides could well have avoided. It is also admitted that the time has come to take a de-novo re-look at the deployment and improve the ground situation by using innovative means. However, this cannot be at the cost of losing the advantage that India commands, a situation that came about by virtue of a bold pro-active decision taken in the past.
At the same time, the Indian leadership needs to correct the (many) mistakes of the past and not merely take a firm stance on the issues pointed out above, but take a pro-active stance in the matter. In view of the changed dynamics that are unfolding, India needs to leverage her position and take a clear strategic stance and gain a long-term advantage.
End Notes and References
Also called the Butterfly pass, due to its shape when seen from the air
A very appropriate name of a well-researched book by Myra MacDonald, a foreign correspondent, who in 2003 set about uncovering the war as seen from both sides.
Kapila Subhash Dr, India: Government set to repeat Strategic Blunder of Aksai Chin in Siachen?, South Asia Analysis Group, as available at http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/%5Cpapers18%5Cpaper1778.tml.
Editorial, ‘General, not the Labyrinth’ The Times of India, 29 Apr 2011.