Siachen Back in the News – but Don’t Look for Peace Yet

From Kashmir Study Group, via Wikimedia Commons

February 17, 2016: A deadly avalanche that killed ten Indian soldiers earlier this month on the disputed 20,000 foot high Siachen glacier in Kashmir received extensive coverage in the Indian and Pakistani media. The avalanche prompted some commentators in both countries to call for an early settlement of what seemed to them and to many others (including ourselves) a senseless dispute.

Their voices were largely drowned out in India by an outpouring of patriotic fervor that cast the dead soldiers as “Bravehearts” who had died for their country. The Indian Defense Minister publicly dismissed pleas that both sides pull back from the 47-mile long glacier where they have confronted one another since 1984. Possibilities for a settlement seem remote.

Siachen is one of several disputes between India and Pakistan that range in importance from the future status of Kashmir to the precise location of a small stretch of their international boundary near the Indian Ocean. The Siachen dispute arose because the Line of Control drawn between the contending armies in Kashmir terminates in the high Himalayas. India and Pakistan have different versions of where it should go from there as it makes its way toward the Chinese border. This made the glacier a no-man’s land.

Anticipating a Pakistani move in 1984 to seize Siachen, the Indian army struck first. Since then it has controlled most of the glacier, including the main range. Pakistan also deploys troops in the area. Published figures say that the two countries together maintain about 150 outposts. Published figures would put the numbers of troops somewhere around 1000-2000 for each side. These are small numbers for both armies, but there is a long and complicated logistical and support chain that goes with them. India’s formal reports to parliament put the numbers of soldiers killed from 1984 to date at just under 900; Pakistani losses are variously estimated at 1000-3000.

Some fighting took place in the earlier years, but a ceasefire was worked out in 2003 and remains in place. The real enemy is nature, in this high altitude freezing desert. There have been no deaths by enemy fire in recent years. At the post most recently struck by an avalanche, the oxygen is so thin that it cannot support fire for cooking. Over time, both sides learned to deal more effectively with the bitter cold and piercing winds. The mudslides and avalanches that have kept up a steady stream of death have been triggered both by climate change and by human activity that unsettled the packed snow on the glacier itself. The recent disaster was by no means the most deadly: in April 2012, 140 Pakistani soldiers were buried by another avalanche.

Sporadic efforts to resolve the dispute have included the idea of converting Siachen into an “international peace park.” Less idealistic approaches have focused on the demilitarization of the glacier, but only after both sides had reached an agreement delineating the areas they had occupied before withdrawing and pledging not to try to take them back. These efforts won some support within the government headed by Indian National Congress party leader Manmohan Singh in the 2000s. But they were stoutly opposed by the Indian Army, one of the few security issues on which the normally apolitical uniformed military has taken a public stand.

This was particularly evident in 2006, when India and Pakistan seemed to be coming close to an agreement on the issue. In a telegram later released by Wikileaks, the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi reported in May of that year that “Army Chief J.J. Singh appears on the front page of the Indian Express seemingly fortnightly to tell readers the Army cannot support a withdrawal from Siachen.” The embassy went on to note that “given India’s high degree of civilian control over the armed forces, it is improbable that Gen. Singh could repeatedly make such statements without Ministry of Defense civilians giving it at least tacit approval.” It concluded that “[w]hether or not this is the case, a Siachen deal is improbable while his – and the Army’s – opposition continues to circulate publicly.” After the most recent tragedy, LtGen D. S. Hooda, who heads the Northern Command of the Indian army, has maintained this position. He was quoted in a Kashmiri paper as saying that despite these tragic casualties, India must remain in its present positions. He specifically ruled out the mutual demilitarization suggested by Pakistan.

The Indian public has had ample opportunity to read about the terrible human cost of Siachen, but civilian public opinion is unlikely to force the issue. For Indians, the avalanche tragedy was heightened by the apparently miraculous survival of one of the soldiers, who was reportedly buried under twenty-five feet of snow for six days before being rescued. Medically evacuated to New Delhi, he was visited in the hospital by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and became an instant, highly publicized hero. His death a couple of days later made him a national martyr.

