Event ReportsPublished on Jun 26, 2014
The Siachen Glacier is strategically positioned between India and Pakistan, in a disputed and un-demarcated region of Kashmir. Nitin Gokhale, journalist and author of 'Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga' argues why India cannot give up Siachen. He says Indian troops will continue to be deployed in the region despite the difficult weather conditions.
Why Siachen matters to India?

The Siachen Glacier is strategically positioned between India and Pakistan, in a disputed and un-demarcated region of Kashmir. On 26 June, during a round-table discussion at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, Nitin Gokhale, journalist and author of ’Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga’ presented his views on why India cannot give up Siachen. He believes that Indian troops will continue to be deployed in the region despite the difficult weather conditions. His book on the Siachen Glacier details the history of Operation Meghdoot.

The round-table discussion was chaired by Mr. Vikram Sood, Advisor, Observer Research Foundation. He brought up a few questions that are frequently asked about the Siachen issue including why India went to Saltoro, whether the conditions have changed and if they haven't, why not? He added that Siachen is not a low hanging fruit for India and mentioned that the Siachen glacier and Saltoro should not be looked at as a country specific problem by India because China lies to the East. He pointed out that India has a mountain regiment and uses the region as a training ground and it is also expensive to remain in the region as the conditions are tough. With the change in government, there is a hope of striking an agreement on Siachen or Sir Creek. Mr. Sood concluded by arguing that while peace is an honourable goal to achieve and countries often go to war for peace, the price to be paid must be well thought out.

Mr. Gokhale quoted Lt. Gen. ML Chibber as having said that India may not have foreseen that the Army’s taking of the Bilafond La and Sia La passes as well as, subsequently, the Saltoro Ridge would lead to a permanent military deployment. But now that India has established military control over the area, it will find it difficult to vacate the area in the absence of a mutually acceptable agreement that can be verified on the ground. In his book Mr. Gokhale quotes Brigadier Channa, who was then the brigade commander entrusted with launching Operation Meghdoot. The Brigadier said that April 13 was deliberately chosen for the assault as it was Baisakhi day, which is celebrated with equal fervour in both India and Pakistan so it was expected that Pakistan’s guard would be down.

At the heart of the problem is the interpretation of the 1949 Karachi and 1972 Simla agreements by both sides. During both these negotiations, India and Pakistan demarcated their borders only up to the map coordinate point NJ 9842. The 1972 Cease-Fire Agreement was signed in Karachi by top military representatives of India and Pakistan as well as the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan. The purpose of the Karachi meeting was to establish a ceasefire line in the State of Jammu and Kashmir.

Further attempts to capture the region were launched by Pakistan in 1990, 1995, 1996 and early 1999, just prior to the Lahore Summit. Under Operation Badr in 1999, Pakistan’s infiltration across the Line of Control (LoC) in the Kargil area was undertaken to sever the link between Kashmir and Ladakh. The aim was to push the Indian Army out, thus forcing India to negotiate a settlement of the broader Kashmir dispute. Examining the costs between 1984 and 2007, the Indian Parliament was told that 884 Indian soldiers were killed and 13,022 wounded. However, the situation in the region has now changed since the first two decades of the conflict when casualties due to the weather conditions as well as battle were both high.

Mr. Gokhale went on to add that Pakistan’s claim to Siachen takes its territory from the Karakoram Pass up till Aksai Chin on the East. The areas held by India include Indira Col and the northern parts of Siachen up till the West Saltoro Ridge giving India a wedge between Pakistan and China. In the future, railroads as well as oil and gas pipelines from the Persian Gulf will run parallel to this region. India fears that a unilateral withdrawal will result in Pakistani occupation of the Saltoro Ridge and the Siachen Glacier. This would not only mean a geographical link with China but would also bring Pakistani forces closer to Leh, thus, endangering it. Pakistan would also, in such an eventuality be able to interdict the Indian Army’s lines of communication in this area.

Lt. Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd.), Senior Fellow, Delhi Policy Group, said that India’s positions on dominating heights on the main passes of the Saltoro ridge, Sia La and Bilafond La add to its tactical and strategic advantage. He went on to add the Indian Army sees no need to withdraw from the commanding heights it controls given Pakistan’s perfidy in the past, especially in Kargil when it tried to cut off Siachen in the summer of 1999. The level of mistrust between India and Pakistan in general and the Indian and Pakistani security forces in particular is deep-rooted and cannot be overturned easily. Trust remains the biggest problem between the two nations. Even if an agreement is reached to withdraw forces, how will each side trust and monitor the other? He added that the issue of Siachen is not a low hanging fruit in the India-Pakistan dynamic.

Brig. Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd.), Adjunct Fellow (non-resident), Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at Center for Strategic and International Studies, made strong arguments in favour of demilitarising Siachen to reduce prejudice between the two countries. He also spoke in favour of conflict resolution. According to Brig. Kanwal, Siachen has no strategic significance apart from acting as a military launch pad. He went on to cite the high human, material and environmental costs that the Indian military has to pay in deploying forces in the region.

Dr. Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation called the issue of Siachen a slice of history that speaks volumes of the courage and patriotism of the Indian Army which has fought for its country in a place as inhospitable as Siachen. Demilitarization, in itself, is a process that consists of several logical steps including ceasefire, authentication, demarcation, withdrawal, re-deployment and verification. Also India must not blindly trust Pakistan. India needs to settle the issue and make clear claims on demarcation lines.

(This report is prepared by Bhavya Pandey, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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