Sunday, March 22, 2009

Siachen Glacier

We approach the silver jubilee of the Indo-Pak confrontation over the Siachen glacier. EPW carries a detailed analysis of the background to the conflict by Col Pavan Nair, a retired army man.

As the Colonel points out, the war is not so much over the glacier as over the Saltoro ridges that dominate the glacier. India did in Siachen exactly what Pakistan attempted in Kargil- occupy positions that give a commanding view of the movements of the opposite side. The difference is that the Pak intrusion into Kargil clearly violated the LoC. In Siachen, the Indian violation is not as clear, although Nair himself believes the decision to occupy the Saltoro ridges was a blatant violation on India's part of the Shimla Accord.

The demarcation point in the map in the agreements signed between India in Karachi in July 1949 and Suchetgarh in December 1972 ends at a place call Khor, with the remark that the line would run "thence north to the glaciers." According to Nair, "The last part of the line, that is Khor and beyond was not made inclusiveto either party.....The Indian claim is based on the watershed principle. Since the last demarcated point NJ9842 lies on or near the Saltoro
watershed, the line should follow the watershed that is the Saltoro Ridge line which runs in a north-westerly direction.".

Whatever the rival claims to the Saltoro ridges, Nair argues that no strategic interest is served on either side by controlling the area. It is in the interest of both to withdraw. Staying on the Siachen costs India Rs 1000 crore every year. Over a 1000 Indian soldiers have died, mostly on account of the hostile weather conditions. Nair says the Indian military leadership had intended the occupation of Siachen as a temporary show of force and did not imagine that the Indian army would be stuck there. Some army generals have even urged unilateral Indian withdrawal, saying that Pakistan would not gain anything by occupying the ridges.

What do we laymen make of the situation? Money is precious and so is every human life. But Rs 1000 crore and 40 lives lost per year do not appear prohibitive in the national scheme of things. Unilateral withdrawal is politically unthinkable especially after Kargil. No government could survive if it withdrew from Siachen only to find that Pakistan had moved in.

As for Nair's contention that there are no strategic gains to be had, you have to remember that military technology and thinking keep evolving. It may not be possible to use the heights to any purpose today. But, with a higher level of technology and if we are under pressure on other fronts with Pakistan in a future war, who knows? That's perhaps why the army balks at the idea of even demilitarising the zone.

The gloomy inference must be that Siachen by itself is unsolvable. It can only be part of a larger Indo-Pak settlement. And that, alas, is hardly in sight.


Radhika said...

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pavan said...

What of the three thousand soldiers who have been disabled? The cost is not only what is paid out to them in terms of disability pensions. What of the suffering of thousands of soldiers who spend several long months at altitudes where basic survival is at stake? And finally, what of the effect on the environment? The purpose of the article was to bring out these aspects. The Glacier is a source of water and nothing else. If indeed we wanted to hold on to the heights, then why are we talking with Pakistan for the last two decades to demilitarise the area?