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A Siachen Resolution: Why Now?

Air Cmde (Retd) Ramesh Phadke was Advisor, Research at Institute for Defence Studies and Anaysis, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • November 08, 2012

    There is a buzz in the strategic community that something is afoot on the Siachen issue. While no one really knows, it seems that when most analysts were busy remembering the 1962 war with China, some ‘do-gooders’ were busy throwing a lifeline to Kayani. Track II experts are apparently close to resolving the Siachen issue. Two questions arise: What is the real issue? What has Pakistan done in the recent past that justifies India’s generous offer to ‘demilitarise’ Siachen? What calamity has suddenly befallen the Indian military for this urgency?

    Although it actually began in April 1984, the Siachen confrontation is part of the legacy of Partition and Pakistani aggression. In 1984, India took pre-emptive action by sending its troops to these glacial heights because it feared that: (a) Pakistan was trying to occupy the Saltoro Ridge and violating the basic principle on which the old Cease Fire Line (CFL) was demarcated; (b) If unchecked, it would allow Pakistan to creep eastwards; (c) Improve its access for mischief in Ladakh; (d) Make it easier to team up with China should the need arise; and, (e) Finally, allow Pakistan to further extend its control over the illegally occupied territories of Jammu & Kashmir. These considerations also briefly explain the strategic value of Siachen. If left unattended, there continues to be the possibility of our neighbour(s) slowly swallowing more and more territories in the region.

    Two other points need to be noted. First, Siachen and all of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) is Indian Territory—72495 sq. km of POK and 13528 sq. km of the so-called Azad Kashmir—plus some 5000 square km of Shaksgam Valley that Pakistan illegally ceded to China in March 1963. Second, the Pakistan Army does not really occupy the Saltoro Ridge in Siachen but is only on the lower reaches west of the Saltoro Ridge. If Pakistan wishes to now withdraw its troops from this area because it tragically lost some 120 men in an avalanche in early 2012, it is welcome to do that.

    Under the Karachi Agreement of 19 July 1949, signed by senior army officers of India and Pakistan, the CFL, which is now known as the Line of Control (LoC), was demarcated up to the point NJ 9842 and was to run ‘due North’ to the glaciers. In fact, the LOC, in its last lap, actually runs 16 km ‘exactly’ due north. Pakistan interpreted this as going towards the Karakoram Pass, which in effect means that the un-demarcated line runs north-eastwards. It is this false contention that gave rise to the confrontation in Siachen. Demilitarising Siachen is thus incorrect terminology since Pakistan cannot be allowed to dictate where and how India deploys its troops on its territory.

    Earlier this year when India agreed to open a composite dialogue with Pakistan despite the latter showing no inclination to resolve the 26/11 issue, there were media reports that Pakistan wanted to resolve Siachen first before addressing the Sir Creek issue since the former was more amenable to an easy solution. It seems, India, against its better judgement, agreed. The reasons why Pakistan was more interested in Siachen probably were: first to effectively remove the Indian Army’s presence and hence pressure on Pakistan’s north-eastern borders; and second, to persuade India to withdraw its troops from an area in close proximity to China’s claims in Aksai Chin so that this so-called demilitarisation would leave the field open for any future Pakistani mischief possibly in collusion with China. Having achieved this double objective, it would be easier for Pakistan to deploy its troops on its Western borders with Afghanistan where things might get increasingly more difficult as the date for US/ISAF withdrawal nears. Why else would General Kayani suddenly begin talking about the urgent need for peace with India?

    While reducing border tensions is a laudable objective, it is not clear why India bends over backwards every time Pakistan appears to offer an olive branch. The Indian Army has been well established in Siachen for over two decades and with experience the casualties due to inclement weather and frostbites have reduced considerably. Operations at these high altitudes are undoubtedly extremely dangerous and demanding but not so difficult that India should throw away the strategic gains made at such high costs in human life. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has also air-maintained Indian troops without much difficulty and in any case routinely undertakes air maintenance tasks along the entire Himalayan frontier. Withdrawing a brigade from Siachen would thus not make a major difference to the overall effort of the Indian military.

    Coming to the second and perhaps more important question of Pakistan’s record, Pakistan has done precious little to deserve this Indian munificence. As brought out before, Pakistan shows no signs of any seriousness in bringing the masterminds of the 26/11 Mumbai outrage to justice. It does not even show the slightest remorse. For the present, General Kayani might have temporarily closed the local terror taps but there is no guarantee that these would not be reopened in the future. Pakistan has only announced that it would accord India the MFN status (which in reality means little) but has not actually done so. In fact, Pakistani businessmen might be enthusiastic about establishing two-way trade relations with India, but its Army shows little interest in this enterprise. One of Pakistan’s popular newspapers recently called Dr. Manmohan Singh a ‘lame duck octogenarian Prime Minister’. Pakistan, it is evident, wants to derive the maximum advantage from a genuinely friendly if weak Indian Government without giving anything in return. Home Minister Sushil Shinde has recently said that there is no let-up in Pakistan’s attempts to aid infiltration across the LoC in Jammu & Kashmir. Although generally underplayed by the government, there were also reports that Khalistani separatists based in Pakistan are once again being encouraged to renew their anti-India activities.

    As is only too well known, Pakistan’s record of the past 65 years does not evoke any trust. Since 1947-48 through the 1951 Refugee Crisis, the 1965 Kutch and later massive infiltration into Jammu & Kashmir, the 03 December 1971 pre-emptive air strikes on Indian airfields, fanning the flames of hatred, the 1999 Kargil intrusions within days of the Indian Prime Minister signing the Lahore Declaration, and a long string of terror strikes and proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir, Pakistan has not lost a single opportunity to destabilise India and attempt to disrupt its progress. Why then should India reward this implacable neighbour? India as usual does not seem to learn from history. Is it the fear of an imminent collapse of Pakistan? Is India worried that Pakistani nuclear weapons might fall in the hands of Jihadi terrorists? Why then are the Indian Track II experts so keen to release the pressure on Pakistan? Pakistan’s proclivity to flatly deny earlier agreements is legendary. In July 1972, the famous Simla Summit was about to end in failure. When the prospects of Bhutto returning with empty hands looked very bright, Bhutto has been quoted by Mr. Dhar as having said, “aap mujh par bharosa keejiye” (please trust me). Against her better judgement a sceptical Indira Gandhi accepted Bhutto’s pleas. Soon after this article appeared in the Indian press, in an article in Pakistani press, Humayun Gohar, while praising Bhutto’s ‘diplomatic artistry’, wrote: “Face it Mr Dhar, even if we accept what you say, Mr Bhutto fooled your prime minister”. No one should be surprised if the same thing happens again. In any case, why should India throw away the Siachen trump card? Many would say that the India-Pakistan relationship need not be seen in such stark zero-sum terms but India cannot wish away the reality. As suggested by Air Cmde. Jasjit Singh, India must tell its citizens where its troops presently are and explain the pros and cons of leaving Siachen before coming to any decision.

    India should put Pakistan on parole and watch its behaviour for 20 years before even beginning to think of any concessions in Siachen or elsewhere. What is in it for India? What is the hurry? India must learn from its other neighbour China, which knows how to keep India under pressure: hold regular border talks but give little.