Homeland Security

Siachen Again!
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Issue Vol 27.3 Jul-Sep 2012 | Date : 07 Jul , 2014

Right up the chain of command, there is an urgency to make living conditions comfortable, improve facilities for forward medical treatment and early evacuation, and procuring the best clothing and equipment. Credit must be given to the helicopter pilots of the Indian Air Force and Army Aviation along with their maintenance and support staff who have conducted casualty evacuation operations with unparalleled zeal and casualties, which had always been the gravest concern, have reduced drastically. Operational casualties have become almost negligible after the Ceasefire was set in motion in November 2003.

The primary cause of disconnect is the sequence of the process of de-militarisation…

Maximising combat effectiveness with minimum casualties is an oft-repeated Army concept of operations. Every life is precious, and units that de-induct from their tour of duty in Siachen without a single or a few casualties consider it a proud professional achievement, especially if their men have suffered no serious cold injuries. Till the mid-1990s, it was not uncommon for units to record fatal and non-fatal casualties ranging from 20 to as many as 50. Since 1984, the Indian Army has suffered well over 1,000 casualties in Siachen. However, the current casualty figure is about 10 per year.

The armed forces express their gratitude to the many well wishers and sympathisers on TV talk shows, who have displayed concern over the high casualty figures. But then, one need not get unduly sentimental over occupational hazards. There is a job to be carried out and the Army has the mandate to do it and so far, it has not let the nation down. It is a different matter altogether when Pakistani analysts talk of high casualties on the Indian Army as a justification for India to de-militarise the area. Some of them are under a false notion that their willingness to de-militarise is a concession being given to India. While we sympathise with the loss of lives in the recent avalanche at Gyari in POK, as we do in the case of any natural calamity, we should not allow aroused sentiments to overtake logic and reason in resolution of a complex problem. Incidentally, in 2010, Ladakh experienced an unexpected and massive cloudburst in which scores of locals including an entire post of the Indian Army was swept away under colossal mudslides.

Cost Effectiveness

Theoreticians and economists simply cannot understand the reason for this so called wasteful expenditure. Now that there is a ceasefire in place and no fighting is in progress, why do we drain our resources on maintaining hundreds of troops on icy glaciers and snow-covered mountains, they inquire. They forget history and the eternal debate on national security vis-à-vis development. Nations grow, prosper and develop when the sanctity of their borders is intact and when their security forces are capable of thwarting external aggression as well as ensuring internal stability. We learnt our lesson within the first two decades of attaining Independence. It has taken us five decades since the ‘Himalayan blunder’ to be somewhat self-reliant, create limited deterrent capability and acquire the status of being economically and militarily confident. Yet India’s defence budget is barely two per cent of its GDP.

The benefits of de-militarisation are not lost on any rational thinking person…

To put things in perspective, the expenditure in Siachen is an integral part of the defence budget. No special allocation is made separately for it. There was a time when we spent a large sum of money to procure special mountaineering clothing and equipment for troops in Siachen that appeared to be disproportionate to the general expenditure for the rest of the Army. The general public is unaware that the Army has progressed manifold in catering for the requirements of its soldiers operating in equally difficult high altitude terrain in both Northern and Eastern Commands. Special rations and special clothing are equally applicable to other areas at similar altitudes.

Infrastructure in the Siachen sector has developed over the years, pipelines for kerosene and water have been laid and better facilities have been organised in every sphere of activity. Therefore, the expenditure incurred now is more in the form of maintenance and regular improvements. It is not to say that the expenditure is not heavy but more prudent to realise that it is only marginally higher than what the Army budgets for other extreme high altitude areas.

If one were to ask whether the money has been gainfully utilised and proportionate results achieved, the answer would be affirmative. In fact, the defence of the Siachen sector is so foolproof, that it provides far greater dividends. But a more pertinent question would be, “What would be the effort required in terms of resources in warlike and other material, not to forget the lives that will be lost, if we were forced to recapture these positions?” The answer is short and simple – prohibitive, both in terms of cost and in the number of officers and men who will pay the ultimate price. In 1999, in Kargil, we lost about 500 of our gallant young officers and soldiers in addition to the monetary cost of the conflict. This does not take into account the despondency and despair in the families of the dead and wounded. If at all you draw up a matrix to compute factors or pros and cons, just remember to give the factor of regaining lost positions a proportionally much higher weightage. The bottom line is that national security cannot be measured on cost-benefit ratio scales.

