The deadly Siachen avalanche that claimed nine lives on February 3, and many hundreds since the Indian military occupation of the Saltoro Ridge in 1984, >does not seem to have convinced Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to order troop withdrawal from the glacier. While responding to the tragedy, he stated: “The decision on Siachen is based on the security of the nation. I am disturbed by the loss of life but I think that due to this, some other solution [withdrawal] would not be the proper analysis.” How well-thought-out is Mr. Parrikar’s argument? Does the Siachen glacier offer such irrefutable strategic advantage vis-à-vis Pakistan or China that we need to continue to sacrifice young lives year after year?
While we as a nation remain indebted to our brave soldiers who laid down their precious lives on the glacier, there is neither valour nor glory in death due to cerebral edema or hypothermia, guarding a few kilometres of ice whose strategic value is ambiguous at best.
For at least 10 years since India occupied the Siachen Glacier it was still open to negotiating a withdrawal deal with Pakistan. However, its stand has become far more hardened today due to illusions of the glacier’s strategic value, fear of the Chinese presence in the vicinity, concerns about a Pakistani incursion, emotive statements about the sacrifices made by the Indian troops there, and the difficulty in retaking the glacier should circumstances so dictate in future.
Dimensions of the deadlock Deeply divergent positions held by New Delhi and Islamabad on the dispute is one of the primary reasons why the negotiations on demilitarising the Siachen glacier and the adjoining areas have not progressed much. The Siachen dispute is a direct result of the ambiguity that exists in the Karachi ceasefire agreement of July 1949. The agreement, which established the ceasefire line, the positions of the two militaries at the end of the 1947-1948 war, did not delineate beyond grid reference NJ 9842, which falls south of the Siachen glacier, to the Chinese border but left it as “Chalunka (on the Shyok River), Khor, thence North to the glaciers”. This was perhaps the practical thing to do given that the entire area was not inhabited and extremely difficult to demarcate. Indian and Pakistani sides have since interpreted the phrase “thence North to the glaciers” very differently. Pakistan argues that this means that the line should go from NJ 9842 straight to the Karakoram pass on the Sino-Indian border. India, however, insists that the line should proceed north from NJ 9842 along the Saltoro range to the border with China. Between these two interpretations lies a substantial amount of glaciated territory that both sides want control of.
These contrasting interpretations have made it difficult for a final resolution of the dispute even though it is possible to mutually demilitarise the region given that both Indian and Pakistani soldiers regularly lose their lives there. However, demilitarisation talks in the past have met with a major roadblock: New Delhi insists that the present ground positions on the Saltoro ridge should be demarcated and authenticated on a map before any demilitarisation could be conducted, fearing that once India withdraws from the region, the Pakistan Army could occupy the high ground, something the latter was weeks close to doing when the Indian occupation took place in 1984. Moreover, New Delhi does not want a disagreement on the posts and locations to be vacated by the Indian side. This feeling has further strengthened after the Kargil intrusion by Pakistan. India has therefore insisted that joint demarcation of the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) on the ground as well as the map should be the first step to be followed by a joint verification agreement and redeployment of forces to mutually agreed positions.
Pakistan has traditionally objected to it arguing that: a) India is the occupying party in Siachen and it should unconditionally withdraw and the pre-1984 status quo should be maintained; 2) by agreeing to a joint demarcation, Pakistan would be accepting the Indian claims in Siachen, at least theoretically; and 3) if Pakistan accepts such demarcation, it would amount to endorsing the Indian occupation of 1984. Pakistan has therefore proposed that demilitarisation of the region, withdrawal of forces and authentication proceed simultaneously. Islamabad also reasons that by occupying Siachen in 1984, India is in breach of the Shimla Agreement which stated that “the line of control resulting from the cease-fire of December 17, 1971 shall be respected by both sides… (and) neither side shall seek to alter it unilaterally”.
