De-militarisation is a process that consists of several logical steps: ceasefire, authentication, demarcation, withdrawal, re-deployment and verification. It is a concept that formal and informal working groups, researchers and defence analysts have concurred as one of the best possible solutions to the Siachen problem. Reams of paper have been consumed in determining the process and procedures of verification, authentication and lines of redeployment. Ideas have been discussed in official Government to Government talks, Track II meets and think tanks. Use of technology and methodology to map, confirm and monitor have been deliberated upon threadbare, and in some cases, a general consensus has even been arrived at. So where then is the stumbling block?
On April 06, 2012, an avalanche wiped out the battalion headquarters of the 6th Northern Light Infantry (NLI) at Gyari, located west of the Saltoro Ridge in the Siachenarea, instantly burying 138 Pakistani soldiers and civilians under several feet of snow. The victims included the Commanding Officer, a Company Commander and the Medical Officer.
Analysts agree that the two nations are engaged in a futile conflict in some of the most inhospitable terrain…
Having lost over a hundred soldiers in the unfortunate accident, General Kayani, Pakistan’s Army Chief was distraught during his visit to the area as any military leader would have been. His remarks in subsequent days, about the demilitarisation of Siachen evoked a fair deal of response from varied quarters.
A Sudden Change of Heart?
We fully appreciate the loss of soldiers. In fact, we can empathise completely, having been in similar situations while serving in very high altitude terrain and extreme conditions. For the families of soldiers, be they Indian or Pakistani, the void created by the departure of a dear one is similar howsoever stoically they may attempt to bear it. But these are occurrences that Armies and families are prepared for, fully cognizant of the hazards of service involved.
So why this sudden change of heart, one may ask. It is certainly not to gain sympathy because the world over, people acknowledge the tragedy and share their concern. It is more as if an incident is being used as an opportunity to stoke the fire once again. It is only coincidental that the timing of the avalanche happens to be two months prior to the scheduled round of talks on Sir Creek and Siachen in June 2012.
In any number of articles, blogs and television news channels, citizens from different walks of life and analysts agree with the view that the two nations and their armies are engaged in a futile conflict in some of the most inhospitable terrain. They also tend to voice similar opinions about converting the area into a zone of peace thereby reducing the avoidable casualties and decreasing the financial burden. Some go to the extent to say that the area does not have any significance as it lies in a wasteland of snow and ice, where not a blade of grass grows.
The roots of the conflict over Siachen lie in the non-demarcation of the boundary North of NJ 9842.
It is necessary therefore, to re-visit some of the salient issues in order to clear misperceptions that may have crept in and clou ded the minds of officials in the Government and people at large.
The Roots of Conflict
The name ‘Siachen’, in Balti, refers to a land abundant with wild roses (sia – rose and chen – place or bush of thorns). The Siachen Glacier is located on the eastern Karakoram Range of the Himalayas. The main glacier is sandwiched between the Saltoro Ridge to its West, and the main Karakoram Range to its East. The Siachen glacier is 76 km long, with its width varying from one kilometre to 2.5 km. It is at an altitude ranging from 3,600 m to 5,700 m. The dominating Saltoro Ridge ranges in height from 17,880 to 25,330 feet (5,450 to 7,720m).
India controls the whole Siachen glacier complex with troops deployed on the Actual Ground Position Line and controls the area from NJ 9842 (the end point of the Line of Control fixed in the 1972 Shimla Agreement) to Indira Col on the Karakoram Range. Pakistan claims the area from NJ 9842 to the Karakoram Pass. Reaching the Indian Army positions on the Saltoro Ridge, trudging over ice moraines, negotiating crevasses in such rarefied air is a herculean task in itself.
The roots of the conflict over Siachen lie in the non-demarcation of the boundary North of NJ 9842. The 1949 Karachi Agreement and the 1972 Shimla Agreement presumed that it was not feasible for humans to survive North of NJ 9842. In July 1949, the UN-led delegation convened an Indo-Pak conference at Karachi to delineate the ceasefire line in Kashmir. Lt .Gen. S K Sinha, who as a junior officer at that time, was the Secretary of the Indian delegation at that conference recalls, “It took us seven days of hectic discussions to delineate an agreed 740 km ceasefire line on a quarter-inch map, from Lalealli in the South to NJ 9842 in the North. No one at that time thought that military operations could take place at the forbidding heights beyond NJ 9842. In any case, the ceasefire line was only something temporary. After plebiscite, it would become easy to be wise after the event. It would have been better if the line beyond NJ 4982 had not been left vague.”
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Pakistan permitted several expeditions in the general area of the Siachen glacier to reinforce its claim on the area, as the mountaineers were required to obtain a permit from Pakistani authorities. The objective clearly was to create a precedent to assume de facto control over the area. Pakistan also embarked upon a cartographic aggression wherein they tried to establish that the area west of the line joining NJ 9842 to the Karakoram Pass was a part of Pakistan territory. Based on intelligence reports that indicated the likelihood of the area being occupied by Pakistani troops, India launched Operation Meghdoot on April 23, 1984. Pakistan quickly responded with counter deployments but within a few days, the Indians were in control of most of the approaches to the Siachen glacier. Two passes — Sia La (18,000 ft) and Bilafond La (19,000 ft) — were secured by India while a few heights in the Gyong La (16,000 ft) remained under Pakistan’s control. Both sides have made several attempts to displace each other’s forces but in vain.
