Homeland Security

Siachen Dilemma
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 25 Feb , 2016

In the wake of the recent tragedy in Siachen Glacier which had taken the lives of ten brave soldiers of the Indian Army, the voices for demilitarization of Glacier have once again grown in intensity not only in India but more so from across the border; particularly after the unfortunate incident of Gayari which killed 130 troops of Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry in an avalanche.

In fact, the Chinese strategic interests in demilitarization are far more predominant than that of Pakistan.

In fact, the Track II channels seem more vocal in this regard. Apart from the oft repeated reasons projected for demilitarization such as avoidable loss of human lives on both sides more due to nature’s fury, high economic costs of maintenance and damages to the ecology of glaciers, the Protagonists of demilitarization are down to questioning the strategic value of Siachen. Some of these alleged that the idea of strategic importance was an invention by the Indian Strategic Community and is a fig of fanciful thinking. In this whole gamut of demilitarization, Pakistan seems to be eager to make it a trilateral issue with China included in the dialogue process.

It may be of interest to know that during the Siachen talks in India between India and Pakistan on 30 and 31 May 2011, the Pakistani delegation had demanded that the Chinese be invited for the talks as the Shaksgam area is with them. This clearly shows the Chinese interests in Siachen. Most of the bidding by Pakistan for demilitarization is at the behest of China. In fact, the Chinese strategic interests in demilitarization are far more predominant than that of Pakistan.

Withdrawal of troops by both the countries from the glacier as advocated by the peace initiators is undisputedly desirable subject to assured safeguards & mutually agreed conditions. But such demilitarization cannot be justified solely by ridiculing the strategic importance of Siachen Glacier. These two issues are separate and have no cause and effect relationship.

The line beyond NJ 9842, India followed the international convention that international boundary lines that follow mountain ranges often do so by following the watershed drainage divide such as that of the Saltoro Range.

Differing Perceptions of the Boarder Beyond NJ 9842  

The Cease Fire Agreement of July 1949 (Karachi Agreement) delineated and demarcated the “Cease Fire Line” (CFL) between India and Pakistan. The CFL was demarcated from “Manawar” in the South to “Khor thence north to the glaciers” through NJ 9842. The Simla Agreement of 1972 which was reached between the two countries after 1971 War, had not changed the condition of Karachi Agreement except that the ‘CFL” was replaced by the word “Line of Control” (LOC) and that some areas of Pakistan including Turtok sector comprising five villages of Chalunka, Thang, Pharol, Tyakshi and Turtok came under Indian control as a result of 1971 War.

The LOC traverses some 740 Kms from the international border in the South up to NJ 9842 from which in accordance with the unchanged definition of the parent 1949 Karachi Agreement, it must run, “thence north to the glaciers”. In its interpretation of the line beyond NJ 9842, India followed the international convention that international boundary lines that follow mountain ranges often do so by following the watershed drainage divide such as that of the Saltoro Range. According to the Indian stance, the line of separation should continue roughly northwards along the Saltoro Range, to the west of the Siachen glacier beyond NJ9842.

Pakistan differently interpreted the five words ” thence north to the glaciers” and instead of following the international convention had drawn a straight line running north east from NJ 9842 to a point just west of Karakoram Pass and claimed all area north of this line as Pakistani territory, bordering “Shaksgam Valley” of POK illegally ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963.

China’s strategic interests will be best served if there is a Pakistani buffer between Shaksgam Valley and India. When viewed from this perspective, Siachen-Saltoro Complex is like a “Thorn” in their flesh and hence is their clamor for demilitarization.

Strategic Importance of Siachen

Siachen Glacier originates from Indra Col in the north with its snout located in the south above Point NJ 9842 covering a distance of about 76 Kms in length and about 3 Kms in width. The glacier lies between the Saltoro Ridge immediately to its west and the main Karakoram Range to the east. The Siachen- Saltoro Complex is located in the Centre of a region enclosed by Gilgit-Baltistan held by Pakistan on the West, Shaksgam Valley held by China in the North and China held Aksai Chin on the East.

The “Positional Advantage” that Siachen enjoys due to this geographical configuration lends to its strategic value. The strategic designs of Pakistan and more so of China are to create one contiguous region from Gilgit-Baltistan in the west to Karakoram Pass and Aksai Chin on the east so as to facilitate free movement and communication between these two regions and as well to provide security and depth to Shaksgam valley, and inter alia to the extensive rail, road and oil pipe line network passing through Shaksgam valley from Pakistan’s Gwadar Port to Khasgar in China’s Xingiang Province.

China’s strategic interests will be best served if there is a Pakistani buffer between Shaksgam Valley and India. When viewed from this perspective, Siachen-Saltoro Complex is like a “Thorn” in their flesh and hence is their clamor for demilitarization. The glacier’s melting waters are the main source of Nubra River which drains into Shyok River. The Shyok in turn joins the 3000 kilometer-long Indus River which flows through Pakistan. Thus, the glacier is a major source of Indus and feeds the largest irrigation system in the world. When water is going to be the casus belli for future wars, the importance of Saichen cannot be diluted.

The  Saltoro Range does dominate and control the Nubra and Shyok valleys, and indeed does provide strategic depth to Ladakh Range and to Leh, and this is going to be more pronounced in future with the development of more road networks.

From the Indian strategic perspective, it must be conceded that as advocated by the protagonists of demilitarization, no major military operations can be launched and sustained over Saltoro and Karakoram Ranges either by Pakistan or China or by India under the present state of road communication network. As such a collusive effort in the form pincers by China and Pakistan over these glaciated ranges poised against India may not be feasible at present. But what will be the state 20-30 years hence is left for ones visualization and foresight against the backdrop of Chinese immense road construction ability and infrastructure development capabilities. The same can be said about India too given the political will and determination.