The closest that the two sides have ever come to a resolution of the dispute was in 1992. Indeed, the 1992 understanding, which never became an agreement, was very close to what India has been demanding: Pakistan had agreed to record the existing troop positions in an annexure to the demilitarisation agreement. But the Congress government in Delhi and later the Pakistan Peoples Party government in Pakistan developed cold feet and abandoned the idea.
Myth of strategic advantage Does the Indian Army’s elevated ground position on the Saltoro ridge give us a great deal of strategic advantage? While some members of the Indian strategic community passionately contend that the country gains undeniable strategic advantage from being perilously perched on the ridge, around 20 km from the glacier itself, much of it is a myth than reality. Senior commanders of the Indian Army have in the past made precisely such an argument. Lt. Gen. M.L. Chibber, who executed the 1984 occupation of Siachen, for instance, argued in 2004 that “Siachen does not have any strategic significance. The strategic importance being talked about is all invention”.
Over the years, however, the threat emanating from the China-Pakistan nexus has become a major source of concern for the Indian strategic thinkers. Should the Chinese presence around 70 km away in Karakoram worry India? In the event of a future war with India, could Pakistan and China launch a joint operation against India in the Ladakh region using Siachen vacated by the Indian Army? First of all, if the Chinese indeed want to occupy Leh, there are better ways of doing that than by traversing the unfriendly Siachen terrain! Second, doing so would be a logistical nightmare for China. As Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal argues, such “projections about the possibility of a China-Pak. pincer movement over the Karakoram range and the Saltoro ridgeline into northern Ladakh with a view to capturing Leh... are militarily unsustainable”.
Does the glacier provide any offensive military value? The reality is that the Siachen glacier and Saltoro ridgeline cannot be used by India to stage a military mission either against Pakistan or the Shaksgam valley currently under Chinese occupation. When human survival is itself hardly sustainable in Siachen, how can it aid in offensive military missions? So while it sounds impressive to argue that Siachen provides us the northernmost point of defence against China and Pakistan, in reality it is just fanciful thinking.
The other “strategic argument” is that once India vacates the area, the Pakistan Army could occupy the region. This again need not be a huge concern for a number of reasons. For one, once the area is demarcated, authenticated and mutually demilitarised, it would not be logistically or legally easy for Pakistan to occupy the place; two, India should include in the agreement that any violation of the agreement will be considered a casus belli ; three, there are enough sophisticated monitoring and sensing mechanisms as well as commercial satellite imagery available today to prevent a surprise Pakistani invasion; finally, Pakistan tried (and India did) to occupy Siachen before 1984 because there was no clarity about the ownership of the region, but a mutual agreement to demilitarise would undo that ambiguity.
Options before India If New Delhi desires to demilitarise Siachen, and thereby save the lives of our soldiers there, it has roughly five options to choose from. Option one is to maintain the status quo, which to my mind is highly undesirable due to the high material and human costs involved. The second option is mutual withdrawal of forces without delineation and authentication. This is both undesirable and unlikely. The third option is mutual withdrawal from the Siachen region after delineation and authentication. While this is a desirable option for India, Pakistan is unlikely to accept that.
The fourth option is mutual withdrawal after jointly recording current military positions and exchanging them as part of an annexure without prejudice to each other’s stated positions, pending the final settlement of the Line of Control (LoC) and AGPL. This is perhaps the best option and takes on board India’s demand, and may not meet too much resistance from the Pakistani side given that they had agreed to it in 1992.
Yet another option would be to turn the entire Siachen region into a peace park as suggested by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a visit to the Siachen base camp in June 2005. Why not take this idea a bit further and make it an international destination for glacial research and other scientific experiments? Indeed, while international scientific presence would act as a deterrent against any potential Pakistani attempts at occupying the territory, it could also check the Chinese activities in the greater Karakoram region. This perhaps is the best option under the circumstances.
It is important to recognise that just because we have militarily and materially invested in the Siachen region over the years or incur lower casualties than Pakistan, it does not provide us with a strategically sound rationale to continue stationing troops there, only to keep losing them year after year.
(Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor of Disarmament Studies at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, JNU.)