The Standstill Agreement in 1947 and later, the Karachi Agreement of 1949 was violated by Pakistan.


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?

The primary cause of disconnect is the sequence of the process of de-militarisation. Whereas India insists on authentication as the first step, the Pakistanis want the Indian troops to withdraw to pre-1972 positions before any further discussions can take place. Their contention is that demarcation or authentication must follow re-deployment to mutually agreed lines or out of a zone of disengagement. In their scheme of things, in a de-militarised zone it does not matter who was where, for the activity is not restricted to just the line but in the whole zone. The intention is obvious, even to a casual viewer who is not well versed with the nuances of military terms and processes, and that is the Pakistanis do not want to acknowledge the existence of the current locations of the Indian Army on the Saltoro, the Actual Ground Position Line. In some of the rounds of talks on Siachen, despite recognizing the Indian concern, the Pakistani officials have given vent to their frustrations by stating that the Indians were only interested in authentication for establishing their legal and moral claims.

The benefits of de-militarisation are not lost on any rational thinking person. The area can be transformed into a peace park or a laboratory for scientific experiments,. ; the environment can be protected and mountaineering expeditions can be flagged off. Moreover, casualties can be avoided and the national exchequers of both countries can be eased a trifle. There is, however, a caveat. What if the agreement is flouted and the positions are occupied by the Pakistan Army? There are proponents who advocate that there should be adequate safeguards built into the agreement to include punitive action, if the aggrieved nation so desires. In practice, punitive action is easier said than done, more importantly generating the political will to authorise it.

The trust gorge has only widened as events have unfolded.

If one was to put one’s finger on just one factor that had an overarching impact on the resolution of the Siachen problem, it would be mutual trust or rather, the lack of it.

The Trust Factor

The level of mistrust between India and Pakistan in general and the Indian and Pakistani Security Forces in particular is so deep-rooted that it will take the better part of two generations to overturn. The mistrust began amongst the leaders of the two countries and the people, especially those living in the border regions, even prior to Independence. The Standstill Agreement in 1947 and later, the Karachi Agreement of 1949 was violated by Pakistan. General SK Sinha reflects that the MiniMarg area beyond the ceasefire line but South of the Burzilbai Pass was to be kept demilitarised to deny Pakistan infiltration routes into Tilel Valley, that lay North of the Shamsabari Ridge in Kashmir. Pakistan soon violated the clause of MiniMarg’s demilitarisation.

The trust gorge has only widened as events have unfolded. Starting with the proxy war in 1989, the façade of the Lahore Declaration was smattered by the illegal occupation of Kargil heights in 1999. The alleged role of the ISI in a number of terrorist actions in India would make an exhaustive list. The attack on the Parliament, blasts in many towns and trains and to top it, the Mumbai terrorist attack on 26/11 are bitter reminders. Calibrating the proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir, aiding infiltration from many borders, providing financial and moral support to ‘tanzeems’ and sleeper cells in India and unwillingness to expel terrorism from their soil are at the base of the rampant mistrust.

Yet there are many peace promoters, intellectuals amongst them, who philosophise that India should undertake a unilateral withdrawal from Siachen. There are also some military officers who were hawks while in service but have apparently become doves post retirement. Track II diplomacy does not mean that you give in or give up what is rightfully yours, just to show progress. Many a time, veteran diplomats and analysts justify the compulsions of the Pakistani establishment, saying that Pakistan will have a difficult task in selling the peace to its people or that it will look like a defeat or give them a face-saving option. Why for heaven’s sake? Let the Pakistani establishment explain the ground realities to its people. On the contrary, every Pakistani commentator has held forth a view that Indian forces must withdraw from the area illegally occupied by them in 1984.

