The author is a retired Infantry officer of the Indian Army.
There is a concerted effort on the part of many interested parties to demilitarise the Siachen Glacier. However, the realities of the situation is not explained why Siachen Glacier is critical to India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
One of the biggest drawbacks to India’s geopolitical vision is that India’s defence policy or its strategic vision been not been formally enunciated in a document and these compounds to the dithering and flip flop that signatures Siachen Glacier issue. This possibly could be because of the ingrained philosophy of the Nehruvian era that:
‘let us not be frightened too much of the military might of this or that group. I am not frightened and I want to tell it to the world on behalf of this country that we are not frightened of the military might of this power or that.
Our policy is not a passive policy or negative policy.’
There is no doubt that based on the utopian idealism of Nehru, India is not afraid of any military power but then India has repeatedly been challenged over the post Independence years, wherein:
• The principle that Kashmir legitimately belongs to India because of the Instrument of Accession (as deemed a necessity by the British Parliament’s Indian Independence Act) has been compromised because of an idealistic utopia. This has led to wars with Pakistan causing immense loss in human, material and financial resources, apart from leaving behind a legacy leading to Pakistan sponsored terror infestation starting in Kashmir spreading to the rest of India.
• The humiliation of 1962 caused by the same utopia, leaving a parade ground army with obsolete weapons, not positioned for High Altitude Warfare, ordered to ‘ throw the Chinese out’.
The lack of vision strategic or political was so evident in this era of utopian obsession, laced with grandeur of personal pining to be remembered as a ‘Grand Statesman of the Century’ for posterity to note!
It was only the pragmatic and realistic policies of Indira Gandhi, especially her masterly handling, both politically and militarily, of the Liberation of Bangladesh that resurrected and restored the morale of the Nation from being a footnote in the sub continental history and the Indian Army’s resounding wallop at Nathu La and Chola, apart from Sumdorong Chu that cautioned China that they would do better to find some other nation to ‘teach a lesson’ to!
While politicians may be on the same page, unable to develop the courage to emerge from the historical rut weaved by the Nehruvian philosophy, the Army is reluctant to hold the can for political grandstanding to the gallery of vested interests, be it Nations, media or the pink panthers of liberal thought and be blamed for the lack of geopolitical and geostrategic vision of the governance dispensation, and that does not imply politicians alone!
The delineation of the Karachi Agreement signed on July 29, 1949, by ranking military representatives of India and Pakistan and the UN Military Observer Group endorsing the Cease Fire Line to “Chalunka (on the Shyok River), Khor, thence North to the glaciers”, passing through grid reference NJ 9842. The region beyond NJ 9842 was not demarcated, possibly because of the glaciers and formidable heights that were uninhabited, unexplored and even uncontested!
Maps, Pakistani, UN and global, till around 1972 indicated the CFL as was correct. It was the 1963 unilateral ceding of the 5000 sq km Shaksgam Valley by Pakistan to China that emboldened Pakistan to establish its suzerainty over territories to the East, possibly at the behest of China so as to make an uninterrupted link with Chinese occupied Aksai Chin. To this end, Pakistan commenced a permit regime for mountaineering expeditions in the Siachen. To this end, they were illegally assisted by the US Defence Mapping Agency, which published a map extending the CFL from NJ 9842 to a point just west of the Karakoram Pass.
Pakistan gave permission to a Japanese expedition to scale an important peak (Rimo I) in 1984, it further fuelled the suspicion of the Indian Government of Pakistani attempts to legitimize their claim. The peak, located east of the Siachen Glacier that overlooks the Northwestern areas of Aksai Chin, illegally occupied by China .
In 1983, Pakistan decided to shore their claim by deploying troops on the Siachen glacier, fearing that India might capture key ridges and passes near the glacier given India’s mountain expedition forays and decided to send their own troops first. Islamabad ordered Arctic-weather gear from a supplier from London, unaware that the same supplier provided outfits to the Indians. India was thus forearmed.
The Indian Army occupied the Glaciers on 13 April 1984, four days before the Pakistani Army was to occupy the same i.e. 17 April 1984. It was a coup for the political leadership of Indira Gandhi and the meticulous planning of the Indian military leadership.
Cost of Maintaining Combat Readiness in the Glacier
The cost of maintain the Indian Troops is said to be Rs 5 crores per day. Some pro demilitarising advocates estimate indicate annual costs for maintaining the Siachen outposts for India are around 300 million US dollars and for Pakistan about 100 million US dollars. Pakistani estimates indicate that Pakistan spends approximately Rs15 million a day to maintain three battalions at the Siachen Glacier, which makes Rs450 million a month and Rs5.4 billion a year. On the other hand, the deployment of seven battalions at the Glacier costs India Rs50 million a day, Rs1.5 billion a month and Rs30 billion a year and claim that over 8,000 Indian and Pakistani soldiers between April 1984 and April 2012.
Reasons Advocating Demilitarisation
"Siachen is not worth the challenge of human beings being sacrificed for nation ego."
Bereft of vegetation, the glacier happens to be one of the world's most inhospitable regions where temperature hovers around minus 40 degree Centigrade. If bare skin touches metal, it binds as if with glue and can be torn off. In winters, strong winds from Central Asia can further bring down the temperature to minus 50 degrees. The glacier receives 6-7 meters of the annual total of 10 meters of snow in winter alone. Snowstorms can reach speeds up to 150 knots (nearly 300 kilometres per hour).