After a delay of nearly 3 to 4 decades, a major road connecting Leh to Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) following the Shyok alignment is already under construction by India to cater to its sheer strategic needs.  More such infrastructure developments are likely in future. The  Saltoro Range does dominate and control the Nubra and Shyok valleys, and indeed does provide strategic depth to Ladakh Range and to Leh, and this is going to be more pronounced in future with the development of more road networks. Even at present, any major offensive by Pakistan from Siari towards Thoise, Partapur and eastwards is unlikely to succeed with Saltoro Range; more so the Southern Glacier held by India.

The above narrative is to highlight the “Positional Advantage” and strategic value of Siachen, lest these be rubbished and projected as grounds for demilitarization. This is not to suggest that there should be no demilitarization. India was never opposed to demilitarization per se.

As stated by Nitin A Gokhale in his book “Beyond NJ 9842 – The Siachen Saga”, demilitarization by itself is a process that consists of several logical steps: cease fire (holding since 2003), authentication, demarcation, withdrawal, re-deployment and verification. Since 1989, India has been suggesting and agreed for mutual withdrawal from Saichen after delineation and authentication of actual ground holding positions of both on a map duly signed by both before troops pullout can take place. Pakistan refused the said proposal stating that India as the occupier should first withdraw to pre 1984 positions before proceeding any further.

While all these proposals have lot of merit in them, these are beset with the danger of India forfeiting all its claims of ownership and control over the Glacier which are so crucial for posterity.

These divergent stands continued till 1992 when both the parties were said to have come closer to an understanding in which Pakistan had agreed to record the existing troop positions in an annexure to the agreement. But the Governments in both the countries developed cold feet and the agreement could not be concluded.

Meanwhile many other proposals for future of Siachen came into circulation. Environmentalists had in the past suggested that Siachen should be made into an “Environmental Park” with free access to all. The former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, during his visit to Siachen in 2005 suggested that the entire Siachen region should be turned into a “Peace Park”.

The latest in the series is by Professor Happymon Jacob of JNU who in a recent article in Hindu dated 11 Feb 2016, proposed that Siachen should be made “An International Destination for Glacial Research and Other Scientific Experiments”. While all these proposals have lot of merit in them, these are beset with the danger of India forfeiting all its claims of ownership and control over the Glacier which are so crucial for posterity. A sine qua non for any sort of demilitarization or for implementation of any of the above peace proposals is that there should be iron clad agreements to the effect that the Indian AGPL and its ground holdings, as well of Pakistan, as on date are mutually authenticated & recognized, and that there should be no prejudice to the Indian stated position or claims of ownership & control over the Glacier pending final settlement.

…no laxity in defence vigil and presence is acceptable when it comes to sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Nation. It was due to our laxity in vigil, China was able to occupy Aksai chin…

Under the circumstances, the best course for India may be to pick up the threads of 1992 talks and take these to the logical conclusion of a formal agreement for mutual withdrawal after jointly recoding and authenticating the current military positions of both and exchanging them as part of an annexure to the agreement without prejudice to each other’s stated positions, pending final settlement of the LOC and AGPL. As the annexure idea was mooted by Pakistan and discussed in 1992, there may not be much resistance from their side given their penchant for demilitarization.

In the event of Pakistan not agreeing to the said proposal, India, while keeping the talks alive to arrive at an early settlement, must focus all its energies on further improving the safety & living condition of troops on the Glacier, development of communications, logistics and infrastructure in the Region and more importantly measures for protection of ecology of the Glacier using technology. Over the years the costs and causalities had come down and sure will go down further with better facilities and fine tuning of management. Skeptics continue to question the rationale for undertaking such huge expenditure while about 22% of our population lives below poverty line.

It must be remembered that no laxity in defence vigil and presence is acceptable when it comes to sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Nation. It was due to our laxity in vigil, China was able to occupy Aksai chin and construct Aksai Chin Road commencing from 1950/51 about which we came to know only in 1957/58, by which time the road was already completed. It is perhaps debatable whether we can in the near future resolve Aksai Chin dispute, let alone getting it back.  Nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity cannot be rationalized in terms of costs.

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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

Brig Pillalmarri Subramanyam

Brig Pillalmarri Subramanyam, former Army Officer and served in DBO, Ladakh Area.

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  1. I got the gist of this personally from General Chibber who carried out Operation Meghdoot to take Siachen in 1984 while quaffing the potions with him and Brigadier Inder Sethi (Gurkha Brigade) at the Defence Colony Club in Delhi. Taking and Holding Siachen is an imperative from the National Security perspective given the two Hostile Neighbours of Pakistan and China, both with military might directed at India to further their proclaimed ideas of “Lebensraum”. And with Pakistan receiving the full backing of the US for both their covert (terrorist) operations against India and weaponry (a Billion Dollars worth as recently as November 2015 capable of delivering Pakistan’s superior stock of Nuclear war heads deep into India territory). Holding Siachen, Militarily is far more economical for India than evacuating it. By a factor of more than ten times. Not holding Siachen puts a great deal of Indian territory at risk unless India has already accumulated tactical battle field nuclear weapons which it is prepared to deploy on a first use basis to defend India from China and a US backed Pakistan. What India needs to do is hold on to Siachen and equip the soldiers properly. Beginning with GPS locators issued to all ranks on glaciers and avalanche prone areas. As well as a systematic policy that any Neta-Babu with powers to influence decisions regarding the armed forces, particularly in matters of assessing necessary equipment and procurement ahould under go a minimum of three years rotation through all difficult and hostile military stations prior to being empowered to hold the lives of soldiers, sailors and airmen in their pens and marginal jottings.

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