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.


A Chee­tah he­li­copter land­ing at high al­ti­tude in the Si­achen Glacier

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