Military & Aerospace

Siachen: The Untold Story (A Personal Account)
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Issue Vol 5.1 Jan-Mar 1990 | Date : 29 Jul , 2017

I look back on the operations on the Siachen Glacier with a mixed feeling of pride, regret and hope. Pride in the Indian soldiery because only exceptional military men could have achieved what was accomplished. Regret, because after four decades of Independence, problems such as Siachen continue to erupt between India and Pakistan, for it is essential for both countries to live in peace if the subcontinent is to progress. Hope, because among the Indian soldiery, I found no trace of malice or hatred for their Pakistani opponents and vice versa. Both were performing their professional duty.

The operations on the Siachen Glacier were mounted on 13 April 1984. I record in this article, a personal account of this operation, as I saw it. It is essentially a tribute to the officers and men of the Army and the Air Force who rose as one man to unbelievable heights of courage, tenacity and fortitude, to do what inevitably had to be done. The Uniqueness of this clash lies in the forbidding heights at which it was being fought. This mini-war was and is being conducted well above cloud level and was aptly named Operation Meghdoot (the divine cloud messenger after the how Sanskrit play by Kalidasa) in India and Operation Ababeel (Urdu name for the high-soaring and fast-flying bird associated with summer, the swallow) in Pakistan. The Pakistani force organized to capture Siachen was named the ‘Burzil Force’.

There is a good bit of controversy in India and Pakistan about Siachen. It is amusing to ruminate on the way in which this controversy would have run had the Pakistanis occupied the Siachen instead of the Indians. In India, the Government and the Army would have been lampooned more severely than what had and is happening in Pakistan!

Why had the operation to be mounted at all, and what can be done to resolve the issue is the theme of this article.

Background

The Siachen Glacier came to my notice for the first time as a problem area in early January 1978. I was then the Director of Military Operations at Army Headquarters, New Delhi.

One day, around 1100 hours, I was standing in the verandah of my office, when Colonel Bull Kumar, one of India’s foremost mountaineers, walked up to me with a rolled-up map under his arm.

Kumar pulled out the map from under his arm, unrolled it to show me a one-inch to four-mile scale tourist map of Northern Kashmir, printed in the USA. He had got it from a German mountaineer friend of his who had been climbing various peaks in the Karakoram from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). Kumar complained that, while Pakistan was allowing international mountaineers to climb various peaks in the Karakoram, we had banned the area to them. He suggested that we allow foreign expeditions into the Karakoram area in addition to our own expeditions. Such liberalization would increase opportunities for our young mountaineers to gain valuable experience besides the distinction of climbing some of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring peaks in the world. He mentioned that his German friend was hoping to climb some peaks around K22 that summer.

A close look at the map caused me concern. The mutually agreed Line of Control between India and Pakistan, which was demarcated as a result of the Shimla Agreement by the two countries, terminates at the map reference point NJ 9842. It may be-recalled that the Shimla Agreement was signed after the 1971 war with great hopes of promoting enduring peace between the two neighbours. Beyond this terminal point, there is an undemarcated gap upto the India-China border. However, on this map, the printed line had been extended straight to the North-east to join the India-China border at the Karakoram Pass, thus showing all the area west of this line under Pakistan’s control. The whole of the Siachen Glacier and almost 4000 sq km of territory around it was thus shown to be in POK.

The Siachen Glacier, popularly referred to as the ‘Third Pole’, lies in one of the most inhospitable and glaciated regions of the world. Sliding down a valley in the Karakoram Range in Ladakh, it is overlooked by some of the highest peaks on earth. The Siachen Glacier- 76 km in length and varying in width from 2 to 8 km-is the longest glacier outside the polar region.

