The unfortunate death of 10 Indian Army soldiers in an avalanche at Siachen has reignited the debate of whether or not the military still needs to be present at the glacier .In a place classified as the “worlds highest battlefield” where more deaths have resulted as a consequence of adverse weather conditions rather than enemy fire,where the expenditure for sustaining our troops runs into Rs. 2 crores a day & a place with a fragile ecology that has taken a beating, would’nt it make more sense for the 2 armies to bury the hatchet and establish the much mooted “Peace Park”?
The Hindu editorial lost no time in seizing the moment to once again draw attention the debate. Indian news channels while praising the Indian jawans wondered aloud why there was a need to continue with this aggressive posturing when the Pakistani military itself had suggested not too long ago that the time had come to withdraw troops from the area and instead build a peace park.This change of heart from the Pakistani army had come as a consequence of the losses that it faced from that omnipotent and unforgiving enemy that dominates the region :Mothernature. The Pakistani army lost 127 soldiers when they were buried in an avalanche in 2012 and soon made overtures to India that they were willing to talk about demilitarisation of the glacier. Unsurprisingly , former Indian Army Chief of Staff, General Bikram Singh rubbished the idea and maintained that the Indian Army would not withdraw its troops from the glacier. To many, this may seem a lost opportunity but the quick retort was not unexpected given the history of the conflict.
The problem began mainly because of an ambiguity in the drawing of a map beyond the coordinate NJ9842 which is at the foot of the glacier.The 1949 Karachi agreement and 1972 Simla agreement does not clear this ambiguity leading to both India and Pakistan coming up with their own interpretations of the map. India contends that boundary of India extends north of the glacier whereas Pakistan contends that the line runs north east till the Karakoram pass. This cartographic ambiguity led to posturing by both armies that began by sending expeditions to legitimize their claims. Both fearing the other was about occupy the heights began prepartions for a showdown. The Pakistanis however made a tactical blunder by ordering for supplies from the same company that used to supply the Indians. The Indians got wind of this, ordered double the amount of equipment and launched Operation Meghdoot that inserted troops into the commanding heights of the glacier 4 days before the Pakistani army was to launch their operation. The end result was that India was in complete control of the glacier.
Though the glacier seems to be a barren wasteland it does hold some strategic significance.Firstly,the entire premise behind Operation Meghdoot was to prevent a convergence of Pakistani and Chinese troops. Secondly, Due to the fact that the Indian Army is well entrenched it would be very difficult to dislodge them from these commanding heights by the Pakistani Army. Thirdly, the elevated positions gives a good vantage point to ground troops to see deep inside pakistani territory. Fourthly, in the eventual settlement of the dispute the fact that Indian troops have been present would legitimise Indian claim to this territory. Musharraf in his book “In the Line of Fire” has claimed that India is in control of about 2000 square kilometers of disputed territory.Fifthly, If this is is accepted as the border it would also mean that India would also come into possesion of parts of the Saksgam Valley which was illegaly ceded to China by Pakistan in 1963.
However, this is not to say that there are many problems as well. Firstly, even though there is a ceasefire in effect since 2003 ,troops have continued to die due to the harsh weather conditions. The living conditions are extreme where soldiers can get sick very quickly and need to be evacuated by helicopter to the Base camp at Leh.Secondly, the amount of money that is required to sustain the troops is again formidable. Apart from the money spent on equipment and clothing most of the money gets spent in just supplying the troops by helicopters and airdrops which is very expensive.This money could easily be used to develop parts of Jammu and Kashmir – either the infrastructure bereft Ladakh region or the troubled Kashmir valley where the urban population feels isolated and victimized. Thirdly, the ecological damage that is being done with the biggest culprit being human waste which does not decompose at such low temperatures.Thankfully the problem has been solved by the Defence Reserch and Development Establishment(DRDE) which has engineered Bio-toilets by recruiting an unlikely soldier: An anaerobic bacteria. Siachen glacier is a source for the Nubra river which ultimately joins the Indus and hence contaminants in the glacier will eventually reach the plains in Pakistan.
The main reason why India is hesitant is due to the trust deficit. It must be remembered that Pakistan claims the whole of Jammu and Kashmir to be disputed territory. Benezir Bhutto once quipped that General Zia-ul-haq should start wearing a burqa as he had lost his manliness(due to his failure to capture Siachen). Pakistan has made repeated attempts to capture this territory by force with Pervez Musharraf (then Brigadier) launching an attack in 1987 but failing to capture territory. Then there was the episode of Kargil where Pakistani North Light Infantry troops suddenly appeared crossing the line of control. Many observers have argued that as Kargil lies in the Ladakh region and not in the volatile Kashmir valley, the intention it seems was to cut off supply to Leh (and hence Siachen) by disrupting logistic support to the lifeline of Ladakh: National Highway 1D. It is no coincidence that once again Pervez Musharraf(General now) was at the helm of affairs. Worse still, the simultaneous attacks on Pathankot air base & the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif(Afghanistan) at a time when PM Modi seemed determined for peace has widened the gap of the trust deficit. While the Indian army acknowledges all the issues involved with many army officers who have served in the area writing about the ecological damage being done, it has its hands tied as leaving the area which Pakistan covets so much would make it the butt of ridicule. No government would seriously consider such a move because the fear of Pakistani duplicity would result in earning the ire of the opposition and losing the trust of the people. The reason why India is most suspicious of Pakistani intention is the fact that Pakistan has baulked at the request to “authenticate” the 110 km Actual Ground Position Line(AGPL) both on the map and on the ground. This would act as an international safeguard in case of future troop withdrawal. The refusal of Pakistan on accepting this has many convinced that if India withdraws its troops then the Pakistanis will soon descend like a thief in the night.
Very well researched article.Fully agree that it often seems a waste of precious resources trying to retain such a treacherous territory.However India really has very few options.As you rightly pointed out we just cant trust Pakistan.The minute we let down our guard….we will have them taking over the territory.It will be the LOC problem all over again.