Siachen and Sir Creek are back on the menu again. The Track II diplomacy to bring about a rapprochement between India and Pakistan is interesting in many ways. Official bilateral conclaves having failed to make much headway in ‘confidence building measures’, the Track II peace initiative is now joined by those who have fought fierce battles against each other – the military veterans from both sides of the border and the Line of Control (LoC). Sworn enemies and acclaimed warriors then, they now realise futility of war and advise India to abandon its defences to ‘demilitarise’ Siachen complex at one end and reconcile to Pakistan’s idea of border alignment at Sir Creek.
Siachen Glacier, the highest battlefield of the world, is at the northern extremity of the LoC in J&K. Sir Creek is the lowest point at its southern end where the Indo-Pak border meets the Arabian Sea. There is no human habitation at either location. Siachen, they say, is a wasteland bereft of life and resources taking avoidable toll of soldiers besides being a huge burden on the defence exchequers. Sir Creek, likewise is a mass of uninhabitable marshlands where the alignment of the IB is in dispute for about 100 kilometres. India believes it runs along midcourse of the stream; Pakistan believes it runs along the eastern edge of the creek.
No doubt, for twenty years since 1984, numerous attempts were made by the Pakistan Army to wrest control of these heights but in vain.
Since an unresolved terminal point of Indo-Pak border at Sir Creek estuary controverts alignment of maritime boundaries and EEZs, there have been problems like fishermen and trawlers straying into disputed areas. Clearly, there is a case for amicable resolution of the alignment of the border that actually exists but is being interpreted differently. In the case of Siachen, on the other hand, its present status does not affect life of common people on either side of the border in any way. Logically, since it lies beyond point NJ 9842, the Indian Army deployment violates neither the LoC nor any Treaty or Agreement. No doubt, for twenty years since 1984, numerous attempts were made by the Pakistan Army to wrest control of these heights but in vain. Saltoro ridge and heights dominating the complex are under Indian control while the Pakistan Army is holding lower western reaches of the range. The situation has been quiet since the ceasefire agreement of 2003.
Ideally, as civilised progressive societies of modern world, India, Pakistan and China should have no need to hold their borders militarily. Economic cooperation, technology exchange, trade and cultural exchange and development programmes should have been the hallmarks of good neighbourliness instead of an atmosphere of animosity and suspicion. It is strange that eminent media houses like Times of India, Jung and the ‘freelance’ Track II group of senior military veterans have ignored issues that are far more vital and notorious for derailing every peace move in the past and continue to be the main threat even now, for instance, Anti-India Terrorist Camps in Pakistan, Role of ISI in sponsoring terror attacks (Mumbai 26/11 gave ample evidence), Pakistan harbouring some of India’s most wanted criminals, ignoring evidence given by India to substantiate such claims. When seen in the light of such momentous issues, ‘demilitarisation’ of Siachen becomes too tiny and insignificant to be traded for larger objectives like peace and friendship between India and Pakistan.
There is a value difference in the perceptions of people and authorities in the two countries over the issue though. In Pakistan, the Government, the Army and the media perceive withdrawal of the Indian troops from Siachen a great strategic advantage over India. This is quite understandable because this way they would be achieving peacefully what they could not by force. In India, however, the perception is somewhat squinted – the Army does not want to lose its vital ground of Siachen which they have fought for valiantly and kept since 1984 having sacrificed nearly a thousand precious lives. But the government, a section of media and, ironically, a small group of military veterans are verily inclined in favour of the Pakistani proposal to ‘demilitarise’ (read ‘hand over’) the region and declare it as ‘Peace Park’ – an idea that was first mooted at the 5th World Parks Congress held in Durban in Sep 2003. The thought would be noble and praiseworthy if only there were not a history of Pakistan betraying all previous peace initiatives from India.
A History of Killing Peace Initiatives!
There is enough in the living memory that feeds these suspicions in the Indian mind
Responding from the syndrome of ‘once bitten twice shy’, many Indians suspect this noble looking package of peace and tranquillity from Pakistan of containing something sinister to dispossess India of her vital assets. There is enough in the living memory that feeds these suspicions in the Indian mind. The chronology of peace initiatives between both the countries substantiates these suspicions because nearly every move has been followed by a sinister move against India – almost always. Here is how India’s confidence has been consistently shattered in the past:-
- The first ever conflict between India and Pakistan in 1947-48 was rooted in sheer deceit. Within eight weeks of the Partition, Pakistani irredentist forces including Army and para-military forces infiltrated into J&K to annex it by force. Had the Indian Army not been restrained in December 1948 by India’s own Prime Minister Pandit Nehru, the J&K problem would not have festered through so many wars and terror to remain what it is now. As per the UN resolution of 05 Jan 1949, Pakistan was required to ‘withdraw its forces, both regular and irregular’ from the occupied territory. Even so, Pakistan has not only ditched those resolutions and agreements but also has continued to fuel insurgency and terrorism unabated ever since.
