The Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield, is once again in the spotlight. On the morning of February 3, an avalanche hurtled down this icy wasteland, swallowing an Indian military post and claiming the lives of ten soldiers.
The tragedy has drawn public attention to the extreme weather and hostile terrain that soldiers contend with daily at these icy heights. It has triggered discussion in India over the strategic value of the Siachen and whether India needs to continue its deployment of soldiers at its icy heights.
The 75-km long Siachen Glacier is located in the eastern Karakoram Range of the Himalayas. It lies to the north of Point NJ 9842, where the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan ends.
The Siachen has been an important bone of contention between India and Pakistan since 1984 when the Indian Army took control of the glacier, beating Pakistan to it by a week.
The roots of the conflict over the Siachen lie in the ambiguous text of the 1949 Karachi Agreement that ended the 1947-48 India-Pakistan war over Kashmir. That agreement described the Ceasefire Line in Kashmir as running up to map coordinate NJ 9842 and “… thence north to the glaciers.” Under the 1972 Simla Agreement, the Ceasefire Line was converted into the LoC but the fuzziness of the boundary beyond NJ 9842 was not addressed.
“So inhospitable is the terrain of the Siachen Glacier that even as late as 1972 neither India nor Pakistan thought it necessary to clarify the boundary here,” a major-general of the Indian Army told The Diplomat. Neither country thought the other would be interested in an area that was “neither resource-rich nor habitable or seen to have great strategic value.”
That perception changed a few years later. In the late 1970s India woke up to the fact that publications abroad, including U.S. government documents, were carrying maps that showed the LoC extending northeast from NJ 9842 to the Karakoram Pass. In other words, the Siachen Glacier was appearing in maps as part of Pakistani territory. Besides, it learned that Pakistan was permitting Western mountaineers access to the Siachen and the ridges flanking it, quietly establishing its claim over the area.
India concluded that Pakistan was resorting to cartographic invasion and oropolitics to bolster its claims over the Siachen.
Then, in the early 1980s India learned of Pakistan’s purchase of high-altitude fighting gear. Anticipating a Pakistani occupation of the Siachen, India sought to preempt it and in April 1984 landed two platoons of soldiers on the Bilafond La and Sia La, two key passes on the Saltoro Ridge. With Pakistan’s access to the Saichen blocked, India established control not only over the glacier but over all its tributary glaciers and key passes as well as the Soltoro Ridge that lies to the glacier’s west. Since then, both countries have deployed soldiers in the area, India’s on the Siachen and the Soltoro and Pakistan’s at much lower altitudes and some distance away from the glacier.
The two countries base their claims over the glacier on different interpretation of the words “… thence north to the glaciers” in the 1949 and 1972 Agreements. To Pakistan it means a straight line from NJ 9842 in a northeasterly direction to the Karakoram Pass, giving it control over the Siachen Glacier. India argues that from NJ 9842, the boundary line should run through the nearest watershed, the Saltoro Ridge, which means that the glacier is rightfully India’s.
Echo of Gunfire
Since 1984, the Siachen has resounded to the echo of India-Pakistan gunfire as Pakistan sought to wrest the glacier from India. It has not succeeded.
A ceasefire has been in place since November 2003 and while the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) that separates the Indian and Pakistani positions in the Siachen region has seen no violations or exchange of fire since, soldiers are dying.
The hostile terrain and weather in the Siachen are claiming many lives. Temperatures here plunge to minus 40 degrees and blizzards whip up winds of speeds in excess of 300 km per hour. Oxygen is so rare at these heights that “every breath is a painful battle for survival,” the major-general said, recalling his stint on the glacier over 15 years ago. The “combined impact of high altitude and cripplingly cold weather” causes severe depression, hallucination, memory loss, blurred speech, frost bite, pulmonary and cerebral edema, and even death.
Around 2,000 Indian and Pakistani soldiers are said to have lost their lives in the Siachen region, the overwhelming majority of them to natural disasters, terrain and bad weather. The financial costs of maintaining soldiers here are huge as well.