Siachen has been one of the issues discussed between India and Pakistan in the on-again, off-again dialogue they initiated in the late ‘90s. Plans to recommence these wide-ranging discussions in January were postponed following the attack on an Indian air base by Kashmiri dissidents whom the Indians were convinced had been directed from within Pakistan.

Progress on Siachen is unlikely when and if these talks actually begin. Although the Modi government was willing to exchange with Bangladesh a small number of enclaves along their border, abandoning territory in Kashmir would strike a much different nerve both in the ruling BJP, the army, and the country at large. (It would be easier for the Pakistanis to accept since their military, which calls the shots on these issues, could argue that Pakistan had got the better deal by forcing the Indians off the main glacier range.)

So the issue is likely to continue to perplex outsiders like ourselves. Retired Indian Army friends have told us how important Siachen is for Indian security. But we find it difficult to accept the assertion that Siachen is a potential invasion route. The difficulty both Pakistan and India have had sustaining small forces in that terrain would be magnified many-fold if one attempted a major military operation. By the same token, we wonder how important Siachen would be in India’s strategy against China. It has long struck us as a great waste of men and material which, were the two sides to act rationally, could be satisfactory resolved. Worse, the deaths suffered by both sides are only likely to increase as climate change increases the risk of avalanches and mudslides.

But Indians and Pakistanis are not the only people in the world who don’t always act rationally on emotionally-charged issues.

Howard and Teresita Schaffer

3 Comments

  1. Jaganniwas Iyer says:

    The sanctimonious advice to India to abandon Siachen must be treated for what it is — a sanctimonious homily intended to goad India into giving up its territory. The authors’ concern for Indian casualties on the icy heights is touching, but it needs iteration that minus India’s control and domination of Siachen, its enemies would be able to inflict more casualties. For their information, the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir is Indian territory, a fact even the much-hyped United Nations’ Resolutions of 1949 admit. It is Pakistan that has always been the aggressor. There are sacrifices that have to be made in the cause of the nation, and this one of them.

    The authors may find it difficult to gauge the extent of the Chinese threat, but the Indian army certainly does. There also can be no agreement with Pakistan on any demilitarization of Siachen. Simply put, experience has taught us not to trust the Islamic State of Pakistan to adhere to any agreement or treaty. Respecting agreements and treaties is the character of civilized nation-states, which Pakistan clearly is not. We have the graveyards of the Simla Agreement and Lahore Declaration, followed by endless Pakistani perfidies like Kargil 1999, Mumbai 2008, and now, Pathankot. And in this case, Pakistan has been steadfast in its refusal to even authenticate areas at Siachen. It is trying to grab through diplomacy and subterfuge what it cannot militarily. It is bizarre that the authors breezily suggest India forget all that and simply move on.

    Moreover, a Sino-Pak link up at Siachen will be the next occurrence if India were to withdraw from what is its legitimate territory. It is a potential invasion route, despite what the authors assert. Expecting Pakistan to act rationally vis-a-vis India is akin to expecting the moon; that evil state has been founded and continues to exist solely on the basis of implacable hatred of Hindu India. Demilitarization of the Siachen glacier therefore, is ruled out.

  2. afia says:

    Very timely article and well rounded. Pity that rational thinking does not come out tops when human lives are involved. Allow me to share an article I wrote when three years ago Pakistani soldiers were killed due to an avalanche in Siachin:

    https://afiasalam.wordpress.com/?s=siachin
    Afia Salam’s Blog
    Life is a journey

    The Great Glacier Debate And The Siachin Tragedy

  3. Bharat Wakhlu says:

    Thank you for your comments on the recent developments in Siachen.
    You have ended your lucid piece quite aptly, with the suggestion, “…were the two sides to act rationally [the Siachedn issue] could be satisfactorily resolved.

    I fully agree with this perspective. However, the unwieldy baggage of conflicts, violence and sharp-words between India and Pakistan since 1947, have created a “muddy pool” that will need a long time to settle, before clarity on the over-arching dispute begins to emerge.

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