A grateful nation salutes the sacrifice of 10 soldiers of 19 Madras, nine of whom were killed in an avalanche recently, while patrolling the nearly 20,000-foot-high Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) at the Siachen Glacier. The 10th soldier Lance Naik Hanumanthappa Koppad, died on Thursday in an Army hospital in Delhi. This mishap is yet another example of the costs, in life and resources, which India has to bear to maintain its territorial sovereignty and national honour. India occupied these heights in 1984 after beating Pakistan to it by just 72 hours. Having lost nearly a thousand of its army men and spending, by conservative estimates, nearly Rs 4 crore a day, India needs to introspect on the strategic necessity of incurring such huge costs.
Most of the people are not familiar with the strategic imperative of ensuring the army’s occupation of the Saltoro Ridge, which dominates the Siachen Glacier complex, and also the lower reaches lying west to it and held by Pakistan. Many peaceniks express the view that India should vacate the ridge and convert it into a peace park. That this ill-informed opinion matches that of the Pakistani army’s intentions and of the Chinese establishment points to its flaws.
Pakistan has, since the ceasefire in 2003, made attempts to capture the peaks, especially under the leadership of General Pervez Musharraf. In April 2012, the Pakistan army’s Northern Light Infantry Battalion, deployed immediately to our west in this region, lost nearly 135 soldiers owing to an avalanche. This tragedy, once again, prompted the then Pakistan army chief, Ashraf Kayani, to talk of demilitarisation of the glacier. Pakistan has been harping on the demilitarisation of the glacier for years. This subterfuge, cloaked behind the serious machinations of the Pakistani mindset, now supported by the Chinese, needs careful factoring in by India.
The Saltoro/Siachen complex separates the Aksai Chin region (38,000 sq km of Indian territory in possession of China through which they have also constructed the strategic Karakoram Highway) has from the Shaksgam Valley (Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq km to China since 1963) in our north and the Gilgit-Baltistan region under Pakistani occupation to our north-west. The Saltoro/Siachen complex also provides depth to our Khardung La pass and the Ladakh Range, which ultimately leads on to Leh and thence to Kargil. Both the Shyok and Nubra Valleys lying close to this region and our sub-sector north in the Aksai Chin will be influenced by whoever is in occupation of the Saltoro Ridge. Thus, both the Chinese and Pakistanis would desire the territorial convergence of their illegal occupation in this vast territory to take place, especially between the Aksai Chin-Shaksgam Valley and Gilgit-Baltistan areas, where the proposed Chinese Economic Corridor is coming up. Therein lies the operational necessity of Indian troops holding on to the formidable Saltoro Massif and the adjoining areas. Additionally, the Siachen Glacier feeds the Nubra and Shyok rivers with its waters. Even thinking of vacating this strategic fulcrum is sacrilege.
Since independence successive Indian prime ministers have offered the hand of friendship to Pakistan and made concessions off and on. India’s overtures have always been reciprocated with Pakistan’s betrayal. India must, thus, always be prepared to pay any price for upholding its territorial integrity and not fall prey to any machinations by anyone.
Kamal Davar, a former GOC, Ladakh sector, was the first chief of Defence Intelligence Agency
The views expressed are personal