The avalanche on the Siachen glacier which killed 10 soldiers of the Indian army this week is not the first of its kind. The harsh and sad truth about the world’s highest battleground is that climate and extreme natural events like avalanches have taken more lives on the glacier than enemy action.
There was a time in 1989-1992 when India and Pakistan came close to resolving the issue, as part of their bilateral dialogue. However, that moment has passed and the current geopolitical conjuncture and state of relations between the two countries prevent the old proposals to demilitarise the region from going ahead.
The best kept secret in Pakistan is that its forces are not anywhere near the glacier. They are in the north at a lower point beyond a place called Conway Saddle. As of now India sits on the entire Saltoro ridge from Indira Col to Bilafond La and Gyong La, overlooking the Pakistani posts below, with the Siachen glacier behind them. Yet access to the glacier from Bilafond La is easier from Pakistani positions than from Indian base. Only in Gyong La, a little to the south of Bilafond, are positions at the same level.
The issue for the Indian side whenever mutual withdrawal and demilitarisation have been considered is this: how to prevent Pakistan from cheating on the agreement and occupying the glacier or Indian positions once they are vacated. There is a history behind this going back to the 1947 and 1971 wars when Pakistan took advantage of Indian carelessness after the ceasefire to move forces forward in Kargil and Tangdhar, respectively.
That is why the Indian army has insisted that an Agreed Ground Position Line be marked on mutually agreed maps. As is well known, the Line of Control that arose after the 1971 war terminated abruptly at point NJ 9842, leaving a 72 km gap up to Indira Col, beyond which is the Chinese-controlled part of the Shaksgam valley, which was controversially ceded by Islamabad to China.
In 1992 the two sides came close to an agreement to demilitarise the glacier. In the talks that were held in November, the Indian side wanted a delineation of the line from NJ9842 to Indira Col followed by a redeployment of forces away from the glacier and a monitoring of the zone of disengagement. The Pakistani side proposed that both sides vacate forces in a triangular area from enclosed between NJ 9842, Indira Col and Karakoram Pass. The extension of the zone to Karakoram Pass was a problem for India as it is the last point that China recognises as being Indian controlled in J&K.
The two sides came close to an agreement when Pakistan agreed that it could meet Indian requirements by indicating in an annexure the areas that would be vacated by the two sides and the points to which they would redeploy. But for reasons as yet unknown, the Indians balked at the last minute. That the two countries were willing to go so far in Siachen is all the more remarkable, considering that in 1990, Kashmir had blown up and by 1992, the insurgency in the state, backed to the hilt by Islamabad was in full swing.
After Pakistan’s Kargil misadventure, however, all deals were off. The reason was the taped conversation India obtained between the then Pakistan army chief Pervez Musharraf, who was in Beijing, and his chief of staff, Aziz Khan in Islamabad saying that they will claim that the Line of Control was not clear in the Kargil area.
This was patently untrue since the LoC has been jointly surveyed by Indian and Pakistani military surveyors and put down on maps which have been counter-signed by both sides. The Indian army has argued since then that if the Pakistan army could come up with such a blatant lie over Kargil, then it could very well do so again in some future misadventure in Siachen.
An additional factor that has emerged in recent years is the Chinese pressure in the Depsang plains area in adjacent Ladakh. The Indian side worries that should there be coordination between Pakistan and China, it could squeeze off territory in the north, endangering India’s ability to defend Leh and the region to the south of that.
In 2012, following an avalanche that killed 124 soldiers and 11 civilians, Pakistan’s army chief at the time, Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, called for the two sides to move forward on their old proposals to demilitarise the glacier. However, nothing came out of this because of the changed India-Pakistan discourse.
There was a time when the leaders of India and Pakistan believed that they should resolve their smaller problems – Siachen, Sir Creek, and the Wullar barrage dispute – and build trust to settle the larger issues like Kashmir which have bedevilled their relations.
Today, however, the situation suggests that unless there is a paradigm shift in India-Pakistan relations to resolve the big issues – Kashmir and terrorism – the smaller ones will remain unresolved.
So, the Indian army will have to continue guarding the line they occupied in March 1984 and have held with great grit and sacrifice.Their only comfort is that working conditions there are much easier than they were in the first few years of deployment. However, tragedies like the one that happened on Wednesday can happen again because no one, but no one, can overcome the power of nature.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.