A billion prayers, medical science and miracles couldn’t bring Lance Naik Hanumanthappa back to life. Amidst elation over his recovery after getting buried 25-30 feet under ice for six days at a height of 19,500 feet, the debate over the worth of holding the icy high altitude wasteland has once again received a fillip. This happened earlier after the March 2012 avalanche at Gyari, on the other side of the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL), killing 138 Pakistani soldiers. The protagonists have been reinforcing their arguments based upon human and financial loss, for the mutual withdrawal (both by Bharateeya and Pakistani Army) to lower heights and treating the Artic like wasteland as a No Man’s Land. They have also been alluding to the supposed lack of any strategic significance of Siachen (a misnomer). What is the reality? This is as good a time as any to inform the public and the policy makers why we are in Siachen, what is the ground that we hold and why we can’t get out.
Although most would know it, it is worth repeating that the LoC after Simla Agreement of 1972, was delineated till NJ 9842 on the map. The area north being inhospitable and unfit for human habitation was left un-delineated with the vague term about the alignment running ‘north to the glaciers’ from NJ 9842. In 1978 it was noticed that Pakistan was conducting mountaineering expeditions to the Siachen area and that if left unchallenged the area would automatically be ceded to Pakistan. It was finally in 1984 that the Bharateeya Army occupied Siachen Glacier; the broad details of the occupation are of significance. Firstly, it was a superhuman effort by our Army to occupy heights and icy glaciers in blizzard conditions without habitat. To continue holding that against numerous unsuccessful Pakistani attempts to evict us is virtual military folklore. Secondly, what did we occupy and why was/is Pakistan so sore about it? We occupied the main 76 Km long Glacier, placed our logistics there, built up defensive capability, established artillery and air defence gun positions and perfected the nuances of glaciated operations; all this at a height of 15,000 to 17,000 feet. More importantly we moved west along various sub-glaciers which feed the main glacier, and established our dominance and control over all the passes on the Saltoro Ridge. This necessitates that if Pakistan wishes to get to Siachen it has to evict us from these passes and the foreboding shoulders. One such is the southern shoulder of the Bilafondla Pass which is called Sonam and atop that is Bana Post, the pinnacle captured by the legendary Sub Maj (Hony Capt) Bana Singh, PVC of 8 Jak LI in 1987. It is at Sonam that the current avalanche has struck. Not occupying Sonam means that Bana cannot be occupied too. That in turn means it is the Pakistan Army which will put its flag on the shoulders of Bilafondla; little chance would we have of remaining in occupation of Siachen Glacier if that were to happen. That should convince that holding the Saltoro Ridge is an imperative. Otherwise observed artillery fire on the lower portions by the adversary will make us sitting ducks besides offering Pakistan the luxury of observation over all our activities.
The strategic significance of the area for both Bharat and Pakistan is important to analyse. For Pakistan it is all about broadening the sliver of territory which connects it to China via Gilgit Baltistan (GB), giving itself more depth and converting the connect to a swathe. If we leave the Saltoro we cannot retain the lower parts of the Siachen Glacier and indeed the deployment in Nubra Valley will be under threat. Our next real line of defence of the Leh Valley will be the Ladakh Range which gives us far too little depth and leeway for any maneuver.
A point has been put forward by protagonists of withdrawal that both Armies of Bharat and Pakistan should mutually agree to withdraw to lower heights after delineating the AGPL where our deployment currently exists and authenticating it with signatures on maps to cater to future contingencies of dispute. This is too simplistic. Firstly, Pakistan refuses to recognise our line of deployment on Satoro Ridge because officially it has never informed its public that the Pakistan Army is nowhere near Siachen Glacier; it is deployed far below on the Konduz Glacier on the west of Saltoro. Pakistan romanticises the dispute in the eyes of its public by always calling the area of its deployment ‘Siachen’ without having even a peep at the Glacier. Secondly, it is all fine if Pakistan accepts the AGPL, authenticates and signs on the dotted line. There will be euphoria, withdrawal and much saving of lives and finances but if in the very next year an element of the Pakistan Army under a new Army Chief wishes to score browny points and decides to renege on the agreement by occupying the vacated Saltoro Ridge what will Bharat do. Our national and military pride will force us to launch operations to recapture. This will be nothing short of disaster; in 30 years the Pakistan Army hasn’t been able to gain even a toehold. Our Army will do it, have no doubt, and succeed but at the cost of 2,000 lives or more and crores of rupees in funds. Trusting the Pakistani establishment is something we just cannot afford to do, given the current climate where a week after our Prime Minister makes a surprise goodwill visit to Lahore we have one of our major air bases being hit by sponsored terror groups from Pakistan.
Leave all else aside and look at the current developments. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is being constructed illegally through the GB area on which lies our claim; it is our territory or at least in international perception it is disputed territory. Two nations cannot go ahead and construct strategic infrastructure in disputed territory. This is only going to further the potential of China-Pakistan collusion against us. By holding Siachen and securing the Nubra Valley we retain the closest deployment that we have to the vulnerable Shaksgam Valley through which the CPEC is being constructed. Why this operational advantage should be frittered and concession given when Pakistan has failed to even act against the various terror groups which its Deep State sponsors for acts against us.
Some military minds with no experience of Siachen have alluded to technical surveillance over the Glacier after withdrawal to prevent Pakistan establishing its hold. They have gone on to add that punitive and deterrence capability should be in place to cater to any reneging of the agreement. My humble submission to them, after service at the Glacier and handling issues connected to Pakistan for many years, is that if such a punitive/deterrence capability could be built why shouldn’t the same cater for the sub conventional threats that Pakistan sponsors against us for all these years. Secondly, if we discover occupation of the heights by Pakistan through the modern surveillance means that are proposed would it not require us to counter that through
physical eviction bringing us back to all the arguments used in previous paragraphs.
The emotive aspects of loss of life in the Siachen Glacier Sector will always remain a source of great concern for us but nations have lost much more to retain their core strategic interests. Our Army is not to be made cannon fodder for imagined strategic gains. It is for this reason why the public must be made to understand the nuances of the strategic advantage that we hold by keeping Siachen Glacier under our full control. It is imperative that there be no cost cutting here and even more important that the lives, respect and dignity of the officers and jawans be kept uppermost in all our deliberations. Silly aspects such as compensating civilian bureaucrats at higher scales in relatively luxurious climes of Guwahati than the personnel at the Siachen is not going to be taken kindly by the public. Our officers and jawans must get the best of everything – equipment, weapons, ammunition, protective clothing etc and also allowances to retain the edge that we hold over Pakistan in this most strategic deployment at Siachen sector.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain
(The writer a former GOC of the strategic Srinagar based 15 Corps, has commanded his unit at the Northern Siachen Glacier and now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and various deliberations of India Foundation)