Different Strokes

The PMO and the MoD are singing conflicting tunes on Siachen – July 2005

After the recent visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Siachen, officials in his office have given scores of background briefings to media asserting that Indian troops will withdraw from the glacier soon. This runs contrary to the defence ministry pronouncements.

After the ninth round of Siachen talks in Islamabad on May 26 and 27, defence secretary Ajai Vikram Singh told the media in New Delhi that without an authentication of ground positions by both sides, disengagement of troops is not possible. The director general military operations, Lt Gen. Madan Gopal, who was present at the briefing went a step further and said that ‘map co-ordinates will be required for authentication.’ Earlier the army chief, Gen. J.J Singh had publicly declared that without Pakistan agreeing to authenticate the present positions held by Indian troops on Siachen, a pull back of troop is ruled out. Amidst all this, officials in the Prime Minister’s Office now hint that a unilateral withdrawal of Indian troops is possible. Showing the present position held by showing the present position held by Indian troop to select Delhi-based military attaches or by a unilateral authentication of these positions by technical means could precede this. All this leads to the conclusion that the PMO is either simply clueless about the Siachen war, or finds the US pressure to show results in the continuing peace process between India and Pakistan unbearable. The latter explanation seems more plausible as the Prime minister’s men are working overtime to make the forth coming meeting between Manmohan Singh and President Bush in Washington on July 18 a success. Unfortunately, Siachen will be too heavy a price to pay.

The reason why India should not vacate present positions on Siachen without a recorded authentication by both sides is that the entire area is a no-man’s land. The Siachen glacier lies beyond the last recorded map grid point NJ 9842 on the Line of Control. Nothing will stop Pakistan from occupying vacated Indian positions; worse, it will be impossible for India to re-capture them. Ironically, it will not be a strategic blunder as it is made out to be by experts, but a national humiliation. In the last 21 years, India has invested enormous resources-lives lost and incapacitated, huge financial costs, and importantly, national pride-in Siachen. Even as the PMO may succeed in explaining why so many lives were lost in vain and why it was a military blunder to have occupied the present positions in the first place, India will lose further respect from neighbouring countries, Moreover, President Musharraf’s stature will rise amongst the Kashmiris to the detriment of India’s bargaining position in the ongoing peace process. Worse, the Indian Army’s morale will go down rather than go up by vacating present positions in return for nothing to show.

The root of India’s Siachen dilemma is the disservice done by its military commanders two times over. After the 1971 war. When the Cease Fire Line was converted into the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir, India’s military leadership should have insisted that the LoC be mutually delineated on maps, if not demarcated on the glaciated terrain beyond map point NJ 9842, northward right till the border with China. Two reasons should have compelled such an action. One, considering that major territorial gains in the 1971 war were made by India in the Kargil sector of Jammu and Kashmir, the LoC should not have been left hanging at NJ 9842. And two, experience with Pakistan and China in Jammu and Kashmir had shown that both were having a free run-on India’s territory; Pakistan occupied India territory in J&K in 1948, and ceded 5,000sq km of territory in Shaksgam valley to China in 1963, and the Chinese occupied Aksai Chin in Ladakh in 1949, Pakistan would have stopped further territorial aggression if the LoC had been marked beyond NJ 9842. The Siachen war is the outcome of this incomplete military task.

Learning little lesson from the past, the military leadership launched Operation Meghdoot (the Siachen war) on 13 April 1984 with faulty assumptions and planning. Considering that the political objective of Operation Meghdoot was to permanently stop Pakistan from having a free run, it was axiomatic that Indian positions on the glacier would have to be permanent as well. This cardinal political term of reference would have suggested that instead of holding the Saltoro Ridge at altitudes up to 22,000 feet, India should have occupied easy positions to the west around Dansum (presently Pakistan’s 323 brigade headquarters) at lower altitudes of 10,000 feet. At that time, this was militarily possible as Pakistan’s presence in the region was thin. India’s military leadership, instead, made a plan that was in dissonance with political objectives.

