The Siachen glacier is the world's highest and coldest battlefield

Considering the increasing collusion between Pakistan and China against India and the ongoing Chinese belligerence on the LAC, any thoughts or discussions on Siachen demilitarisation would be disastrous

by PJS Pannu

The Siachen glacier is called the highest battlefield on the earth, known for its insane levels of challenges posed by weather and combat where both India and Pakistan have deployed active troops. On the Indian side, spanning almost 38 years, more than 3,00,000 troops of the Indian Army have had Siachen tenures in these Super High Altitudes ranging from 18,000 ft to 21,000 ft above mean sea level. The glacier is approximately 70-km-long flanked by the Soltoro Ridge on the West and the Karakoram Range on the East and extends southwards into the Nubra Valley.

The passes on the Soltoro Ridge were occupied by the Indian Army in April 1984 as a pre-emptive to the Pakistan Army planning to capture Soltoro using the passes of Sia La and Bilafond La. Gradually, the entire Soltoro ridge was occupied by the Indian Army extending to the areas referred to as the Northern, Central and the Southern glaciers. The Pakistan Army had to contend with occupying certain areas and establishing military posts opposite but at lower reaches. More military posts came up on both sides causing bloody clashes and grab actions. The famous and gallant action by Major Virender Singh and Sub (later Hony Capt) Bana Singh in capturing the Quaid post where they were decorated with the Vir Chakra and Param Vir Chakra respectively is one of the many such clashes. The entire 121-km frontline held by both sides northwards of NJ 9842 on the Soltoro Ridge is called the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL).

The Karachi agreement of 1948 and the Shimla agreement of 1972, both delineated the boundaries of divided Jammu & Kashmir up to map reference NJ 9842, north of which the lines were imagined by Pakistan and India to their own convenience. According to Pakistan, the line extended northeast up to the Karakoram (KK) Pass, while India considered the line to be running northwards along the watershed making the entire Soltoro Ridge, west of the glacier, part of Indian territory. Both India and Pakistan barely carried out any military activity in the area till the late 1970s when it came to the knowledge of Indian Army’s Col Narendra Kumar (nicknamed Bull), who was then the Commandant of HAWS and a renowned mountaineer, that Pakistan was guiding foreign expeditions across into the Siachen from the west.

An American map carried by a foreign expedition which Bull Kumar chanced to see confirmed that the boundary alignment up to KK Pass, as claimed by Pakistan, is also being shown in some international maps. Intelligence reports further confirmed that Pakistan militarily was preparing to occupy Siachen in the early summers of 1984. Indian Army launched Operation Meghdoot, a quick pre-emptive, and inducted troops on the Soltoro that stymied the Pakistan-planned operation codenamed Ababeel.

Siachen glacier is part of the erstwhile princely state of J&K inherited by India through the instrument of accession signed by Maharaja Hari Singh. It is only the gradual militarisation of the POK and the Gilgit-Baltistan area that has caused strategic concerns for India.

Pakistan has already gifted 5,180 sq km of Shaksgam Valley that lies north of the Siachen to China in 1963 allowing access and control by the Chinese into this area. Pakistan has always attempted and demanded that the state of J&K should be vacated by the Indian troops. It has made all military and diplomatic attempts to project this area as disputed. Pakistan has deliberately facilitated the Chinese to carry out military and economic activity in the area. With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the near vicinity, both collaborators are not comfortable with the presence of Indian troops in Ladakh, especially Siachen.

Hypothetically speaking, should there be an absence of the Indian Army at Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO)/Depsang in the eastern Ladakh and on the Siachen in the west, Pakistan and Chinese troops could marry up at the Karakoram, threatening the Nubra and the Skyok Valleys. This would ultimately make Turtuk, (southwest of NJ 9842) and large parts of eastern Ladakh untenable for India. Some experts may differ on the grounds that it would be extremely uncongenial for the adversaries to hold ground for protracted periods of time. However, in an extreme case, such an action would make it possible for the two adversaries to get a foothold on the Ladakh ranges, threatening the Indus Valley.

Even though a tall order, any gradual build-up would make a case for the Ladakh region to be an objective of two-front militarily action by China and Pakistan — an attempt to control the waters of the Indus river. I would like to add that even though such a scenario would be suicidal and cost-prohibitive for both China and Pakistan, given that irrationality has been the virtue of our adversaries, such misadventures could be attempted if India gave any opportunity.

On the question of demilitarisation of the glacier, the issue first needs to be understood whether the AGPL is contested or not? The answer is: Both sides of the glacier are held by opposing forces and any retrograde move by India would attract Pakistan to move forward and occupy vacated areas. The Pakistan Army, desperate to establish its credibility in the eyes of their own people, would sell this as a military victory not only internally but also to showcase India in poor light. They would be supported, encouraged and certainly funded by the Chinese to maintain presence in these areas. The genesis of the occupation of Soltoro ridge in 1984 was basically to deny the Siachen to Pakistan, nothing has changed, and if it has, it changed only for the worse considering the Chinese are making 'salami slice' advances towards Ladakh.

In a hypothetical scenario, even if Pakistan and India were to sign an agreement recognising the AGPL, it would be naive for India to expect Pakistan to respect it. Knowing the past precedent, why would India trust Pakistan to adhere to such an agreement? Considering the increasing collusion between Pakistan and China against India and the ongoing Chinese belligerence on the Indian borders, any thoughts or discussions on Siachen demilitarisation would be disastrous. Pakistan and China are more aggressive and more coordinated currently than any time before and have the commonality of interests in Gilgit-Baltistan and POK through which China has built its strategic CPEC giving them access not only to Gwadar port but also to Afghanistan.

The Indian Army is spending a phenomenal budget on maintaining the Siachen glacier, the weather casualties have been heavy too. However, the experience of Indian troops is unparalleled in the world considering that the Indian Army occupies higher reaches of the Soltoro and dominates the Pakistani posts located at lower reaches. If the Indian military prides itself on its readiness to defeat any adversary in super high altitudes it is due to the experience and training of our combat soldiers, Pilots and logisticians on the Siachen and Ladakh. India is a proud victor of the highest battlefield on the planet.