On April 19, India welcomed Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s remarks on demilitarisation of Siachen and said the money spent on deployment of troops there could be diverted for development work. There is definitely a requirement to go in for demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier and delineate a permanent mutually agreed actual ground position line (AGPL) for a lasting peace.
The roots of the conflict over Siachen lie in the non-demarcation on the western side of NJ9842 (the end point of the Line of Control fixed in the 1972 Shimla agreement). The 1949 Karachi agreement and the 1972 agreement presumed that it was not feasible for humans to survive north of NJ9842.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Pakistan permitted several expeditions on this glacier to reinforce its claim on the area, as the expeditions arrived after obtaining a permit from it. As a result, India launched Operation Meghdoot on April 23, 1984, when the Kumaon Regiment and the Indian Air Force went to the glacier. Pakistan quickly responded with counter deployments and what followed was a race to the top. Within a few days, the Indians were in control of most of the glacier. Two passes — Sia La (18,000 ft) and Bilfond La (19,000 ft) — were secured by India while the Gyong La (16,000ft) pass remained under Pakistan’s control. Since then both sides have launched several attempts to displace each other’s forces, but in vain. The common misconception in the minds of politicians and bureaucrats is that the Siachen sector only comprises the Siachen glacier and that demilitarisation of the glacier should be no big deal as it has no strategic importance.
What is at stake actually is that Pakistan wants India to give up the Saltoro Ridge, a stretch extending nearly 120km on which runs the AGPL from the border of India with Pak-ceded Chinese territory in the north to India’s Kargil sector (east).
The strategic significance of the Saltoro Ridge and the Siachen glacier is:
India has strategic and terrain domination over Pakistan’s so-called northern areas (J&K territory merged into Pakistan) and Pakistan-ceded Kashmir territory to China.
Blocks routes of ingress to the vital Ladakh and Kargil sectors.
Indira-Col, the northern most part of Siachen, directly overlooks Chinese occupation that was illegally ceded by Pakistan to China. Having a foot on the ground here is the only way for India to legitimately dispute Chinese illegal presence here.With such strategic significance, any statement de-emphasising Siachen is both puerile and sterile. If Siachen’s strategic significance is being de-emphasised on grounds of costs, logistical challenges or hazards to life, then why not de-emphasise equally difficult regions on India’s other frontiers?
The defence and integrity of borders cannot be debated on a ‘cost-benefit ratio analysis’. Further, the costs of redeployment and demilitarisation would outweigh the costs of maintaining present positions, as the defensive and logistical infrastructure ‘in-situ’ will have to be destroyed on the pull back of troops.India, right from the first round of the Siachen talks, has maintained that no Indian re-deployment of troops in Siachen or demilitarisation will take place, unless the following conditions are met:
Pakistan agrees to delineate the AGPL in the Siachen sector and authenticate this on maps, to be signed by senior military officers of India and Pakistan.
Pakistan would cease cartographic aggression and project the AGPL in all its maps, like the LAC is done up to NJ-9842, i.e. the AGPL becomes the extension of the LAC from NJ-9842, northwards, to the border with Pak-ceded Chinese territory.
The above position has consistently been maintained by India. Pakistan in August 1989 (Rajiv Gandhi-Benazir Bhutto talks in Islamabad) tried to suggest that an agreement for redeployment had been reached. The very next day, India’s foreign ministry categorically contradicted Pakistan’s assertion. However, India’s political leadership must recognise that in national security affairs, India has been ill-served historically by armchair strategists. In matters of national security and strategic affairs, India’s political and bureaucratic leadership would be well advised to listen, appreciate and respect the advice of its military professional leadership, especially on the Siachen glacier.
(PK Vasudeva is a defence analyst and commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.)