While everyone is familiar with the grid reference point NJ 9842 as it is the last mutually demarcated point between India and Pakistan as per the Karachi ceasefire agreement of 1949 and also the point where the Line of Control of the Simla Agreement ends, not many people are familiar with what 5Q 131 05 084 stands for. This is the number assigned to the Siachen glacier by the Geological Survey of India (GSI).
June-August 2023 marks the sapphire jubilee of a very important event in the history of the exploration of the Siachen glacier. Unfortunately barring B. G. Verghese, most of the scholars who have written on this subject as well as mountaineers of repute who have documented all the visits to this part of the world, have failed to record and give this event its due importance.
The first Siachen survey
In June 1958, exactly 65 years ago, V. K. Raina, a top Indian geologist, who at that time was an Assistant Geologist with the GSI led the first GSI Survey of the Siachen glacier. Little would Mr. Raina have known that the peaceful environs he surveyed in 1958 would become a bone of contention between India and Pakistan in the future and the site of Operation Meghdoot launched by the Indian Armed forces in 1984.
In 1956, Mr. Raina had been a part of the Saser Kangri expedition conducted by the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute of Darjeeling. During this time, he studied the geology and geomorphology of the Nubra Valley upto Panamik. Thereafter, in 1957, he was involved in the geological survey of the alignment of the proposed Leh-Manali Highway which was only a mule track at that time.
1958 was an important year for geologists all over the world as it was celebrated as the International Geophysical Year. To commemorate this event, various activities had been planned by different geological institutes all over the world. While some institutes planned research trips to the Arctic Circle or the Antarctica, the GSI, with its limited resources, proposed to conduct a study of the Himalayan glacier systems which included snout monitoring of the glaciers in the Sikkim Himalayas, Kumaon Himalayas as well as the Kashmir Himalayas. The responsibility of snout surveying five glaciers in the Ladakh region was given to Mr. Raina. These were the Siachen, Mamostong, Chong Kumdan, Kichik Kumdan and Aktash glaciers.
Mr. Raina recalls that a budget of ₹17,000 was sanctioned for the survey after which he, accompanied by his colleague P. C. Mehrotra and a team of Sherpas and other support staff started their journey to the Siachen glacier in June 1958. Raina recalls travelling from Calcutta to Pathankot by train, then to Srinagar by bus from where he chartered a Dakota to reach Leh. Thereafter the team trekked on foot and with mules to reach Siachen after about a week. They spent almost three months camping at the base of the glacier and conducted various studies which required them to traverse five to six kilometres upstream of the snout every day to establish various survey and picture points.
Mr. Raina vividly remembers that the snout of the glacier at that time was a jumbled mass of practically inaccessible ice which exhibited an arc like depression towards the centre with the concave side facing the front or downstream. However just two kilometres upstream, the glacier showed a spectacular change in its appearance showing a clear white stream flowing into the mountains as far as the eye could see. According to Mr. Raina, in August/October 1958 the Siachen glacier exhibited two ice caves which were about 100 metres apart. While the southern cave was visible from the level plateau downstream of the snout, the northern one could only be seen after going high up the eastern wall upstream of the snout. The Nubra River could be seen flowing out from the northern ice cave before it disappeared under the glacier ice and emerged out of the southern ice cave. “As part of the survey procedure we prepared a large scale map of the snout region with the help of plane table and telescopic alidade. Cairn marks were erected and painted to fix the position of the glacier front and the ice caves. The position of each reference station (A as well as B) which was used as a triangulation point was fixed by taking a bearing of the peaks in the neighbourhood and erecting large stone cairns so as to make the mark visible from a distance. Five photographic stations were established and pictures of the glacier and the other features were taken from different angles for comparison and correlation in the future. These stations were also marked by red paint and stone cairns were erected over them”, explains Mr. Raina.
During these three months no mountaineering expedition or visitor crossed Mr. Raina and his team. ‘We saw snow leopards and ibexes but no humans other than those who were a part of my team’, recalls Mr. Raina. Considering the fact that, post 1947, this was the first official Indian survey of the Siachen glacier by the GSI and that too as part of its International Geophysical Year commitments, it was a very well-publicised event especially within academic and international scientific communities. If during this period Pakistan did entertain any idea of this region falling on its side of the ceasefire line, then it would surely have lodged a protest against it. However there were no such protests and there is no contemporaneous document to this effect from Pakistan.
There could be two possible reasons for Pakistan’s general lack of interest in the continued Indian presence on the glacier at that time. Firstly, both India and Pakistan were abiding by the terms of the Karachi ceasefire agreement of 1949 under which they had clearly delimited the entire cease fire line right up to the glaciers and agreed to mutually demarcate it. Even though the region beyond NJ 9842 was pending mutual demarcation and delineation ,it was evident that if the line were to proceed north right till the glaciers as envisaged under the agreement then this region would still fall on the Indian side. And secondly, since explorations and scientific visits did not pose any threat or give either side any reason to believe that the other may physically occupy the region contrary to the explicit agreement, not much importance was given to them.
No claim to the glacier
However, for a country which for long has relied on incorrect maps and consequent permissions sought by various explorers from it to bolster its claim to the Siachen, Pakistan’s continuous and complete silence on the first GSI expedition to the glacier in 1958 is indeed deafening especially because this was not a private exploratory excursion but an official scientific study sanctioned by the Government of India. Deafening, yes, but not surprising because any acknowledgement of the presence of Indian scientists on the glacier for over three months in 1958 without any noise from Pakistan would have conclusively established its complete absence from the region. Thus, this expedition has immense historical and geostrategic significance as it puts to rest all myths to the effect that Pakistan was present or in control of the glacier since the beginning.
It is pertinent to note that it is only 25 years later that Pakistan for the first time formally staked its claim to this region (contrary to the Karachi ceasefire agreement) by unilaterally extending the Line of Control from NJ 9842 till the Karakoram Pass in its protest notes of August 1983 (contrary to the Simla Agreement). This set the alarm bells ringing in India and put into motion a chain of events which resulted in India pre-empting Pakistan and occupying the strategic Saltoro Heights on April 13, 1984.
The writer is an independent researcher and author of Meghdoot: The Beginning of the Coldest War