Soldiers call the Siachen glacier the third pole and Indian troops have dominated the world’s highest battlefield since 1984, when the Indian government agreed to the army’s suggestion that India must pre-empt Pakistan, following sufficient evidence of Rawalpindi’s designs to connect its physical occupation of the area north of the LoC to the Karakoram pass east of Siachen. Control over Siachen would have provided Pakistan access to Nubra and Shyok Valleys, and to Gilgit from the Shaksgam Valley, illegally gifted by Pakistan to China. Having lost the northern territories of J&K to the Pakistanis at independence, India decided against being presented with a fait accompli like that of Aksai Chin, by the Chinese.
Thus a bold Indian military expedition occupied the Saltoro ridge in April 1984 and cut off access to the Siachen glacier for the Pakistan army. Despite repeated attempts, Pakistanis have failed to dislodge Indian troops, and the claim by the Pakistanis that they are in a position to negotiate a settlement over Siachen is therefore, a fallacy. They have nothing to give and only wish to take, and so we must view General Kayani’s call for a de-militarisation of the glacier, with caution. It appeals only to peace nicks. The origins of the Siachen dispute lies in a cartographic controversy, with some maps depicting the glacier to be in Pakistani hands, starting with a error by the US defence mapping agency, that showed the Line of Control continuing from its terminal point (at NJ 9842) onto the Karakoram pass. This was then reflected in several prestigious atlases that supported the Pakistani position. However, with Indian troops now having complete dominance over the glacier, Pakistan is evasive about India’s stance that a demarcation of current military position is essential, because it shows that its army, despite boastful claims, is nowhere near Siachen glacier. One reason that Pakistan lost 138 soldiers in an avalanche recently, is because its posts are not on heights.
They are at 12,000 feet, whereas Indian posts are at 15 to 20,000 feet. Additionally, the disadvantageous position of Pakistani troops is also the cause of their much higher operational casualties, since past attempts by them to dislodge Indian troops from the Saltoro heights has led to much higher casualties than those suffered by Indians (now up to 10 a year) from inclement weather. No wonder the Pakistanis cite casualties and operational costs as reasons why there must be a unilateral withdrawal to pre-1984 positions. But in reality India can bear the costs of its presence around Siachen, that doesn’t exceed `1,000 crore a year, and is about 1/200th of our defence budget. In short, the operations around Siachen have been India’s single biggest military victory since the 1971 war, that saw the humiliating surrender by 93,000 Pakistani PoWs, and that is the key strategic advantage it now offers. It is our best bargaining tool, and India must not squander Siachen away over some hastily packaged peace initiative, like we did with the PoWs or Haji Pir in 1965.
Instead Siachen must be used to strike a peace deal over Kashmir, with an internationally verifiable agreement that Pakistan would be bound to respect in future (like the Indus Waters treaty). Perhaps with a deal to convert the Line of Control across J&K and extending to the AGPL (the current Indian positions) as a border, since neither side can possibly acquire territory across the LoC to control the entire erstwhile J&K. And the army brass must not accept any political solution to simply barter away Siachen to please Pakistan. This will be a betrayal of those nearly thousand lives and limbs our brave soldiers have lost, for Siachen’s forbiddingly icy heights.
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