Why doesn’t India vacate Siachen? This question has been raised after every human tragedy on the glacier, and now it is being asked again when 10 soldiers lost their lives in an ice avalanche at the Sonam post.
- It is not just avalanches; the challenging terrain of the glacier and its surroundings as a whole have been regularly claiming lives.
- According to reliable estimates, over 2,000 soldiers from both sides have died on the Siachen glacier since 1984, when India beat Pakistan by a few days to occupy many of the strategic locations on the glacier.
Where is it located?
The Siachen Glacier is located in the eastern Karakoram range in the Himalaya Mountains, just northeast of the point NJ9842 where the Line of Control between India and Pakistan ends.
- At 76 km long, it is the longest glacier in the Karakoram and second-longest in the world’s non-polar areas.
- It is situated at an average altitude of 5,400 meters above sea level.
- It lies South of the great watershed that separates Central Asia from the Indian subcontinent, and Pakistan from China in this region. It lies between the Saltoro ridge line to the west and the main Karakoram range to the east.
- The entire Siachen Glacier, with all major passes, is currently under the administration of India since 1984, while Pakistan controls the region west of Saltoro Ridge.
Ever since the two militaries began a costly engagement on the glacier, there have been numerous efforts by both countries to find a way to demilitarise the glacier. In June 1989, they came very close to clinching a final deal.
- The two sides had agreed to “work towards a comprehensive settlement, based on redeployment of forces to reduce the chance of conflict, avoidance of the use of force and the determination of future positions on the ground so as to conform with the Shimla Agreement and to ensure durable peace in the Siachen area”.
- Ever since then, India and Pakistan have tried diplomatically to find a way to demilitarise the region. However, a lack of political will on both sides has meant that the status quo holds, and soldiers continue to pay a very high price in that remote snowy outpost.
- India has in the past suggested delineation of the Line of Control north of NJ 9842, redeployment of troops on both sides to agreed positions after demarcating their existing positions, a zone of disengagement, and a monitoring mechanism to maintain the peace.
- 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.
About the conflict:
The conflict in Siachen stems from the incompletely demarcated territory on the map beyond the map coordinate known as NJ9842. The 1949 Karachi Agreement and 1972 Simla Agreement did not clearly mention who controlled the glacier, merely stating that the Cease Fire Line (CFL) terminated at NJ9842. UN officials presumed there would be no dispute between India and Pakistan over such a cold and barren region.
- The conflict began in 1984 with India’s successful Operation Meghdoot during which it gained control of the Siachen Glacier.
Why India doesn’t want to leave this place?
The most obvious reason for India’s continuing presence at Siachen is its strategic importance. Military experts also believe that it drives a wedge between Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and China, and is the only tenuous link India has with Central Asia.
- Other fears include the Chinese presence in the vicinity, concerns about a Pakistani incursion and the difficulty in retaking the glacier once gone.
- India also 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.
- Moreover, India 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.
- Presently, India is the occupying party in Siachen and hence, it should unconditionally withdraw and the pre-1984 status quo should be maintained.
- By agreeing to a joint demarcation, Pakistan would be accepting the Indian claims in Siachen, at least theoretically.
- Pakistan also feels that if it 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.
What can be done?
- One, both countries can agree to a glacier of peace with neither side occupying it. Then there would be no strategic reason for soldiers to serve in such inhospitable terrain.
- The second option is mutual withdrawal of forces without delineation and authentication. This is both undesirable and unlikely.
- The third 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.
- It can also be converted into an international destination for glacial research and other scientific experiments. International scientific presence would act as a deterrent against any potential Pakistani attempts at occupying the territory and it could also check the Chinese activities in the greater Karakoram region. This perhaps is the best option under the circumstances.
Given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal initiative to visit Lahore in December 2015 and to push forward peace with Pakistan, it would only be the next logical step to look at the low-hanging fruits in bilateral issues to build trust.
- The demilitarisation of Siachen is definitely doable. This is not only because it is diplomatically possible, but also because there is a critical mass of opinion in both India and Pakistan that neither can sacrifice, or put in harm’s way, so many lives on the inhospitable glacier.
- If the initiative is not seized by both sides now, the vagaries of nature will continue to exact a toll on forces deployed in Siachen, even if peace holds.
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. The February 3 avalanche on the Siachen glacier that buried 10 Indian Army soldiers is a stark reminder to both India and Pakistan about the cost of military deployment in such inhospitable territory. 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.