Siachen deep freeze
Another round of defence secretary level talks on Siachen concluded on June 12. This time the talks were held against the backdrop of over 130 casualties suffered in April this year by Pakistani troops in a major avalanche on the Pakistani side of the Saltoro Ridge that divides the two armies.
The disaster prompted Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to suggest an early demilitarisation with a view to reducing casualties and cutting expenditure by both countries in manning the glaciated region. Prior to the talks there were suggestions from peace advocates for India to consider reaching out to Pakistan in accommodating its principal stance on demilitarisation.
Keeping the realities of Siachen area’s harsh terrain and climatic conditions in mind while safeguarding the operational requirements of timely re-occupation of the positions vacated, India had, in the discussion during the 1992 talks, agreed to consider a mutual pull-back to designated positions in climatically safer areas to be referred to as a zone of peace. Proposed demilitarisation was, however, to be conditional to the process of authentication of the actual positions held by both the armies. The Pakistani military was, however, not prepared to authenticate the ground positions since that would inter alia be an acceptance of Indian occupation of the Saltoro heights and would therefore run counter to its stand of terming it as a violation of the 1972 Simla Agreement that resulted in delineating the ground-held positions in Jammu and Kashmir on a common map, referred to as the Line of Control (LoC). The maps in use in 1972 did not have the benefit of any accurate surveys beyond the reference point NJ9842 and the LoC was thereafter described as running north of the glaciers.
The Indian stand has all along been that ever since its initial occupation of the two northern passes of Sia La and Bila Fond La on the Saltoro Ridge in April 1984 (effectively pre-emptying a misadventure by the Pakistan Army), the resultant positions of both sides on the ridge line, referred to as the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL), constitute a de facto extension of the LoC in the glaciated area which could not be delineated earlier.
It is quite obvious that Pakistan refuses to authenticate Indian presence on the Saltoro heights and the post 1984 de-facto extension of the LoC in the glaciated area north of NJ9842.
The 13th round of India-Pakistan talks ended with both sides agreeing to continue with the dialogue in Islamabad in July.
India needs to consider afresh its willingness to even consider demilitarisation after authentication, even if Pakistan was to agree to the same due to the changing strategic landscape in the very areas hitherto thought to be of not much significance.
The foremost game-changer has been the Chinese factor. Chinese presence in the northern areas of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) is no longer restricted to work on the Karakoram road or the planned railway. There is reportedly the presence of People’s Liberation Army troops for protection of infrastructure development in PoK. China, an all-weather friend of Pakistan, has decidedly introduced new geo-political dynamics in the Siachen neighbourhood, thus highlighting the strategic importance of the glaciated area north of the LoC.
China has developed and demonstrated its technology to tame high altitude terrain and climate by connecting hitherto impassable and remote parts by massive infrastructure development on the borders of Sinkiang and Tibet to suit its long-term goal of changing the demography of such places by Han Chinese. The Xining-Lhasa railway, completed in 2005, and numerous airfields commissioned in Tibet since, have defied perma-frost and rarefied atmosphere. This would also mean that the Shaksgam Valley, the north-eastern end of PoK, ceded by Pakistan to China, could be used by China to open a route to the Eastern Karakorams (referred to as the areas east of the Siachen glacier), a most sought after destination, more than even the Alps, for mountaineers. In this scenario, should we fail to exercise due sovereignty and physical control over the Eastern Karakorams by dominating the areas around Siachen, we will end up leaving our northern areas vulnerable to cartographic transgressions when mountaineers start seeking permission from Pakistan and China to climb peaks in our territory!
Pakistan looks set to control the geo-strategic space in and around Afghanistan once the American and other Nato troops pull out. Pakistan, finding it convenient to take advantage of Chinese infrastructure development in the northern areas of PoK, will be in a position to offer fresh areas in Muzaffarabad and Skardu districts as camps for the Taliban to re-equip themselves and foray eastwards, towards Jammu and Kashmir.
In hindsight, looking at these changing strategic landscape, India should salute the valiant men of its armed forces and the sagacity and forethought of its leadership in 1984, both military and civil, for securing for the nation a foothold on the Saltoro Ridge, perhaps its most prized possession since Independence.
Demilitarisation of Siachen is, therefore, out of the question. The only option is to get Pakistan to accept the Siachen area as an extension of the LoC and agree to cooperate in its peaceful management, while exploring further confidence-building measures towards durable peace.