Some try to justify the occupation of the Saltoro by saying that India did not wrest the Siachen, it was unoccupied. That is more of a technicality and could be argued in a court of arbitration, if ever one is constituted. However, the fact is that India is convinced about what was meant in the Karachi and Shimla Agreements and has no doubt whatsoever, that it has only occupied its own territory.
Economists simply cannot understand the reason for this so called wasteful expenditure on defence.
Lt. Gen. Jahan Dad Khan, who was General Officer Commanding, 10 Corps of Pakistan from 1980 to 1984, writes in his book, ‘Pakistan Leadership Challenges’, that they had sent a Company of the elite Special Services Group to occupy Bilafond La in the summer of 1983, which they effectively accomplished. In their report they indicated they had observed some Indian troop activity of the Ladakh Scouts in the Siachen glacier area. Although their Company had to return to base in September as they were not equipped or provisioned for the winter, the Pakistan Army firmed up its plans to deploy forces by May 1984 on the Saltoro. It was a different matter that when their forces reached the location, they found the Indian troops already deployed there. General Dad Khan writes, “This was a great setback for Pakistan. We had obviously failed to appreciate the timing of the Indian move and our intelligence agencies had failed to detect the brigade size force in the area in April 1984.”
There are some who debate that India’s response to the Pakistani cartographic aggression should have been in similar terms or tackled diplomatically, and not by physical means. According to Lt. Gen. M L Chibber, then Indian Northern Army Commander, routine patrolling by Indian troops had already commenced seeing Pakistan’s motives in the early 1980s. The problem precipitated on August 21, 1983, when a protest note was handed over from the Pakistan Northern Sector Commander stating that the Line of Control joins with the Karakoram Pass and the area west of this belongs to Pakistan. The Indians then swung into action.
The sequence of events brings out quite clearly that India did not act unilaterally. In fact, on reflection one can say with pride that the Indian establishment displayed sagacity, vision and political will in deciding to go ahead, and to the Indian Armed Forces for executing the mission with professionalism and unmatched courage in the face of adversity.
During the recent debates in the electronic media, subsequent to General Kayani’s offer of the so-called proposal to resolve the Siachen issue, every Pakistani expert guest on the TV channels prefaced his or her views with, “…India’s aggression and illegal occupation of Siachen in 1984 …” or words to that effect. It is this hurt that they tried to avenge in Kargil in 1999 but failed. This was also evident during the several rounds of Siachen Talks that have been concluded between both countries.
Significance of Siachen
General Chibber has succinctly stated that the Siachen glacier is a wedge that keeps the two adversaries apart. If one were to concede the Pakistani view that the line north of NJ 9842 does indeed join with the Karakoram Pass, it would literally amount to the Chinese presence in the Shaksgam valley moving southwards to the Nubra valley. With the reported activity of Chinese troops involved in building projects in Gilgit and Baltistan, the general area right down to the Shyok valley will become a collusive playground and a zone for future exploitation by the Chinese and Pakistanis through the Khunjerab and Karakoram passes.
Nations grow, prosper and develop when the sanctity of their borders is intact…
Occupation of the Saltoro and Siachen provides a buffer to Ladakh and in military parlance, the much needed depth to important mountain passes that are gateways to Ladakh and onto Kashmir. There are a number of ‘experts’ who point out that it is futile to hold on to the positions on the Saltoro ridgeline because they are important only tactically and has are of no strategic significance. They are obviously unaware of the prevailing conditions in Siachen and the unequal advantage that accrues to a defender deployed in prepared positions on heights at 18,000 feet and above. Whereas no position is ever considered impregnable by a determined body of soldiers, get in touch with a survivor of any such attack that either failed or succeeded, and ask him about his tribulations and his brush with death at close quarters. The professionals in the Pakistan Army are not naïve to have attempted to capture pickets on the Saltoro over and over again despite heavy casualties. If ever there was a tactical gain that was instrumental in providing exponential dividend to a strategic cause, this is one.
During the 1980s and the 1990s, our positions in the Siachen sector were being developed and the Armed Forces were trying to improve their operational preparedness in terms of weapons, equipment, clothing, logistics, air support or maintenance. The Indian forces are now actually in such a strong, controlling position that they enjoy overwhelming operational and psychological superiority to even put pressure or indirectly influence Baltistan and Shaksgam – in military terms, a threat in being.
“Why this senseless unconcern for human lives at unforgiving altitudes and extreme climatic conditions?” is a question which is very often asked of military officers. It is generally believed that commanders are so mission oriented that they do not care how many casualties are suffered as long as success is achieved. Nothing could be further from the truth. The relationship and bond that units and sub-units establish while operating in adverse conditions like Siachen can truly be experienced when one physically stays and ‘lives’ there for a period of time. When six to eight soldiers including an officer live together in a fibre glass hut, share food and hot cups of tea, share the loo, see each other’s face morning, noon and night, rope up on a patrol as one team, then they learn to care and live and die for each other.