Geo-strategically, the Siachen area is virtually the roof of Eurasia and is surrounded by POK, Afghanistan, the USSR, China and Tibet. Oh a clear day, these territories are visible from some of the heights above 6080 metres. To the West of this region lie the towns of Gilgit and Skardu in POK. To the East is Aksai Chin, which is the Chinese-occupied portion of Ladakh. The Siachen area, thus, separates POK from Aksai Chin. It is virtually the wedge which keeps our two adversaries apart.

The purpose of Kumar coming to me was naturally to get my support to let him mount an expedition into the Siachen Glacier. Going into this vast 76-km long river of ice of breathtaking beauty is the dream of every mountaineer. However, what really bothered me was the cartographic misrepresentation on the map. I got concerned that we might lose this area if we were not careful. My thoughts went back to the mid-fifties when I was with my battalion in Kargil. The Army in those days was not responsible for our border with Tibet. We had, unfortunately, left Aksai Chin without any presence in the area and attempts by some of our young officers to go there on reconnaissance cum shikar trips, with logistic support of the Army, were frowned upon as wasteful expenditure. To our utter surprise, we discovered that, due to our neglect and indifference, the Chinese had built a highway through Aksai Chin. We lost a huge chunk of our territory through indolence and bureaucratic parsimony. I assured Kumar of my help, and asked him to leave the map with me.

The matter had to be handled with despatch and circumspection. I walked into the office of the Army Chief, General TN Raina, MVC, and explained the problem to him. He was a practical man of vision, who straightaway authorized me to let Colonel Kumar take an operational reconnaissance patrol to Siachen. By calling it an operational patrol, it was possible to provide logistic support to Kumar. If he were to undertake a mountaineering expedition without official backing, it would cost somewhere in the region of Rs 8-10 lakh. For example, if the party needed one hundred high-altitude porters, at a cost of Rs 50 per porter (this was the rate in 1978) per day, then the cost of porterage alone for about 60 days would amount to Rs 3 lakh. The cost of special food, medical cover, insurance, air evacuation of casualties, air dropping of supplies, special clothing and equipment all would add upto a prohibitive amount.

While Kumar got going to prepare and take a team to Siachen Glacier, we took up the matter of the misrepresentation on the map with the Ministries of Defence and External Affairs, who in turn raised the issue with the US Government for the cartographic misrepresentation on a map printed in that country. Unfortunately, nothing came out of it as it was an unofficial map printed by a commercial firm. Concurrently with the steps discussed above, I initiated action to analyse the whole problem in depth, and bring together all the relevant facts so that we may have contingency plans to handle the situation whichever way it may develop. We reviewed the situation in Jammu & Kashmir since 1947.

Now for some background information. The war that developed between India and Pakistan in 194 7lasted for over a year, and it was only on 1 January 1949 that a cease-fire was declared. Forces of the two sides stayed where they were, and with the assistance of the UN observers, a cease-fire line was demarcated on the ground between the two opposing armies. This line ended at NJ 9842. The glaciated area of the Karakoram to the North of this point was not demarcated because there had been no clashes in this forbidding area. Hence, there were no troops from either side. The Karachi Agreement of 1949 which describes the cease-fire line, segment by segment, delineates it up to the terminal point at NJ 9842; and then reads ‘thence North to the glaciers’.

In 1965, another war broke out between India and Pakistan. The war started when Pakistan mounted Operation Gibraltar. The aim of this operation was to send soldiers in civil clothes pretending to be Kashmiri infiltrators to promote an uprising amongst Kashmiri Muslims, thus securing Kashmir. Once again, there was a cease-fire and under the aegis of the Tashkent Agreement, both countries agreed to restore the status quo ante in Kashmir. Thus, the terminal point of the cease-fire line continued to be at NJ 9842.

