30 years since Siachen
Since late 1990s, Pakistan’s ISI has been nurturing Shia terrorist organisations with an eye on Ladakh and Zanskar Range south of it. Infiltration into Ladakh and initiation of terrorism will have reverberations through the Zanskar Range right down to Kul
April 2014 marks 30 years from when India first set foot on the Saltoro Range, April 13, 1984, to be precise. It was a major strategic initiative that has kept Ladakh safe from Pakistani all these years. It is no secret that the massive Kargil intrusions by Pakistan in 1999 aimed to cut off the Srinagar-Leh lifeline to Ladakh, with a view to subsequently dislodge India from the Siachen area.
The Siachen Glacier emanates from the Greater Karakoram Range, which has some of the highest peaks in the world including K2, the second highest peak in the world. Siachen (meaning the place of roses in local language) Glacier in the East Kara- koram – 76.4-km-long and 8-km at its widest is the third largest glacier outside the Polar region. On the west lies the West Karakoram (now under Pakistani control) and towards the east is the Shyok basin, forming the border with China. The northern slopes of the Indira Ridge lead to the Shaksgam Valley under Chinese occupation.
On April 13, 1984, the Indian Army made a “pre-emptive” move into the glacier to defend the territory and the peaks and passes around it when it launched Operation Meghdoot as Pakistani Army was already camped to the west in a bid to move up to capture the Saltoro Ridge. Within days, Pakistani forces moved in to oppose them, but our forces
have been able to hold on to the tactical advantage along the higher grounds on the Saltoro Ridge. General Pervez Musharraf admits in his autobiography In the Line of Fire that Pakistan wanted to seize the strategic advantage but was pre-empted by India. All reports and analysis in the media refer to the Siachen Glacier.
The position on the ground is that Siachen Glacier is not the area of confrontation and has always been under our control. Confrontation between our troops deployed on the Saltoro Ridge, which is well to the west of Siachen Glacier and Pakistani positions are further west of Saltoro Ridge on lower ground. Since 1984, India continues to occupy the entire Saltoro Ridge Line. Barring a few posts opposite our own Gyong La complex, Pakistan does not have any presence on the Saltoro Ridge. Subsequent to our launching of Operation Meghdoot, Pakistan has unsuccessfully attempted in various sectors to dislodge our troops from their positions.
All these attempts have been repulsed by our troops from time to time. Besides these serious clashes, sporadic exchange of fire including artillery had continued over the years till the ceasefire in 2004. Post a massive avalanche that killed over 100 Pakistani soldiers, Pakistan started whining for withdrawal from Siachen area. Significantly, despite no actual presence on Siachen, Pakistan continues to claim otherwise. In the same year, a 22-member India-Pakistan Track II team headed by a former Chief of the Air Staff on the Indian side having met in Bangkok, Dubai, US and finally in Lahore (September 23-25, 2012) to discuss CBMs.
Demonstrating total lack of strategic thought, the Indian side went ahead to agree to withdraw from Siachen despite severe reservations of many members. Significantly, these deliberations were initiated and held under the aegis of the Atlantic Council of Ottawa, latter with charter in synch with NATO interests and closely associated with many Pakistani think tanks. Though it found favour with the PMO (Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s famous ‘Mountain of Peace’ statement was made shortly after these recommendations were made public) it was rubbished by all other organisations. Post the details of the ‘Agreement’ having been put up on the Internet by the Atlantic Council of Ottawa, followed by surprise and disgust shown by scores of Indians on the web, the Track II team in a presentation at the India International Centre on October 3, 2012, chaired by former Ambassador K.C. Singh, tried to pass off the ‘Agreement’ as a historic way forward. They were immediately challenged and lambasted by a host of public in the audience including former Chief of Army Staff General N.C. Vij and other military veterans.
Not only had Pakistan ceding the Shaksgam Valley (5,160 sq km) to China in 1963 heightened the China-Pakistan collusive threat, Chinese entry into Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) in large numbers (some 11,000 were reported to have entered PoK/Pakistan in 2012) has heightened the strategic importance of the Saltoro Range held by India. Withdrawal to pre-1971 positions (as proposed by Pakistan) would be suicidal. Chinese presence in GB area also must take into account some 22 tunnels being dug by the Chinese and possible deployment of missiles with locals prohibited to enter the area.
The fact that Pakistan is contemplating or already has leased GB area to China for 50 years (as reported in Pakistani and US media) makes it more significant. This presence needs to be viewed in conjunction Chinese intrusions and forays beyond Aksai Chin and claims to Depsang and Chumar areas, plus multiple indications that China has nibbled away some 400 sq km Indian Territory in Ladakh alone (beyond the 38,000 sq km she illegally holds in Aksai Chin) though denied by our political hierarchy in under shadow of claim lines not being in public domain. There have been reports in the media that in 1992 an agreement had been reached for mutual withdrawal but the fact is that this was just the individual view of P.V. Narasimha Rao, then Prime Minister and Foreign Minister without reference to even the Ministry of External Affairs, leave aside the Ministry of Defence or military.
The situation on ground has changed drastically since then, as discussed above; Chinese activities in GB area and eastern Ladakh. Any withdrawal from Siachen will seriously threaten defence of Ladakh. Such a withdrawal would imply gifting away Sub Sector North (east of Siachen Glacier) to China, as positions there will become untenable. With the next defence line south of the Shyok River, not only will India require deployment of minimum two Divisions (instead of the one Brigade on the Saltoro Ridge) at mammoth expenditure that it can ill afford, Leh will come within enemy artillery range. China, through Aksai Chin will be able to link up with Pakistan in GB area, magnifying the collusive threat further. What also needs to be taken into consideration is the prime occupation of Pakistani military in spawning terrorism.
Withdrawal from Siachen area will open avenues of infiltration and terrorism into Ladakh. Since late 1990s, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has been nurturing Shia terrorist organisations including Tehreek-e-Jaferia (TJP) and its many subgroups with an eye on Ladakh and Zanskar Range south of it. Infiltration into Ladakh and initiation of terrorism will have reverberations through the Zanskar Range right down to Kulu-Manali in Himachal Pradesh, requiring deployment of perhaps another two corps to control the area. Siachen Glacier also happens to be one of the largest freshwater reserves of India which is vital for our precarious water situation. And finally, how can one trust Pakistan amongst her lies, ambiguity, deceit and double crossing. It will be well neigh impossible to retake the Saltoro Ridge, if necessary if the stupidity of withdrawal is undertaken.
Lack of strategic forethought and political unilateralism has been typical to India ever since Independence. More significantly, ambiguity and deceit have been the hallmarks of China and Pakistan. Ask yourself have they ever bothered about world opinion? Will their expanding nexus and US pullout from Afghanistan, not make Pakistan more uppity?
To say that Pakistan will be in no position to re-occupy Siachen is foolish. Even while the Indian troops were deployed at Saltoro, the Kargil intrusions were never visualised on plea that terrain was not negotiable. Additionally, in 1984, when both India and Pakistan rushed for Gyong La, an agreement was reached following a flag meeting for both parties to withdraw. Indians did, but the Pakistanis re-enacted their back-stabbing legacy and occupied the pass in clear violation of the agreement made hours ago. Pakistan is at great strategic disadvantage in Siachen area and this equation must not change.
LT GENERAL (RETD) P.C. KATOCH
A Cheetah helicopter landing at high altitude in the Siachen Glacier