- President Ayub Khan and Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had first agreed and signed for peace in June 1965 bringing the Kutch conflict to a halt. Yet, Pakistan launched ‘Op Gibraltar’ infiltrating combatants in the guise of marauders into J&K in Aug 1965. It led a shocked Shastri to whine, “Even before the ink of Kutch Agreement had dried up, Pakistan has raised its hood to strike again.” At Tashkent, Prime Minister Shastri signed an agreement with President Ayub agreeing to withdraw from all Pak territories captured by the Indian Army – an overarching generosity that took Shastri’s life.
- At Kargil, defences were only temporarily vacated – say, ‘demilitarised’ (for the time being at least) – by Indian troops every winter trusting their Pakistani counterparts would not violate the Shimla Agreement and established norms. But India’s trust was betrayed by Pakistani troops infiltrating and occupying these positions surreptitiously in the guise of local shepherds. What’s more, Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif were singing peace and harmony in Lahore in February 1999 even as the Pakistani troops were infiltrating and occupying Indian positions. We signed for peace but were served War at Kargil that cost us over 500 youthful lives.
- In 2001, although the Agra summit failed to reach a formal agreement, President Parvez Musharraf and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave a joint call to ‘burry the bitter past’ and move towards peace. Musharraf had even invited Vajpayee to visit Pakistan. As if all good initiatives must be followed by sinister inimical teasers, the roller-coaster journey to peace was once again blasted by the LeT/JM attack on India’s Parliament on 13 December 2001 – an audacious attack on the sovereignty of India bringing both the countries on the verge of war with both the armies mobilised and remaining deployed along borders for almost a year.
- An important landmark in the process of confidence building measures (CBMs) was opening of historic trade route (Srinagar – Muzaffarabad) across the LoC in 2008. The process of Confidence building measures (CBMs) between the two countries was just gaining momentum. Economic cooperation and trade between the two countries was just picking up when a fully trained band of terrorists struck Mumbai on 26 November 2008 creating havoc in the city. Revelations by Kasab and David Headley confirm that Mumbai 26/11 was the handiwork of ISI.
- Even as the eerie lull of incident free times continues, the ‘demilitarisation’ proposal from Pakistan and its advocates raises uneasy curiosity: Wow! Is Pakistan really meaning it this time?
A Stratagem or Philosophy of Peace?
Now, in the realm of this realpolitik, let us analyse what has driven Pakistan to seek demilitarisation of Siachen. Anybody who controls Siachen will influence life in the Nubra and the Shyok valleys. Freedom of unhindered movement between Aksai Chin and Baltistan, Shaksgam valley will also be very restricted. Siachen Complex may also serve as a suitable firm base for developing operations northwards (Karakoram highway) if required.
Anybody who controls Siachen will influence life in the Nubra and the Shyok valleys. Freedom of unhindered movement between Aksai Chin and Baltistan, Shaksgam valley will also be very restricted.
China continues to hold Aksaichin and, in collusion with Pakistan, it has steadily increased its presence beyond Shaksgam Valley into Baltistan. It has also been developing surface communication network in this region to facilitate all weather transportation of goods and military between West Tibet and ethnically sensitive province of Xinjiang. In fact, the road connecting Lhasa to Kashgar in Xinjiang province runs almost parallel to India-China border and cuts through Aksaichin. India’s presence at Siachen and enhanced influence in the region is naturally a cause of concern for China in such a scenario.
In southward expansion of China’s interests, it has invested heavily in developing Pakistan’s Gwadar into deep-water port. With most of the ‘Friendship Highway’, another name for the Karakoram Highway, having been upgraded in width from 10 m to 30 m enhancing its transport capacity by three times, China’s access to West Asia by land route will now be speedier and more economical – a great strategic and commercial gain indeed. Indian presence near Karakoram and Aksaichin would be naturally irksome not only for Pakistan but also for China. Demilitarisation of Siachen is therefore a strategic necessity for both.