The two countries fought yet another war in 1971. This time the cease-fire took place after the fall of Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan. The negotiations that followed resulted in the Shimla Agreement. A fresh line: was demarcated and designated as the ‘Line of Control’. The new line was delineated between the two Armies as they stood on the ground on 16 December 1971 when a cease-fire was declared by both sides. India had captured a sizeable chunk of territory in the Shyok Valley to the Southern side of the Karakoram Range. Thus, in this sector, ipso facto, the Line of Control ran far to the West of the superseded cease-fire line of 1949. Yet, the terminal point of the Line of Control continued to be at NJ 9842, because there were no troops in the glaciated wasteland of Karakoram to the North and no fighting had taken p1ace1h this area. Thus the situation that emerged after the 1971 war was as shown in Figure 1.

Ground Situation After 1971 War

It may be recalled that on 2 March 1963, while India was still reeling under the defeat at the hands of the Chinese, Pakistan signed a boundary agreement with China which India considers illegal. This agreement defines on maps the Northern boundary between POK and the Sinkiang region of China. In the alignment of the boundary, Pakistan ceded 4500 sq km of Kashmir territory to China. The Indian Government had strongly protested against this agreement. It appears that perhaps Pakistan misled the Chinese about the extent of the area under Pakistani control. The boundary that has been described in the Sino-Pak Agreement starts from the junction of the POK boundary with Afghanistan in the West and terminates in the East at the Karakoram Pass which lies deep inside that region of Kashmir which is strongly held by the Indian forces.

Article Six of the Sino-Pak Agreement is relevant to the whole-issue because the Indian stand is that the entire state of Jammu & Kashmir belongs to it, and Pakistan is in illegal occupation of some areas of the state. Article Six of the Sino-Pak Agreement reads,

The two parties have agreed that, after the settlement of the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India, the sovereign authority concerned will reopen negotiations with the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the boundary, as described in Article Two of the present agreement, so as to sign a formal boundary treaty to replace the present agreement, provided that, in the event of that sovereign authority being Pakistan, the provisions of the present agreement and the aforesaid protocol shall be maintained.

From an examination of all the relevant facts, one point stood out quite clearly, that we should open up the area to mountaineers, and also keep an eye on it to prevent intrusions by Pakistan-based expeditions.

Colonel Kumar’s expedition to Terram Kangri in the Siachen area during the summer of 1978 thus became important from the security angle.

While Kumar’s expedition was on there was some ‘air activity’ from the Pakistani side and a Sabre jet overflew the expedition at one stage. However, Colonel Kumar did not find any Pakistan-based expeditions moving in this area. Near the Bilafond La, he came across some signs of a previous expedition and brought back some tin labels printed in Japanese. He recommended that, to ensure that the Pakistanis do not intrude into the area of Siachen, we should establish a post in the area which could be manned during the summer. We examined this in depth, and felt that due to severe weather, inhospitable climatic conditions and the very high altitude, it would be impractical to establish a post in such a hostile environment. Instead, it was decided that in addition to expeditions that went to this area now and then, the Siachen Glacier should be regularly patrolled during the summer months. It was also decided to permit foreign expeditions and give wide publicity to such expeditions and their achievements in various mountaineering journals, in order to discourage Pakistan-based expeditions from surreptitiously entering into this region. I learnt later that our expeditions and patrols in subsequent years did not run into any mountaineers coming in from the POK side.

In 1979, I left Army Headquarters to command a corps in the Punjab and completely forgot about this area, till I was appointed as the GOC-in-C Northern Command, in 1982. While being briefed on the operational situation, I suddenly recalled the Siachen Glacier when I was shown a protest note warning us to keep out of this area – sent by the Northern Sector Commander in POK to his counterpart in India.

When the Shimla Agreement was signed after the 1971 war, and the Line of Control delineated, a procedure was adopted to settle local disputes between the two Armies. The entire Line of Control was divided into three Sectors, namely Northern, Central and Southern. There was a hot line between the Sector Commanders of India and Pakistan. Also, crossing points were fixed for handing over written notes and messages between the two sides, as and when necessary. Since Siachen Glacier falls under the jurisdiction of the Northern Sector Commanders on both sides, the protest note had come to our Northern Sector Commander at Kargil.

