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Home > Citizens Action and Concerns for Peace in South Asia > India - Pakistan: Unending War Over The Siachen Glacier

India - Pakistan: Unending War Over The Siachen Glacier

by Jawed Naqvi, 20 April 2009

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Was Indira Gandhi low on oxygen in Leh to have ordered Siachen fiasco?

A seemingly intractable problem stalking India and Pakistan is their inability to say sorry, mea culpa, and move on. The mulish tendency has led to absurd levels of crises, including nuclear close calls, which would be considered anathema in most cases even among very hostile neighbours.

Conciliatory efforts are discouraged. I remember the bemused face of a Pakistani delegate at a Track III peace conference in Delhi weeks after both countries went crazy with their nuclear tests. He tried to confess that Pakistan had made mistakes by fomenting terrorism in Kashmir. Then he waited for someone from among the Indians to comfort the Pakistanis with their confession. That never happened.

What he got instead was a pat on the back: “You are right, Pakistan has been seriously remiss in helping terrorism. They need to stop it.” There was no word about India being guilty over human rights or anything else that would have helped the conversation to continue productively. The drought of a balanced and sensitive Indian narrative seems to have ended after a long time with a trenchant critique by a former Indian army officer of his country’s Siachen policy.

The title of this week’s dateline flows from a remark by Colonel Pavan Nair in his biting analysis in the latest issue of the Economic and Political Weekly of the unending fiasco in the Siachen glacier. Nair is a retired officer of the Indian army who served for 30 years in the army corps of engineers and saw active service in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Kashmir. His views on Siachen were fortified by his visit to the glacier, which is commonly known as the world’s highest battlefield.

It was on 13th April 1984, close to a quarter century ago, that a small body of troops was heli-dropped on Saltoro Ridge, which overlooks the Siachen glacier, along its western fringe. Within a few days, a company-size force occupied three passes on the ridgeline located at altitudes between 18,000 and 20,000 feet. Meghdoot, the code name given to the operation, was to become the Indian army’s longest running operation.

Nair’s account of the events has come at a time when the two countries are experiencing a bad trough in their turbulent relationship. But that is precisely what makes the account so rivetting. It brings out the absurd and self-defeating politics, mostly bereft of any military logic that underpins key aspects of their ties.

Within weeks of Indians landing there, Pakistani troops occupied positions on the lower slopes of Saltoro to oppose the Indian occupation. Skirmishing commenced for better tactical positions. What started as a small operation soon became a major military confrontation between the two. In just over a year, the force level on both sides reached brigade-plus size till the entire ridgeline covering a frontage of over a 100 kilometres was occupied.

In Nair’s own words till the mid-1990s, pitched infantry battles were fought to gain dominating positions. Artillery duels were a part of the daily routine till November 2003 when a ceasefire came into effect. The logistics of maintaining troops at altitudes above 18,000 feet are mind-boggling. Posts have to be supplied by helicopters and evacuation of casualties is at times not possible due to bad weather.

On the Indian side, over a 1,000 soldiers have been killed and over 3,000 permanently disabled, mostly by the effect of the altitude and weather. On the Pakistani side, says Nair, the casualties are heavier since most of the attacks were launched by them.

In spite of a durable ceasefire, troops continue to occupy positions at punishing heights on both sides of the line and suffer casualties almost on a daily basis. Over a period of 25 years, the presence of thousands of troops in the vicinity of the glacier has caused severe environmental degradation of an ecosystem already affected by climate change. Thousands of tonnes of military garbage and human waste lie dumped in the area. Nair estimates that about 200 tonnes of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere each day due to burning of fuel for cooking, warming and transportation of men and material by land and air. India and Pakistan spend a million dollars a day to maintain troops in Siachen when their human indicators are comparable with sub-Saharan Africa.

Nair has looked for reasons that prompted prime minister Indira Gandhi to give the go-ahead for an operation which in his view was a clear and blatant violation of the Simla Agreement? Why did the military leadership of the day render advice that resulted in the occupation of an area, which had remained vacant for 37 odd years during which three wars were fought between India and Pakistan?

Giving the background to the dispute, Nair recalls that the Ceasefire Line between India and Pakistan was demarcated by the Karachi Agreement signed in July 1949 under the auspices of the United Nations (UN). The northern-most part of the line ended at Khor and remained undemarcated thereafter with a remark that the line would run “thence north to the glaciers”.

It is interesting to note that the background to the Siachen dispute may have been entirely clerical in nature. As Nair observes, during the 1962 operations with China, Jawaharlal Nehru asked for American military aid. US transport aircraft flew supplies and clothing into Leh. The US Defence Mapping Agency noted that maps of the region showed a line ending in the middle of nowhere, so they extended the line in the general direction it was running as far as the Chinese boundary.

Nair comes down hard on the media as well as the civil society for not doing their bit to bring to tragedy of Siachen on the public radar. Both the media and civil society, he says, have played a limited role in debating the issue, except to state the official position and in some cases bring out the difficult conditions faced by the soldiers. A few years ago, Shekhar Gupta of the Indian Express conducted a televised interview of the defence minister, George Fernandes; on the glacier. Conflict resolution did not come up for discussion. Media persons are flown to the base camp in helicopters, given a briefing, shown some equipment and training and flown out.

This, says Nair, is what embedded journalism is about. Not a single journalist has visited any post on Saltoro Ridge in the past 25 years. No one has spent even a single night to get a feel of what the soldiers undergo for several months. The press produces pictures and articles showing soldiers dressed in pristine white climbing vertical snow faces. This may be inspiring stuff for young people wanting to sign up for an adventurous life but hardly reflects the reality of the sub-human conditions the soldiers endure. There is even a television jingle based on the national anthem shot in Siachen.

For the past two years, media persons have been allowed to trek up to Kumar base which is the advanced base on the glacier for reaching the northern passes. A few journalists have noticed the extensive pollution and the poor health of the soldiers who return from the posts. They have reported this, yet the reason for continuing with the occupation of the Siachen heights remains largely unquestioned.

The decision to occupy the heights which dominate the Siachen glacier, was taken by Indira Gandhi after a controversial military briefing held at Leh sometime in September 1983. Neither the army chief nor the defence minister was present. The unilateral military occupation of a part of the line, even if it was undemarcated, was a blatant violation of the Simla Agreement, says Nair. Indira Gandhi would have surely known that, but she took a decision based on incorrect military advice.

Why diplomatic channels were not used needs further study and examination. It is possible that Indira Gandhi did not want to parley with Zia ul Haq. It is also possible that her judgment was clouded by the effect of the altitude at Leh.

In this season of drought of worthwhile and positive ideas to bring the old adervsaries together, Nair not only breaks new ground but also raises the prospect of a wider dicussion on what is to be done. We await a meaningful repsonse from a knowledgable analyst from Pakistan.