Talking with FORCE (page 13, December 2004) Lt Gen. M.L. Chibber, the then northern army commander who planned and started Operation Meghdoot for India said that “Siachen dowes not have any strategic significance. The importance being talked about is all invention.” Therefore, the Indian Army’s original plan was to occupy the three passes-Sia La, Bilafond La and Gyong La-on the Saltoro Ridge (which runs roughly along the line joining NJ 9842thence northwards as mentioned in the 1949 Karachi agreement) with about 50to 60 soldiers each of summer months alone. These troops were to be totally air maintained. It was appreciated that once these positions were temporarily occupied Pakistan would accept them as fait accompli. However, in May 1984, a month after the Indian troops were perched on the passes, Indian intelligence reports said that Pakistan was also making preparations to occupy Siachen that had been pre-empted by the Indian action. At this stage, Chibber concluded that the army would need to hold positions permanently. Why did the Indian Army’s appreciation go so wrong? According to Chibber, the Indian intelligence service had failed the nation. The army had no prior information about Pakistan’s prior information about Pakistan’s preparations for Siachen. Moreover, “Mrs Gandhi’s assassination in November 1984 precipitated matters and emboldened Pakistan President Zia-ul-Haq to not accept the Indian fait accompli.” Notwithstanding the army’s incredible justification for not appreciating Pakistan’s determined resistance to India’s military action, the fact is that India today loses much more than Pakistan in Siachen both in terms of casualties and finances incurred. At present, India holds about 80 posts on the Saltoro Ridge with a single-entry route through the glacier itself to reach them. Pakistan, in comparison, has independent routes (roads and tracks) to all its positions on its side. Moreover, should India withdraw from the glacier, it will need to destroy its artillery and thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition (stocked heavily in the Eighties) on the glacier. These cannot be retrieved as artillery guns on the glacier were para-dropped as pieces and assembled on the glacier itself.

Regarding resolution of the Siachen dispute, the first five rounds of bilateral talks produced no results for two reasons: One, India and Pakistan held diametrically opposite positions; India wanted a delimitation to precede a withdrawal of troops, while Pakistan gave prime importance to withdrawal of troops. And two, it was not appreciated in India that Siachen is essentially a military problem. Therefore, military commanders have to be satisfied before diplomats and politicians jump in the fray. For example, during the fifth round of talks in Rawalpindi on June 1989, the then Indian’s foreign secretary S.K Singh publicly endorsed a break-through on Siachen announced by his Pakistani counterpart. Humayun Khan before the Indian military experts had settled matters. Within hours, India denied any such progress on Siachen, and henceforth, the external affairs ministry took a backseat on Siachen talks.

The closest understanding between the two armies came during the sixth round of Siachen talks in New Delhi in November 1992. According to the then Indian defence secretary, N.N Vohra, “Both sides agreed to shift out of the glaciers, move back to base camps to identified areas, exchange maps showing existing location of forces on both sides, and settle modalities of future aerial monitoring of any infringement of the understanding.” This was the only time when Pakistan had agreed to authenticate respective positions as appendices to the agreement. The problem was that them Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao dithered. He was hardly the man to rise to the occasion.

Things changed after the 1999 Kargil war. For one. The trust between the two countries became abysmally low. Considering that Pakistan could attempt to change the LoC, which is well marked on maps and ground, Indian commanders are extremely wary of Pakistan’s assurance on Siachen. This explains the remark by Lt Gen. Madan Gopal that nothing short of mutually agreed map co-ordinates would be accept able for authentication purposes. For another, Sub-Sector West around Gyong La area that has been the most active sector of Siachen is now militarily linked to the Kargil sector where India occupies many forward high-altitude posts. Therefore, experts form both sides would need to rework respective re-deployment positions that will be different from those agreed in 1992. But this is possible only after Pakistan agrees to authentication of respective present positions. Completely focussed on the resolution of the Kashmir issue, President Musharraf is unlikely to devote energy on the Siachen confidence building measure. Especially when India is bleeding more than his forces. The big question now is would the PMO compound the Siachen blunder by overruling the defence ministry and the army headquarters?


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