We considered the protest note and took a view that such routine protests are a common feature of life in Jammu & Kashmir where the Armies of India and Pakistan are deployed against each other in a ‘no-war-no-peace’ confrontation. A suitable counter-protest was lodged and a decision taken to continue our patrolling during the summer, in 1983. It was during 1983 that the Pakistani side precipitated the matter which developed into a conflict.

In 1983, it became obvious to us that the Pakistani side WCJ.S getting ready to physically come into the Siachen Glacier. Hence, we had to act swiftly in order to prevent them from doing so. However, before recounting the developments it would be appropriate at this stage to take a look at Figure 2 which shows the lie of the land.

Area Showing Siachen Glacier in Relation of the LC

The figure shows the main Karakoram Range running from West to East. One of the offshoots of the Karakoram Range is the Saltoro Range generally running South-east. It starts at Sia Kangri and terminates on the Shyok River. The Saltoro Range is the watershed between the Shyok Valley and Nubra Valley. Through the valley runs the Nubra River which originates from the snows of the Siachen Glacier. The Siachen Glacier lies between the Saltoro Range and the main Karakoram Range and is fed by numerous smaller glaciers from both sides. There are a number of passes over the Saltoro Ra.nge, but the two that have been used by mountaineers are the Sia La and Bilafond La.

To understand the origin of the Siachen conflict it would be relevant here to look at the developments in the Gilgit region. In the mid-seventies, the Pakistan Government adopted the policy of throwing open the Karakoram to international mountaineers. It was a step to promote tourism and they simplified the procedure to clear expeditions. They even waived royalty for mountain peaks below 6100 m. A well-planned promotional campaign was launched to attract mountaineers to come and climb some of the well-known peaks in this region – Gasherbrum group, Mount Godwin Austin and Nanga Parbat. Travel facilities to Gilgit and Skardu were improved as were hotel facilities in these towns. The response was really good. In clearing expeditions to various peaks, it appears that a bit of ‘mountain poaching’ was undertaken. Perhaps the mountaineering authorities did so in their enthusiasm to meet every foreign request, as it meant good business and earning considerable foreign exchange. It is significant that this poaching stopped only after our Government took up the matter with various governments, including Pakistan, about the tourist maps which showed· a totally wrong extension of the Line of Control to the Karakoram Pass. My staff scanned all the mountaineering journals available and were able to put together the following information:

  • 1975  One Japanese expedition was permitted into Siachen area.
  • 1976  One Japanese expedition was permitted into Siachen area.
  • 1979  Three Japanese expeditions were permitted into Siachen area.
  • 1980  An American expediti9n was permitted to enter Siachen area.
  • 1981  Out of 36 foreign expeditions, none came to Siachen area. Poaching had by then stopped.
  • 1982  Out of 46 foreign expeditions from 11 countries, none came to Siachen area.
  • 1983  Out of 44 foreign expeditions from 14 countries, none came to Siachen area.

There used to be a standing joke in my Headquarters that the Siachen problem was, most probably, the making of some enterprising and well-connected Pakistani travel agent! Had there been no expeditions in the area, the glacier might have stayed dormant as in the previous decades.

During the months from June to September 1983, two strong Indian Army patrols visited the glacier.

The second patrol was tasked to build a small hut. The necessary components for the shelter were lifted by helicopters, and so was the second patrol. Thus a shelter of sorts was put together by the end of September 1983. It was good enough to provide some protection to men on patrols and stores from the cold and winds. The troops were then de-inducted from the glacier.

Our patrols met no troops of Pakistan or any Pakistan-based expeditions. However, Pakistani helicopters did fly over and buzzed our patrols on three occasions. While this type of activity was not unusual, what really sounded a note of alarm were the content of the protest note which we received in August from our Pakistani friends across the Line of Control.

