On April 7 this year, 6 Northern Light Infantry (6 NLI) of the Pakistan Army suffered 147 casualties in an avalanche near the battalion headquarters of the unit at Gyari, in the Siachen glacier region. Visiting the scene of the disaster to oversee the progress of rescue efforts, the Pakistan Army Chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, commented that perhaps the time had come to make peace with India and resolve the issue of the Siachen glacier as part of the larger issue of Jammu and Kashmir.
Coming from an anti-India superhawk like the Pakistan Army Chief himself, the statement was totally unexpected. Pakistan’s supporters and well-wishers in India, many of whom occupy distinguished positions in public life, welcomed it enthusiastically and without reservations. Others eyed it warily. Is it part of a devious plan to obtain a respite from Pakistan’s many troubles or a genuine change of heart? Was the tiger really changing its stripes?
The political, historical and emotive backgrounds of the Siachen issue have received extensive coverage in both India as well as Pakistan. Sizeable sections of the general public in both countries are aware of the problem. Not unsurprisingly the outlook is partisan in both countries. But the basic point that must be understood, at least in India, is that Siachen originated as a result of military conflict and its resolution will have to rationalise its conflicting military aspects.
Here, the harsh compulsions of geography have to be acknowledged. The first amongst them is that the topographical and hence the military ground realities are not so much about the Siachen glacier per se, as about the Saltoro range which dominates it and will be central to any resolution of the Siachen issue. The Siachen glacier and the Saltoro range must not be viewed in isolation but in the overall context of their location near the India-China-Pakistan trijunction and interrelation with other significant features on the Indian side like the Karakoram Pass on the Sino-Indian border and the valleys of the Shyok and Nubra rivers, which traverse the Siachen region.
Perceiving the Siachen glacier purely in the context of the administrative boundaries of Jammu and Kashmir would also be misleading, because the glacier is located more towards the Baltistan region and generates its own unique environment and ecosphere. It emanates from the complex tangle of glaciers originating in the mighty Karakoram range, and a good case can be made out for redesignating Siachen as “Indian Baltistan” or the “Indian Karakorams”, thus proclaiming and advancing India’s stake in this region.
In spite of being generally considered as a “road to nowhere”, the lower reaches of the Siachen glacier are significant because they further debouch onto the Nubra and Shyok valleys in India, which in turn link with Ladakh and the Zanskar regions of Kargil. The Shyok valley generally escapes discussion but it is arguably the most significant feature in the Siachen region — the Shyok river crosses the Line of Control and joins the Indus in Pakistan as a major tributary.
The Saltoro range forms the watershed between the Siachen glacier region in India and the adjacent Baltoro glaciers in Pakistan, creating an almost impregnable natural barrier to any Pakistani incursions from the Baltoro glacier region, which, history tells us, have been attempted on several occasions. There have been a series of intense small-unit actions here, the last being a major Pakistani assault in November 1992. It was beaten back and the Pakistani commander sacked. Brig. Pervez Musharraf was one of the unsuccessful Pakistani commanders here in his time, but survived what should have been a mortal blow to his career. Subsequently, he went on to become the Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army, and later the President of his country by coup d’etat. Strange indeed are the ways of fate.
It is a truism that a barrier remains one only to the extent it can be guarded and its own security ensured. This holds good even for formidable features like the Saltoro range. From the Indian perspective, a resolution of the Siachen issue must therefore be examined in the broader context of the glacier per se and its interrelationship with the other significant operational features in the region, including the Karakoram pass on the Sino-Indian border near which Daulat Beg Oldi, the highest airfield in the world, is located. Also, the valleys of the Nubra and Shyok rivers provide broad and relatively accessible avenues in otherwise impassable terrain.
The Karakoram pass remains open throughout the year in all seasons and carries the old trade routes connecting Srinagar and Ladakh with Yarkand in Chinese Turkestan along the Silk Road. It can be described as the Indian equivalent of the Khunjerab pass in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, which leads the Karakoram highway into Central Asia. If suitably developed (and there is no reason to doubt that it can be), the Karakoram pass too can, in effect, become India’s own Karakoram highway (perhaps by some other designation), giving access to Tibet and Xinjiang in China.
Peace between India and Pakistan is undoubtedly of prime importance, but the implications for India of a “resolution of the Siachen issue” must be clearly understood.
What exactly will it involve? The nature of all negotiations demands flexibility and “give and take”. But how much “give” and how much “take” will it entail for India? This is the critical issue because India holds the commanding heights of Saltoro ranges and hence is in a dominant position on the Siachen glacier. There is nothing Pakistan would like better than to somehow cause India to yield the Saltoro heights, achieving by diplomacy what it could not by force of arms. Peace may well be in the air, but given Pakistan’s past record, all that can be said is — look before you leap. Remember the betrayal at Kargil.
The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament