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Don't sell out Siachen
Dr Subhash Kapila
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May 24, 2006

'The pages of history are littered with the ruins of countries that were indifferent to erosion of the balance of power. Losses on the periphery where a country's interests appear marginal, never seem to merit a response or warrant a confrontation with the enemy. But small losses add up. Expansionist powers thrive on picking up loose geopolitical change. When it comes, it usually takes place under the worst possible circumstances for those on the defensive.'

--Former US President Richard M Nixon, quoted in my book India's Defence Policies and Strategic Thought, A Comparative Analysis, to highlight how Indian policies ignored the balance of power concept, and how India was inclined to marginalise its far flung peripheries.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, oblivious to the crucial strategic significance of Aksai Chin (North Ladakh), gifted it away to China, a Himalayan blunder that India still rues. Nehru hid the fact of the Chinese annexation of Indian territory for nearly eight years, and later justified the loss by describing Aksai Chin as a desolate area where not a blade of grass grew.

Half a century later, the present government seems set to repeat history.

Going by the utterances of National Security Adviser M K Narayanan, India seems set to gift away Siachen to Pakistan on the grounds that the prime minister wants to turn the area into 'mountains of peace.'

But can the Indian prime minister marginalise strategic peripheries for political gains or mileage? Siachen, like Aksai Chin, is not 'loose geo-strategic change' which any Indian prime minister can put in a political juke box.

The strange thing about the Siachen debate currently underway is that the Indian Army has neither requested nor advised the government that that it can continue without the commitments of Siachen sector defence.

The debate emerging in the media -- with inspired inputs from the establishment -- is that the defence of Siachen is a costly affair and hence it needs demilitarisation. That this inspired reporting has linkages with the prime minister's upcoming visit to Pakistan cannot be denied; the strategic costs are immaterial.

The subject, which has a long history and debate between India and Pakistan, would take a whole book to do justice.

Primer: The world's highest battlefield

But let us address some salient factors:

The Strategic Significance

In civilian minds, the common misperception is that Siachen sector comprises only the Siachen Glacier and hence de-militarisation should be no big deal. It is not so.

Pakistan wants India to give up the entire Saltoro Ridge, a long ridge extending nearly 120 km, (on which runs the Actual Ground Position Line, or AGPL) from the border of India with Pakistan ceded Chinese territory in the north to India's Kargil sector in the east.

The strategic significance of the Saltoro Ridge and the Siachen Glacier is that it gives India strategic and terrain domination over Pakistan's so-called Northern Areas (Jammu and Kashmir [Images] territory merged into Pakistan) and Pakistan-ceded Kashmir territory to China.

It also blocks routes of ingress to the vital Ladakh sector, and provides a 'strategic wedge' to prevent a further Pakistan-China geographical link-up.

It acts as a 'strategic pressure point' against Pakistan's military adventurism in the Kargil sector.

Indira-Col, the northern most part of Siachen, directly overlooks Chinese occupied territory that was illegally ceded by Pakistan to China. Having a foot on the ground here is the only way for India to legitimately and effectively dispute the illegal Chinese presence here.

A map of Siachen

Given all this, any argument de-emphasising Siachen's strategic significance is both puerile and sterile.

If Siachen's strategic significance is being de-emphasised on grounds of financial costs, logistic challenges or hazards to life and limb, then why not de-emphasise equally difficult regions on India's other frontiers?

India's borders define its nationhood and its sovereignty. Their defence and integrity cannot become debates on a 'cost-benefit ratio.' Further, the costs of re-deployment and de-militarisation would outweigh the costs of maintaining present positions as all the defensive and logistic infrastructure 'in situ' will have to be destroyed on the pull back of troops.

The signs of sellout

Going by media reports and statements of National Security Advisor M K Narayanan, India is virtually about to sellout Siachen to Pakistan.

Right from the first round of the Siachen talks, India has maintained that no Indian troop re-deployment or de-militarisation in Siachen could take place unless the following conditions were met:

What Siachen is all about

In August 1989, during the Rajiv Gandhi-Benazir Bhutto talks, Pakistan announced that an agreement on redeployment had been reached in Islamabad. Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aftab Seth categorically contradicted the Pakistan assertion the next day.

In Anatomy of a Flawed Inheritance, former foreign secretary and national security adviser J N Dixit (who was then high commissioner to Pakistan) says: 'The meeting between military commanders of India and Pakistan on the issue of Siachen took place as scheduled in August. While mechanical and operational aspects of the arrangements for mutual withdrawal or redeployment of troops were more or less finalised.'

'First, while agreeing that troops would be redeployed at mutually agreed points, they refused to confirm cartographically the points from which their troops would be withdrawn.'

'Second, they said withdrawal would be subject to India generally agreeing that the Line of Control or notional line determining jurisdiction of each country, should be drawn tangentially north-eastwards to the Karakoram range, from the northernmost grid reference point clearly identified in the maps, NJ9842.'

'The objective was clear. They (Pakistan) not only wanted India to vacate its strategically secure position on Siachen, making the area a "no man's land" but also wished to lay claim to several thousand square miles of Indian territory South and South-Westwards from Karakoram ranges to establish future legal claims on the area. One had come to an impasse.'

Why Siachen matters

But recent Indian media reports on Siachen attributed to the national security adviser say the Indian position now is:

These seem to be the consequence of the secret parleys between Narayanan and his Pakistan counterpart in Dubai recently.

This strategic climbdown from India's well articulated and established position smacks of a possible sell-out. It seems that the PMO has bypassed or ignored the recommendations of other policy making organs of the Indian government.

Part II: Can Pakistan be trusted?

Dr Subhash Kapila is an international relations and strategic affairs analyst, and a consultant, Strategic Affairs, with the South Asia Analysis Group. He can be contacted at

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