For the first time, they formally projected in black and white their claim to all the area North-west of the line joining the terminal point of the Line of Control at NJ 9842 with the Karakoram Pass. The wording in the protest note sent by the Pakistan’s Northern Sector Commander on 21 August 1983, addressed to Northern Sector Commander, India, reads:

REQUEST, INSTRUCT YOUR TROOPS TO WITHDRAW BEYOND LINE OF CONTROL SOUTH OF LINE JOINING POINT NJ 9842 , KARAKORAM PASS NE 7 410 IMMEDIATELY. I HAVE INSTRUCTED MY TROOPS TO SHOW MAXIMUM RESTRAINT, BUT ANY DELAY IN VACATING OUR TERRITORY WILL CREATE A SERIOUS SITUATION. ASSURING YOU OF MY FULLEST COOPERATION IN MAINTAINING PEACE AND TRANQUILITY ALONG LINE OF CONTROL.

The unilateral extension of the Line of Control which was solemnly signed and sealed by the two Armies as a sequel to the Shimla Agreement was clearly unacceptable to us. We told them so in the counter-protest note which we lodged about their violating our air space.

In return, they sent a second protest note on 29 August, reiterating their resolve to treat the unilaterally extended Line of Control as the extent of their territory. The protest note reads as under:

ONE YOUR REPLY TO OUR PROTEST NOTE OF TWENTY FIRST AUGUST, 1983 RECEIVED.

ALPHA. YOUR TROOPS HAVE CARRIED OUT INTRUSION ACROSS LC NORTH OF POINT NJ 980420 – KARAKORAM PASS – NE 7 410 (POINT NJ 980420 – KARAKORAM PASS – NE 7410). THEY INTRUDED APPROXIMATELY TWENTY FIVE MILES INSIDE. OUR TERRITORY IN SIACHEN GLACIER COMMA NJ 9797 COMMA NK 0689.

BRAVO. LAST YEAR ALSO YOUR TROOPS HAD INTRUDED INTO THE SAME AREA FOR WHICH THE PROTEST HAD BEEN LODGED BY OUR GOVERNMENT STOP

TWO. THIS IS A SERIOUS VIOLATION AND UNLESS STOPPED FORTHWITH IS LIKELY TO DISTURB THE PEACEFUL CONDITION STOP THEREFORE PLEASE INSTRUCT YOUR TROOPS TO REMAIN SOUTH OF THE LINE- POINT NJ 980420-KARAKORAM PASS NE 7410.

At this stage we took up the matter with Delhi for detailed and indepth discussion to choose a policy to handle the problem.

Other developments also took place which really forced us to take a decision to prevent Pakistani troops from physically occupying the Siachen area. Our intelligence reported that a column of about two companies supported by mortars was on the move in September/October 1983 to occupy passes on the Saltoro Range. From POK the Siachen Glacier can be reached only by crossing the Saltoro Range which is an offshoot of the Karakoram Range. The two main passes are the Sia La and the Bilafond La, as already mentioned. Due to bad weather and possibly due to inadequate logistic support, the column could not reach their objective. But the intention of Pakistanis across the Line of Control was quite clear. They were determined to support their unilateral cartographic claim by physical occupation of the area.

This important bit of Pakistani resolve stands confirmed. In an article tided ‘Geopolitics of the Siachen Glacier’ published in the November 1985 issue of The Asian Defence journal, the writer, Zulfikar A Khan, says,

To protect what it regards as its territory and prevent violation by Indian troops, Pakistan decided to establish a permanent picket at Siachen. To pre-empt this move, the Indians airlifted a Kumaon battalion by helicopters.

Our conclusion was reinforced when we got further intelligence reports that the Pakistan Army was trying to procure large quantities of special snow and ski equipment from the UK and Europe to be available to the troops by January 1984. They also launched an intensive training programme for a force named ‘Burzil Force’ to occupy Siachen Glacier.