Resolution of the Siachen dispute is possible purely on an edifice of trust.

What is the compulsion to resolve the problem in such a hurry? Yes, we certainly need to address the issue and keep it alive as part of the dialogue process. Had the Pakistanis been occupying the Saltoro Ridge, would they have withdrawn from it unilaterally without extracting their pound of flesh? Caution must be exercised in our keenness to convert it into a peace park so as to ease the burden on the exchequer and provide relief to our soldiers. Some film makers spent several days in the Siachen sector trying to understand how our soldiers operate in such hazardous areas. They appreciate the difficulties which our men face and that each tenure of duty takes away years of their lives. Some feel that we must de-militarise the area so that our men do not suffer. Noble thoughts but our well-meaning citizens should not forget the reason for our soldiers going there in the first place.

The two countries are constantly engaged in the Composite Dialogue process since a long period of time in spite of intermittent breaks due to unforeseen events or political compulsions at home or abroad. Siachen is only one amongst those issues albeit the least intractable. It would be in the fitness of maintaining momentum of the dialogue that both sides focus on those issues that are less contentious such as economic and commercial cooperation, drug trafficking, promotion of friendly exchanges in various fields and even the Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation project. Concurrently, the talks should continue on terrorism, Sir Creek and Siachen.

The present tone, tenor and unresponsive attitude of Pakistan, especially with respect to the acknowledgement of the Mumbai terrorist attacks and displaying no inclination to cease cross-border terrorism exudes no confidence or trust. Resolution of the Siachen dispute is possible purely on an edifice of trust which has to be built up gradually by both countries through meaningful Confidence Building Measures in letter and spirit.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Mukesh Sabharwal

Former Adjutant General, Indian Army.

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5 thoughts on “Siachen Again!

  1. Dear General Sabharwal,
    I enjoyed reading your article of 2012 ‘Siachin Again’. You have clarified the issues and given cogent reasons for the position we ought to maintain.
    Best wishes,
    Sumant Dhamija
    PS Do read my recent article in the latest Defence Review- The forgotten hero of Punjab – Jassa Singh Ahluwalia where I try and bring out some of the qualities of this great warrior which could be emulated by our leaders?!

  2. Dear General Sabharwal,
    I enjoyed reading your article of 2012 ‘Siachin Again’. You have clarified the issues and given cogent reasons for the position we ought to maintain.
    Best wishes,
    Sumant Dhamija
    PS Do read my recent article in the latest Defence Review- The forgotten hero of Punjab – Jassa Singh Ahluwalia where I try and bring out some of the qualities of this great warrior which could be emulated by our leaders?!

  3. A very well analysed piece. Two issues, one in the process for demilitarization offered by Track II folks the first step is delienation of LOC beyond NJ 9842, which means authentication and demarcation of current AGPL and all that goes with it. Second the proposal has nothing to do with resolution of the dispute which will be a political call no doubt with army’s strong views taken on board. What has been recommended is if and when we are ready, the sequence should be thus, nothing more nothing less.
    Therfore it is no body’s call to demilitrize now. We atleat need to keep an open mind on this. Lastly while strategic significance is well appreciated the tendency to overplay the same should not be overplayed.

  4. India should not disengage its troops from the Saltoro ridge,doing so would be a great strategic blunder on the part of our country.There are some political figures in India sympathetic to Pakistan playing a dubious game.Moreover there is ploy between the Chinese and Pakistanis to fool our country to this effect. India should see through this plot and reject the Pakistan proposal outright

    Haridas Ayyappan

  5. Thank you General for this detailed account.

    Pakistanis have been saying that they were first to reach Siachen hights, even if their Special Forces units disguised as mountaineers reached in 1983 and stayed their for four months. Their contentions is that when they vacated these heights in the winter of 1983, Indians came early and occupied these in the spring of 1984.

    The above if true, has to be reconfirmed by the Indian Army.

    Pakistanis made the above as the basis of their quite occupation of Kargil heights, fifteen years later.

    Can you please comment on this point.


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