It is 33 years since humanity established a permanent presence on the snow-clad Siachen glacier and converted the ‘land of roses’ into the world’s highest battlefield.
On April 13, 1984, India launched Operation Meghdoot to capture the 76.4 km-long glacier on the Saltoro ridge, narrowly thwarting Pakistan’s own attempts in the process. A platoon of 4 Kumaon led by then Captain Sanjay Kulkarni planted the Indian flag at Bilafond La. The operation continues till date, making it the longest continuing one of its kind in the world. But the guns on the glacier have fallen silent following the 2003 ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) and the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) across the Siachen. The LoC has flared up intermittently, but ceasefire along the AGPL has held since.
Siachen is a legacy of Partition. While the LoC was delineated and accepted by India and Pakistan up to point NJ9842, the glacier was left unmarked. India claims the area based on the Jammu and Kashmir Instrument of Accession (1947) and the Karachi Agreement of 1949, which define the ceasefire line beyond NJ9842 as “running Northwards to the glaciers”.
Siachen is often referred to as a low-hanging fruit, an issue to be sorted out by both sides before addressing the Kashmir question. However, it may not be that simple for historical, operational and practical reasons.
Pakistan’s calls in the recent past for demilitarising Siachen stem from a position of desperation to save the lives of its soldiers from the extreme conditions there, while at the same time continuing cross-border terrorism along the LoC.
India has shown willingness for demilitarisation conditional on first authenticating the 110-km AGPL, which is the current position on the glacier. But Pakistan refuses, which means that once India vacates the posts, Pakistan may try to occupy them. India currently has the advantage of height as it commands higher ground, and any demilitarisation without proper delineation and acceptance of the current positions would be disastrous. Retaking once-occupied peaks is near impossible. Pakistan made several unsuccessful attempts at retaking the posts till 2003. In July 1998, the then Defence Minister George Fernandes said, “India needs to hold on to Siachen both for strategic reasons and wider security in the region.”
The biggest enemy on the glacier has always been the weather. The Indian Army, which holds the highest posts at heights of 21,000 ft, has learnt to adapt and now has a well-oiled system in place. However, the series of recent untimely avalanches on the glacier and the resultant spikes in casualties show that the challenge of changing weather patterns is new.
As status quo continues amidst attempts at demilitarisation, the pressing concern is tackling the changing weather patterns. Some studies have been initiated to access the rate of glacier melt, and the Army is re-assessing the vulnerable posts in an attempt to shift some of them. These need to be accelerated and technology infused to save the soldier.