The decision was taken that we must prevent the Pakistani side from presenting us with a fait accompli. It was obvious in our discussions with Delhi that if they were to establish posts on the Siachen Glacier it would be very costly to evict them. The probability that we may not be able to do so at all was also very high.

We considered at length and even war-gamed the best way to prevent the Pakistanis from establishing themselves in the glacier. We concluded that the only way would be to occupy the two proven passes, namely Bilafond La and Sia La.

When the Government asked the Army to prevent the occupation of Siachen by Pakistani troops there was a very wise and pragmatic constraint built into our mission. We were required to prevent Pakistani forces from entering Siachen but were to do so in a manner that the operation did not escalate into an all-out war.

Concept of Operations

There was no precedent or previous experience of military operations on glaciers and that too at altitudes from 4880 metres to 6100 metres. After many months of discussions and war games among high-altitude warfare experts and young officers who had been patrolling in the Siachen Glacier it transpired that the concept of our operation would have to be based on the following considerations:

Anyone who was holding reasonably well-prepared defensive positions could not be dislodged. It was necessary, therefore, to give adequate time to our troops who were to occupy Bilafond La and Sia La to prepare defensive positions in the ice without interference from the Pakistani side. This would be possible only if we could achieve complete surprise. That would give us about a week or so, before Pakistani troops could reach these passes from areas around Skardu, where they were being trained to occupy the glacier.

It was obvious that logistics would dictate tactics. After detailed calculations we concluded that the best and most economic way to sustain this operation would be by the use of helicopters.

The operation would call for great physical and mental fitness on the part of troops who would be launched in combat. We also came to the conclusion that no one should stay in contact with the opposing side at these altitudes for more than three months. This required most careful planning of reserves, their induction and de-induction to ensure fitness for battle at all times.

Based on the above considerations, it was decided that the operation would be launched on 13 April 1984, at least two months before the regular mountaineering season in Siachen. To prevent rapid escalation into an all-out war, we also decided to put just one platoon each at Sia La and Bilafond La in the first place. We also decided that these platoons should be inducted by helicopters to achieve complete surprise because marching columns would take six to ten days to reach the passes from the snout of the glacier. We appreciated that these columns would be detected by Pakistani aerial reconnaissance and surprise would be lost.

I recall that when we discussed the timing of our operation at Army Headquarters, a senior staff officer observed that it would be absolute murder to send our troops into this area in April. He was right in the sense that it involved a very high degree of risk. However, we stuck to our decision because it is a lesson of war that, on balance, it is easier to fight the elements than to fight a determined enemy.

The Operation Is Launched

On 13 April 1984, a platoon was flown to Bilafond La in 17 helicopter sorties carrying two soldiers each. Just as the second platoon for Sia La was getting ready to fly in, the weather packed up and a blizzard broke out. It continued for the next three days. We were thus unable to reach Sia La. The worst was that we lost all contact with the Bilafond La platoon because, in spite of our very careful preparation, the radios froze!

Those who had predicted disaster if the operation was launched in April had a point to score. ‘We told you so’ was conveyed to us time and again, but the Commanders in the field were sanguine that the troops were equipped to survive the blizzard.

The morning of 17 April was bright and clear with hardly any clouds. Bilafond La radio also opened up. The platoon for Sia La soon flew in and Bilafond La resupplied. At about 1415 hours that day, a Pakistani helicopter flew over Sia La and Bilafond La. However, we were sanguine that our troops would get at least a week to settle down and organize their defences, before Pakistani troops could get anywhere near these locations.

Hostilities Start

The Pakistani side was also getting ready to launch the Burzil Force in Operation Ababeel to enter the Siachen Glacier. However, our move in the month of April took them completely by surprise. They immediately started moving their troops forward but it took them 12 days to establish contact with Bilafond La; the first few soldiers were sighted on 24 April 1984. They belonged to the Burzil Force, especially equipped and trained to secure the Siachen Glacier. This force was composed of the commando companies of the Special Services Group and troops of the Northern Light Infantry hailing from the Gilgit and Skardu regions. On the morning of 25 April 1984, some of these troops crept up to Bilafond La and opened fire with small arms and automatics. This was the first use of force in this confrontation. Fire was returned and the Pakistani troops withdrew.

