India can ill-afford to pull out from Siachen


Brig R S Chhikara, April 13, 2012

Ever since a massive avalanche claimed over 100 Pakistani lives in Gyari near Siachen, which coincided with a cordial meeting between prime minister Manmohan Singh and president Asif Ali Zardari in New Delhi last week, there has been a surfeit of speculation and suggestions about demilitarising Siachen.

Every Indian soldier empathises with the affected Pakistani families. It was a massive, though rare avalanche and a colossal tragedy, but life in the defence forces is hazardous – much more so in Siachen, where avalanches, crevasses, frost bites and pulmonary edema are daily occurrences.

Indian troops deployed at 20,000 ft, lose 180 men on an average every year – 95 per cent of them to these causes. Pakistani troops at much lower heights of around 12,000 ft also lose an average of 100 men but half of them to our fire during their attempts to dislodge our troops. Wars are a costly affair not just in terms of money. All nations pay this price in the interest of national imperatives, as they must.

That, however, does not warrant obfuscating ground realities, historical facts and strategic issues. Facts first. India occupied Saltoro ridge in 1984 by pre-empting Pakistan’s impending occupation of Bila Fondla by a mere couple of days. India had no plans to hold the area during winter but incessant attacks by Pakistan to retake the passes compelled India to stay. Pakistan has much easier supply lines including roads and mule tracks and greater reinforcement potential in Siachen.

Indian troops take upto a week of climbing to reach their positions and are entirely helicopter maintained. In case Pakistan ever occupies these heights, we may never be able to take them again. The LoC was demarcated upto Pt (NJ 9843), from where it was to continue north to the glaciers. Saltoro Ridge connects NJ 9842 to a point exactly north of it after taking a minor easterly detour, which in fact is territorially advantageous to Pakistan. In practice, boundaries always adhere to geographical logic.

For India, Saltoro Ridge forms the only defensive bulwark against China, overwhelming the Nubra and Shyok river valleys in Ladakh, and if we vacate, Pakistan can do likewise. If anything, Pakistan must recognise that we have not transgressed into the northern areas of Gilgit – Baltistan which historically belonged to the Kingdom of Mahraja Hari Singh, and do not legally belong to Pakistan  even today. This is an area of great strategic importance to both countries as this enables the only possible surface connectivity between India and Afghanistan. There is no historical, political or military justification for Pakistan to deny us the right to be there. Yet, year after year Pakistan has launched attacks to dislodge Indian forces from Saltoro.

Too audacious

In fact we came pretty close to losing our dominance in 1988. Then Brig Pervez Musharraf was commanding the SSG Brigade at Skardu and this author headed the Military Intelligence in the Corps HQ at Srinagar. A chance interception of telephonic conversation between a Pakistani captain and his wife alerted us. Close observations of Pakistani movements and a detailed intelligence appreciation of possibilities led us to conclude that a major attack by more than one SSG Brigade against the central glacier was imminent.
That appeared too audacious. Senior commanders and intelligence experts were not prepared to endorse this assessment. But the Pakistan Army has never lacked audacity even in deceit. Only professional insistence by the author persuaded the Army Chief, General Sunderji, to order precautionary reinforcements. The attack came exactly as predicted and, Musharraf having got a bloody nose could do only two things. First, he profusely abused his troops who had indeed fought bravely and second he pledged to avenge his defeat, which eventually manifested in the form of Kargil.

Recall the innocent stance of Nawaz Sharif during prime minister Vajpayee’s visit to Pakistan just prior to Kargil. Given the gullible nature of our political leadership and the ‘for ever against India’ psyche of the Pakistani military establishment, can we put our faith in Zardari or Gilani knowing that the stakes for India are so huge and irreversible? Is it reasonable to expect Kayani or his successors to permit Zardari or his successors to honour his commitments? Is it reasonable to act in the vain hope that America will once again restrain Pakistan or that China will permit America to do so?

Pakistan’s real intentions behind the suggested accord are all the more suspect because of its refusal to authenticate the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). What objection could the Government of Pakistan have if they were indeed acting in good faith? In fact, an AGPL authenticated by both the civilian and military establishments may better satisfy unsuspecting Indian leadership. But please beware. Such authentication will only equate AGPL to LoC. Has Pakistan ever hesitated to violate the LoC? Pakistan is woefully short on credibility.

President Nixon has been quoted to highlight how India was forever inclined to marginalise its territorial peripheries. Jawaharlal Nehru put faith in the Chinese professions of ‘Hindi Cheeni Bhai Bhai’, and oblivious to the crucial strategic significance of Aksai Chin, gifted it away to China as a desolate area where not a blade of grass grew.
There has been much motivated talk of Manmohan Singh earning passage to history through the award of a Nobel Peace Prize. Can India permit him to follow his ambition by gifting away Siachen to Pakistan as a great confidence building measure and saving both India and Pakistan a few thousand crore rupees apiece?

Our defence forces will not be party to the proposal. Insha Allah.

(The writer is a veteran Army officer) 

 

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