The region holds other attractions too. Not yet fully explored though, the region is potentially rich in natural resources including minerals, precious stones, metals, oil and hydrocarbons. The Glacier itself is vast reservoir of fresh water – a resource that will be critical for survival in the future. These resources are valuable assets to attract all and sundry. Naturally, Siachen assumes strategic significance for India, Pakistan and even China because it forms a hub between Shaksgam Valley, Karakoram pass and Aksai Chin. Therefore, holding Siachen is vital for India to prevent ingress not only from Pakistan but also from China.
All these attributes add to Siachen’s military value. Having failed to capture these dominating heights militarily, Pakistan has also attempted to isolate Siachen by infiltrating and occupying heights in Kargil Sector in 1999. Since that attempt also failed, it now plans to get it through a currently more fashionable non-military route like rallying support from the environmentalists and innocuously clothed peace vendors, military veterans and media on both sides of the border. Incidentally, it was an Italian ecologist Giuliani Tallone who first proposed setting up of the ‘Siachen Peace Park’ at the Durban Conference in 2003. With Ottavio Quattrocchi still haunting the Indian memory for his hideous role in Bofors scam, could it be yet another fiddle playing ominous ball with Pakistan to beat India at Siachen?
Indian presence near Karakoram and Aksaichin would be naturally irksome not only for Pakistan but also for China. Demilitarisation of Siachen is therefore a strategic necessity for both.
The hyperbole of pious intentions is deeply intriguing. Whole world knows that it was the Pakistan Army that had first planned to occupy these heights in summer 1984. The Indian Army only pre-empted and occupied strategic heights before the former could reach there in April 1984. The Pakistan Army has since then launched many attacks to dislodge the Indian Army from Saltoro ridge in the longest fought military conflict for 20 years. They now call it ‘futile’ to hold these chilly hills and want the area ‘demilitarised’. Were they fighting all this while to capture and hold these heights or to bestow serenity on these mountains? Nothing can be more preposterous than this proposal of ‘demilitarisation of Siachen’ coming from an Army that has fought longest to gain control of the same positions.
Cost of National Security?
In support of their argument for ‘demilitarisation’ of Siachen, the lobbyists have inspired emergence of a school of thought in the Indian media and military veterans who question the high rate of casualties and prohibitive maintenance costs involved in holding defences as one of the reasons for the Indian troops to vacate Siachen. However, the argument that Siachen is a very costly battlefield in terms of money as well as human life is also no longer true today. In the initial stages when there was no infrastructure on these heights, casualties and costs were undoubtedly high. More casualties were suffered due to unexplored hostile terrain and extremely severe climatic conditions where mercury dips as low as minus 58 degree Celsius making soldiers vulnerable to chilblain, frostbite, pulmonary oedema and accidents – a phenomenon that claimed lives and limbs more than combat.
With essential infrastructure now in place, the costs of maintenance have gone down considerably. It is now comparable with any other high altitude areas in J&K.
That was until the infrastructure was built to match the harsh conditions of weather and terrain. With essential infrastructure now in place, the costs of maintenance have gone down considerably. It is now comparable with any other high altitude areas in J&K. Consequent to the ceasefire agreement of 2003 between the opposing forces, battle casualties are also now negligible. Moreover, Siachen is not the only air-maintained forward position in our context. There are many other posts in inaccessible high altitude areas in the East, North and other locations in J&K where forward posts are maintained by air even today. We cannot factor natural calamities in our reckoning of costs to life and property. Catastrophes can befall anyone anywhere from tsunami at sea level to avalanches in high mountains.
Above all, nothing is ever costlier in terms of life and money than wars for nations. It is therefore necessary to keep war at bay or win it decisively if and when thrust upon us. And the best way to keep war away is being always prepared for it. No financial cost is, therefore, too high for keeping national security intact and maintaining our Armed Forces at the peak of their operational preparedness at all times, which at present has many holes that need to be plugged.
The question that arises in this scenario is: If peace, friendship and cooperation between India and Pakistan were the genuine aim, why limit the idea of ‘demilitarisation’ to Siachen alone? Why not make entire South Asia a ‘Continent of Peace and Prosperity’. The first step to proceed in that direction is to dismantle all Terror Training Camps and facilities, lock up the likes of Hafiz Mohd Sayeed, LeT and other terrorist gangs transparently and effectively.