Thereafter the induction of the Burzil Force was fast and determined. Observing that the proven routes via Bilafond La and Sia La were blocked, a number of task forces which were organized and trained during the winter, spread out all along the Saltoro Range. Most of them were company-sized groups having their own· porters and other support elements. Our analysis showed that in the initial few weeks, the following task forces of the Burzil Force were probing the Saltoro Range for possible routes to enter the Siachen Glacier somehow: Hyder Force; Babar Force; Asghar Force; Hafeez Force; Kalander Force; Sher Force; Shahbaz Force; and Rashid Force.

At these formidable altitudes it is difficult, almost impossible, to dislodge a force that occupies a height. It was consequently essential to react to the probing action launched by the Burzil Force. Orders were issued to our troops to start patrolling at the glaciers originating from the Saltoro Range and flowing down into the Siachen Glacier. In this region the glaciers offer the only routes for movement, and even these are most hazardous and difficult due to ice walls and crevasses. Reserves were moved closer to the Saltoro Range to facilitate patrolling of Gyongle, Lagongma, Layogma, Urdolep and Korisa Glaciers.

From the total action and reaction since then, the Indian Army is holding dominating positions on the Saltoro Range and is in contact with the other side. The operation which started by committing just half a battalion in the initial few months, has since increased to almost two battalions stretched over a length of almost 80 km of the Saltoro Range.

The Pakistani side attempted an attack on Bilafond La in June 1984, but it failed. They also attempted to capture heights overlooking Sia La in February 1985 but this was detected just in time and they were evicted .before they could consolidate. Thus, the lesson that the held position cannot be captured was fully vindicated. The only exception to this rule was the capture of Qaid post by 8 Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry in June 1987. This post was established by the Pakistani side during the winter of 1986-87 at a height of 6452 metres and it really dominated the entire Bilafond La complex. It was captured by a group of 60 volunteers from the battalion in which Subedar Bana Singh won a Param Vir Chakra. This is a saga which merits telling in detail separately.

Solution to the Problem

In the total perspective of Indo-Pakistan relations, Siachen is a very small issue. Unfortunately, it got blown out of all proportions when it got politicized in Pakistan. Ms Benazir Bhutto when clawing her way to power used the Siachen stick to skilfully beat President Zia-ul-Haq and the Pakistan Army for having lost 4000 sq km of territory to India. The fact that it was never Pakistani territory was overlooked. However, every cloud has a silver lining and as a wit put it, ‘A major benefit of Siachen has been the restoration of democracy in Pakistan bringing Benazir Bhutto to power!’ Unfortunately, the use of the Siachen card to discredit the late President Zia-ul-Haq is likely to stand in the way of an easy solution of the problem. A minor issue has been politicized and magnified beyond recognition.

We are in the sixth year of the conflict over the Siachen Glacier. Settlement of the problem has eluded us. The Indian Army is in a dominating position along the Saltoro Range which forms the Southern flank as well as the watershed of the glacier.

Officers and men of the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force who have operated in the glacier look back on the experience with a great deal of pride and nostalgia. They have indeed created history in courage, tenacity, forbearance, and shown amazing skills in combat above the clouds. There are understandably very strong views against making any compromise with Pakistan. After all, we are in such a strong position that any compromise will amount to a betrayal of the supreme sacrifice of the officers and men who fell to the elements or became martyrs in actual combat. In any case, the whole of Jammu & Kashmir belongs to India; so where is the need for any compromise?

These are points of view very difficult to counter. But then we must learn to rise above such sentiments for the sake of long-term interests of the peoples of India and Pakistan. India should patiently help consolidate democracy in the Indian subcontinent to ensure an era of peace and progress.

