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Why Siachen matters

June 16, 2005 11:37 IST
When the India-Pakistan secretary-level talks took place in Islamabad, the demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier was one of the issues on the agenda.

I had predicted there would be no breakthrough on the issue. The reason was Chief of the Army Staff General J J Singh's categorical statement that any agreement would have to proceed from recognition of the Actual Ground Position Line.

Siachen talks inconclusive

Pakistan is loath to accept this since it would mean admitting it lost the Saltoro ridge and the Quaid Post (named after the founder of Pakistan) now renamed Bana Post after Param Vir Chakra winner Subedar Bana Singh who captured it.

Interestingly, the post was held by the much heralded Pakistani commandos and was captured by the India Army's 'ordinary' infantry.

Having said all this, one must admit the utter futility of the fight over the Siachen Glacier. The area is over 22,000 feet high, offers no military advantage to either side, cannot be either a viable defence line or a launch pad and has no habitation and no economic significance.

Strategically, tactically, it is a useless piece of real estate.

The cost is horrendous, a chapatti delivered to a soldier there cost Rs 500. Even the excreta of soldiers manning these posts has to be lifted by helicopters and brought to base for disposal!

More soldiers have died there due to weather and accidents rather than enemy action.

In Siachen now weather the only enemy

Then why is the Indian Army insisting on recognition of a line on a map, and Pakistan resisting it?

World's highest battlefield

First and foremost is the lack of trust between the two sides.

A discussion organised by the Observer Research Foundation on May 4 unanimously recommended that unless Pakistan recognised the existing positions, India should not agree to demilitarisation.

The story of Pakistani perfidy on Kashmir goes back to 1947. Then it claimed that tribals had invaded Kashmir, while the truth was that regular Pakistani soldiers and officers were part of the invading force, a fact later admitted.

Make Siachen a peace mountain: PM | Singh on Siachen

In 1965, it maintained a fiction that Kashmiri civilians had infiltrated.

In 1999, in Kargil it similarly claimed that 'mujahids' had crossed the Line of Control, when even tea shop owners on the Lahore-Islamabad highway knew the Northern Light Infantry was involved.

What is to prevent Pakistan in future from claiming similarly that it has withdrawn the military from Siachen, but 'mujahids' or freedom fighters have occupied it?

But the real unsaid reason for the Indian Army's reluctance lies elsewhere: The lack of trust in our civil leadership on military issues.

This may seem a harsh comment, but what has been the past record?

Kargil and Post Point 13620 offers a classic case study in decision making.

This post overlooks Kargil town and the Srinagar-Leh road, for long the sole lifeline to Ladakh. Artillery observers from this post used to bring down accurate fire on the town and the highway at will.

In May 1965, while the attention of the Pakistanis was focussed on fighting in the Rann of Kutch, a Rajput battalion in a daring daytime attack on May 17, 1965 captured the post and made the highway secure for the first time since 1947.

But under UN pressure, it was handed back to Pakistan.

When infiltration in the Kashmir valley began on August 9, 1965, the Indian Army again attacked Post Point 13620 and captured it. But then came the Tashkent agreement of January 10, 1965, and along with the strategic Haji Pir pass, the Kargil post was again handed back to Pakistan.

Finally in 1971, the Ladakh Scouts under the inspiring leadership of Colonel Rinchan captured not only Point 13620, but the entire ridge during the December war.

It is difficult to find a parallel in world history of an army capturing a mountain post at great human cost and giving it back to the enemy not once, but twice!

The strategic importance of the Kargil heights is self evident even to an amateur but that was never an input in political decision making in India.

In 1971 when Indira Gandhi had all the aces up her sleeves, she still bargained away the advantage and did not secure binding Pakistani commitment on Kashmir. To her credit, like Lal Bahadur Shastri, she at least did not give back territory won in Kashmir.

The errors of Simla

Closer to our times, in the Kargil conflict of 1999, we unilaterally declared that we would not cross the LoC.

The argument that India's restraint won it global support holds no water. The West (meaning the hyperpower, the United States) changed its stance not because the justice of the Indian case on Kashmir had suddenly dawned on it, but because it was a part of its re-assessment of the world in the post Cold War era.

By our lack of understanding and timidity, we have now established a 'rule of the game' that while Pakistan can cross the LoC we will not, even when it is tactically unsound. Thus, the duo of then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then defence minister George Fernandes forced our soldiers to adopt virtually suicidal tactics to re-capture the Kargil heights.

Lack of geo-political vision

India never understood the vital strategic importance of the Northern Areas of Kashmir (comprising Gilgit and Hunza). This is an area where India, China and Central Asia meet.

The British, well schooled in the art, engineered a revolt in Gilgit (led by Major Brown and Captain Matheson) and unfurled the Pakistani flag there on November 3, 1947. Lieutenant Colonel Sher Jung Thapa then defended the Skardu fort for nearly eight months. But without ammunition and supplies, he finally surrendered on August 14, 1948.

Major Brown's action were not in isolation. A year earlier, a freelance explorer, Sir Francis Tillman, had undertaken the arduous trek from Urumachi in Chinese Sinkiang to Chitral. Right from the early days Britain saw Pakistan as an imperial outpost of the West in Asia (V K Krishna Menon in Michael Breacher's Krishna Menon's View of the World).

In 1971, we had a golden opportunity to concentrate our military efforts in the direction of Northern Areas, if the military was told in advance about the intention to keep territory captured in Kashmir.

It appears that no such directive was given and retention of land captured in Kashmir was an afterthought at Simla. The success achieved in capturing Turtuk and various peaks in the Partapur sector was a 'freelance' operation by the great Colonel Rinchan, almost a solo effort.

A solution for Siachen

Imagine the strategic situation today if we could have cut off land/airlinks between China and Pakistan, and had a direct land link to Central Asia and Afghanistan (the Panjsher Valley). Could the Pakistan-China nexus have flourished if the contact between the two was through the long sea route?

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It is this dismal history of lack of strategic thought in India that sends shivers down the spine of any serious soldier when our politicos enter into 'peacenik' competition (the latest entrant into this is L K Advani of Secular Jinnah fame.

What is the guarantee that some future Pakistani general/president will not re-occupy Siachen with 'freedom fighters'? And a future Indian government will not ask the armed forces to take back the Soltoro ridge?

This factor is a bigger obstacle in solving the Siachen issue than even Pakistani untrustworthiness.

Colonel Dr Anil Athale (retd) is a former joint director, War History Division, Ministry of Defence.

Colonel Anil Athale (retd)