Millennium Post

Not just an icy wasteland

In early April 2012, a severe avalanche in the Gayari sector, 15,000 feet above sea level  on Pakistan’s side of Siachen, claimed the lives of three officers, four junior commissioned officers, 121 other ranks and 11 civilians of the Pakistani army. Visiting the area, Pakistan army chief general Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, for the first time, spoke about the demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier ‘for the development of Pakistan and environmental reasons’ and even suggested peaceful coexistence with India, adding that the civil and military leaderships of the two countries should discuss ways to resolve the issue.

With the focus of the peace negotiations shifting on Siachen, it may be pertinent to read an excerpt from the Pakistani side, peppered with some lies, culled from versions on the internet: ‘Siachen Glacier is well inside Pakistani territory. India wanted to keep an eye on and wanted control on Pakistan’s strategic route to China [the Karakorum highway]. Hence in 1982, India sent a training expedition to Antarctica to train under ‘Siachen Glacier Like’ conditions. Then in April 1984, India conducted an operation known as ‘Operation Meghdoot’, and invaded Pakistani territory. Since the Siachen glacier is not physically connected to India [meaning that there is no natural ground routes connecting India and Siachen glacier], India used its air force to drop all of its forces at Siachen glacier. And still to this day uses helicopters and aircrafts to transport supplies, food and soldiers. Siachen glacier is well inside Pakistan, and Pakistan is fighting an aggressor who is five times its size... Pakistan has been slowly driving Indians out of Siachen glacier [Pakistani territory], and winning the war. Proof that it is part of Pakistan: American, British, European and Japanese mountain climbers have always asked permission from the Pakistani government to climb Siachen glacier and its surrendering [surrounding] areas. American tourist maps clearly show Siachen glacier inside Pakistan. Indian in the early 80s trained its forces at Antarctica because Antarctica has Siachen glacier like conditions. This clearly shows India’s evil intention which was to invade Pakistani Siachen glacier.’

One major factor about Siachen being a grey area or disputed was that both the Karachi agreement of 1949 and the Shimla agreement of 1972 left the status of Indo-Pak boundary vague North of Pt NJ 9842. The problem began when both India and Pakistan began to have different interpretations of the line of control.While India, on one hand, felt that the line ran all the way from NJ 9842 to north of the glaciers, Pakistan on the other hand, felt that the line ran north-east toKarakoram pass, thereby conveniently slicing off 10,000 sq km of Indian territory! This was based on a faulty cartographic map printed in the West in the early 80s. To substantiate its deceitful claims, the Pakistan army also started surreptitiously sponsoring international mountain earning expeditions in this region from mid 70s. They also started resorting to a cartographic aggression in clear violation of the internationally accepted norm of alignment/demarcation of areas in mountainous terrain to be along watersheds, which in this case is the Saltoro ridge.

In the summer of 1984, realising that Pakistan had prepared a sizable force to occupy the Saltoro ridge, India launched a well conceived and thoroughly planned operation and occupied the Saltoro ridge, thereby pre-empting Pakistan. It is to the remarkable foresight of the Indian military leadership that Pakistan was caught unawares. In fact general P N Hoon, then GOC 15 Corps, under whose aegis the operation was launched, according to army sources, admitted that planning of the operations had  begun a year earlier in 1983.

On the claim of India being the aggressor and the element of trust, it may be relevant to refer to an excerpt from a paper by Colonel Anil Athale, former joint director, War History Division, ministry of defence: ‘What is to prevent Pakistan in future from claiming similarly that it has withdrawn the military from Siachen, but mujahids or freedom fighters have occupied it? But the real unsaid reason for the Indian army’s reluctance lies elsewhere: The lack of trust in our civil leadership on military issues. What has been the past record? Kargil and Post Point 13620 offer a classic case study.

It is difficult to find a parallel in world history of an army capturing a mountain post at great human cost and giving it back to the enemy not once, but twice.  The Indian army justifiably does not want this to happen at Siachen. Taking Siachen glacier back from the Pakistan forces that will come in if Indian soldiers vacate it, will be a demanding task.

There is a mistaken belief that the Saltoro Ridge does not have any strategic value. This is simply not true. The Indian army is paying a price in terms of manpower to occupy Saltoro because it affords perceptible strategic and terrain domination over Pakistan’s northern areas and Kashmir territory Pakistan ceded to China. More importantly the control of the Saltoro Siachen area gives access to the Karakoram, which in turn overlooks the network of highways and railway lines that connect Western Xinjian to Tibet. Indian control of the region also helps the Indian army in blocking routes of ingress to the vital Ladakh sector. The region also provides a natural block that prevents a possible geographical linkup and encirclement between China and Pakistan from the East and West, caused by the illegal ceding of the Shaksgam valley by Pakistan to China. In fact, it is only by controlling the Saltoro that India has retained the option of negotiating with China over the Shaksgam Valley region at a later date.

Anil Bhat is a defence and stratergic analyst.
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