Reconciliation between India and Pakistan is now far more compelling than among the nations of Europe or the Middle East. If we have to liberate our people from the shackles of poverty and pestilence, we must learn to make up our differences. Our hostility benefits only the advanced countries and, willy nilly, we get entangled not infrequently as mere pawns. in their power play. As poor countries, we do pay a heavy price.

Even in a minor conflict like Siachen, I recall how it all works out. When a. showdown in the glacier became inevitable, high-powered shopping teams from India and Pakistan went rushing to Europe. They frantically went to ski firms in countries around the Alps to purchase special equipment at exorbitant costs to operate in the glaciers. They literally played hide and seek with each other! At one place, the Indian team selected some sets of equipment and told the firm that they would place the order the next day. In the meantime, the Pakistani team also fetched up at the firm and took a spot decision to lift the entire lot at a higher price!

How can· the Siachen problem be solved? While actual options must be handled by those responsible for national security matters, I would venture to make a few suggestions.

It would help if we always keep in mind the reason why the operation was launched in the first place. It had to be undertaken to prevent Pakistani troops from entering Siachen Glacier. This happened when they ignored the Shimla Agreement, and on 21 August 1983, unilaterally extended in writing the Line of Control mutually agreed and signed after the 1971 war. By thus extending the line to the Karakoram Pass, they staked a claim to about 4000 sq km of territory lying to the North-west of this extension. Our purpose was to prevent them from converting their totally untenable claim into reality.

Obviously the unilateral extension of the mutually agreed Line of Control by our Pakistani neighbours beyond its terminal point at NJ 9842 to Karakoram Pass cannot have any place in resolving the issue. I am aware that they have been saying that they have already demarcated the boundary with China. If in doing so they have exceeded the limit of their control then they have to sort that out. It would be unfair to expect us to accept the result of their mistake.

There is some mention in the press about demilitarizing the area. It sounds attractive. In fact, demilitarization of the entire Line of Control -should be our ultimate aim. However, which area in the Siachen Glacier should be demilitarized? Even if such an area can be determined and a system to monitor demilitarization developed, it will only be a partial solution. The current problem arose because the glaciers were left undemarcated. Such partial agreements have a habit of creating avoidable tensions in the future. Both sides must work towards finding a lasting solution which cannot erupt into conflict in the years ahead. We must have at the back of our minds that we also have ultimately to settle the Kashmir tangle.

I would strongly urge that the Siachen problem be viewed in the correct perspective. It is a very minor issue between countries of the size, importance and maturity of India and Pakistan. It should be relegated to the level where-it 5ekmgs. The senior military commanders of India and Pakistan in Jammu & Kashmir should be directed to settle the issue once and for all and a clear line demarcated based on the principle of watershed. The Karachi agreement may well be the starting point. That agreement contains a mutually accepted and solemnly signed position in the glaciers. The cease-fire line is defined segment by segment upto the terminal point at NJ 9842 and then the agreement reads, ‘thence north to the Glaciers.’ Saltoro Range is the natural watershed that divides the glaciated region.

In India we should always bear in mind that we are eight times larger than Pakistan. If we continue to spend 3.8 per cent or so of our GNP on defence one of the lowest in the world – then there is very little chance that Pakistan would choose war as a policy option as it did in earlier conflicts. Sooner or later, Pakistan has to give up her obsession for parity with India. We should also understand that compulsions of identity force a section of the Pakistani leadership to seek an enemy for its very existence. India is the obvious choice for this purpose. All this should not blind us from the fact that with patience, fairness and sincerity, the hostility of even the myopic Pakistani leaders can be reduced. The· stronger we are, the more tolerant we can be. Patient dialogue should continue in the search for a solution.

This article was first published in IDR Vol. 5 (1) Jan-Mar 1990. 

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