The high human, financial and material costs of maintaining soldiers in the Siachen area have prompted calls for a demilitarization of the glacier.
But sections of India’s strategic community are opposed to India pulling out of the Siachen. They point to improved living conditions for soldiers stationed there and a drop in fatalities in recent years.
Even if deployment is costly, they argue, no cost is too great if it is to defend the country’s sovereignty, especially since the Siachen plays a key role in India’s forward defense. It “serves as a wedge” between Baltistan in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and the Shaksgam Valley that Pakistan illegally ceded to China; India’s control of the glacier prevents China and Pakistan from “militarily linking up.” Besides, the Saltoro and Siachen give India “the much needed depth to important mountain passes that are the gateways to Ladakh and Kashmir.” If Indian troops pull out of the Siachen, the major-general warns, “Ladakh would be exposed to a Sino-Pakistan pincer attack.”
Additionally, its control of Saltoro gives India the “tactical advantage of dominating height.” Sitting at much lower altitudes, Pakistani soldiers are completely “shut off from a view of the Siachen Glacier” and are thus at a “severe tactical disadvantage” all along the AGPL. Demilitarizing the glacier would amount to India surrendering its advantage.
However, not everyone is convinced of the strategic and tactical value of the Siachen. Brigadier (retired) Gurmeet Kanwal has argued that in the event of Pakistan and China launching a joint offensive to occupy the Ladakh region of Kashmir, they are unlikely to approach it via Siachen’s “treacherous mountain terrain” as “better options are available” for them to access Ladakh. India’s control of Siachen then does not deny Pakistan and China approaches to Ladakh.
Its control of the heights gives India “neither offensive nor defensive advantage,” Happymon Jacob, associate professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and author of Kashmir and Indo-Pak Relations: Politics of Reconciliation, told The Diplomat. “No amount of concentration of forces in those areas can help India deter the so-called Chinese designs in the greater Karakoram region,” he said. “Nor can it be used to stage any offensive military operations against either Pakistan or China.” Consequently, the advantage that accrues to India from its control of the Siachen is “mostly symbolic and political, not strategic or military.”
Demilitarizing the Siachen
In the wake of the recent tragedy, calls to demilitarize the Siachen have grown in India, as they did in Pakistan in 2012 when an avalanche engulfed its Gayari military base, killing 129 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilian contractors.
Such calls for demilitarization evoke alarm in India’s military and intelligence establishment. Will the politicians fritter away the long term strategic advantage of holding the Siachen for short term political gains?
There is concern that after India withdraws its troops from the Siachen, Pakistan would send its soldiers to occupy it. “Withdrawal from these strategic heights without any iron clad guarantees that do not extend beyond declarations of intent would be the height of folly,” warns Vikram Sood, a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
The Indian military is cautious in its approach to the Siachen’s demilitarization. It wants its control of the Saltoro and Siachen to be recognized and recorded first.
As the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Northern Command of the Indian Army, Lt General D S Hooda recently said, the actual position on [the] ground… where [the] Indian Army is positioned should be authenticated first and that should be agreeable to both sides” before talks on demilitarization can begin. Others have gone further. In 2011, India’s then Air Chief Marshall P V Naik, for instance, said that the demarcated AGPL should be “internationally approved.”
However, would Pakistan agree to authenticate and demarcate existing ground positions on maps? That seems unlikely, as this would legitimize what it sees as India’s “occupation” of the Siachen.
Given their differences on the sequencing of steps in the demilitarization process and the deep mutual distrust, an agreement seems a long way off.
Natural disasters are known to spur peace processes. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for instance, brought the Indonesian government and Acehnese rebels to the negotiating table. This culminated in a peace agreement and an end to the armed conflict.
The same tsunami opened space for co-operation between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan government, an opportunity that both sides rejected. That led to an escalation in the fighting.
Which example will inspire India and Pakistan?
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at [email protected].