The Indian troops on the other hand are stationed about 80 km away from the road-head and have to be maintained entirely by air, which is not only cost prohibitive but also risky because of the adverse weather conditions most of the times. Interestingly, the Pakistani soldiers cannot get up to the glacier and the Indian forces cannot come down. Soldiers brought down to base camp often suffer hearing, eyesight and memory loss because of prolonged use of oxygen masks. Many lose eyes, hands or feet to frostbite.
But what is interesting is that the Pakistanis finds Glacier warfare irksome compared to the Indians wherein they are alarmed that The Pakistanis lose fewer men to the hostile elements and more to the Indian firing .
What has shaken the Pakistanis from their till now smug military adventurism, occupying lower heights and easier logistics, is the deadly avalanche that wiped out their Northern Light Infantry HQ including the Colonel! It is no secret that the Pakistani logistics for Bilafond La and Ali Brangsa have become untenable. The morale of troops there can be well fathomed.
Hence, the new and unheard of pacifism of the Pakistani military leadership is not surprising. The fact that Pakistani Army continues to harbour optimism over the Siachen is because the ‘sacrifice’ is by the Shias of the Northern Light Infantry, the dead abandoned to rot on Indian soil after the grandiosely named Pakistan fiasco in Kargil Op Badr (turning point in Muhammad's struggle with his opponents among the Quraish in Mecca. The battle has been passed down in Islamic history as a decisive victory attributable to divine intervention). The Pakistani ‘love’ for the Shias requires no recall given the regular bombing of their mosques and daily killing!
Pakistan’s abject impotence in ‘conquering’ Siachen is so evident, wherein instead of accepting the actual ground position, they have resorted to internationally appealing agenda of the environment, completing forgetting she alone perpetuated the crisis by wanting to occupy the Glacier before the Indians. Interestingly Federal Defence Secretary Nargis Sethi told media at the end of 13th round of talks on Siachen between India and Pakistan, “We have informed the Indian delegation that the glacier melting and pollution on Siachen was not only an issue of concern for the region but it could affect the entire world,” An ideal case of the Devil citing Scriptures for own purposes!
It is claimed that the Siachen glacier has been retreating for the past 30 years and is melting at an alarming rate and retreating at a rate of about 110 meters a year and that the glacier size has almost reduced by 35 percent. The issue to ponder is that Arctic and the world glacier too are receding alarmingly. Obviously, one cannot be selective to drive one’s agenda.
Unique is also the contention that the waste produced by the troops stationed there is dumped in the crevasses of the glacier. The Indian Army is on a "Green Siachen, Clean Siachen" campaign to airlift the garbage from the glacier, and to use biodigestors for biodegradable waste in the absence of oxygen and freezing temperatures.
It may have missed the environmental campaigners that scientists of Defence Research and Development Organisation are also working to produce a bacteria that can dwell in extreme weather conditions and can be helpful in decomposing the biodegradable waste naturally.
"Fauna and flora"
The flora and fauna of the Siachen region are also affected by the huge military presence. The region is home to rare species like snow leopard, brown bear and ibex which are at risk because of huge military presence.
There is no doubt about that but then, is it not a universal phenomenon? Or else why should animals and plants be put on the endangered species the world over?
Strategic Importance of Siachen
It is amusing to read headlines as ‘Army chief opposes PM's trip to Pak’. This is India and not Pakistan where the Chief can oppose the Government. What the Chief, as any Chief would do, was to inform the Prime Minister of the dangers fraught by winning political brownies over the real dangers overpowering such boneheaded pipedreams.
The issue is simple if India had not occupied Siachen, then Pakistan from the West and China from the East would have a stranglehold over the Karakorum Pass.
What is missed out is that the Chinese have military advantage in the Daulat Beg Oldi area, which can cause a strategically and tactical imbalance and if India withdraws from Siachen and Pakistan, in collusion does a ‘Kargi’, the area will be lost forever and the continuity of China’s domination of illegally occupied territories from Aksai Chin to Shaksgam Valley will be complete.
Little to people realise that in high altitude, without acclimatisation, the troops are as good not being there.
The medical problems on the glacier include high altitude pulmonary oedema, acute mountain sickness, frost bite chilblains, hypothermia, snow blindness.
To obviate that there is a three week acclimatisation that is necessary at various heights.
The question arise is that after the Indian Army quits the Siachen and Pakistan and China does a Kargil, would it be possible to put ‘acclimatised and fit’ troops to ‘throw the intruders out’ to quote Nehru’s famous last words? Yes, it can still be done. But at what costs in wasted lives? Is our memories that short that we have forgotten how Pakistan’s crown in Siachen, the Quaid post, was won and at what costs and be renamed Bana Post?
Are soldiers dispensable commodities for political follies attempting thereafter to achieve ‘instant stardom’ and prove great patriots?
Must soldiers, who are also citizens of the country, die to uphold the abject stupidity of politicians who have no clue of warfare and sacrifice the soldier have done, they living in the cocoon of snug happiness with the ill gotten gains at the cost of the Nation?
Think that over before you sell the Nation!
The author is a retired Infantry officer of the Indian Army