Although our positions on the Saltoro Ridge are impregnable, Pakistan has the advantage of better communication from the plainsAs an old soldier who served at high altitudes for years, having seen closely how devastating avalanches can be, I fully sympathise with the families of the unfortunate 138 Pakistani soldiers who perished in the recent avalanche in Siachen. Human beings are helpless against such natural disasters. I am sure that Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the taciturn Army Chief of Pakistan, must have felt overwhelmed during his visit to Siachen. For the first time he spoke the language of peace. This is welcome, but we should not get carried away by the mere expression of desire. Pious intentions mean little unless matched by concrete and credible proposals.
In July 1949, the UN delegation led by Hernando Sampiers from Columbia convened an IndoPak conference at Karachi to delineate the ceasefire line in Kashmir.
Lt. Gen. Maurice Delvoie of the Belgian Army was the UN military adviser. The Indian delegation led by Gen. Shrinagesh comprised Vishnu Sahay, H.M. Patel, Gen.
Thimayya and Gen. Manekshaw as members.
Although very junior in rank, I was the secretary of the delegation. The Pakistan delegation, led by Gen. Cawthorn, had two civilian and two Army officers. Gen. Nazir Ahmed and Gen. Sher Khan were its military members. The latter was member-secretary. Today, I am the only surviving person who was present at that conference.
Jawaharlal Nehru held a meeting to brief the Indian delegation. Girija Shankar Bajpai, Nehru’s principal foreign affairs adviser, was also present at the meeting. I took down the salient points of the briefing.
The UN Resolution of August 13, 1948, recognised the legality of Kashmir’s accession to India. Pakistan had to withdraw all its forces from Kashmir before plebiscite, while India could retain her forces till plebiscite was complete. The factual position of troops on the day of the ceasefire, i.e. January 1, 1949, was to be the basis for delineating the ceasefire line. India and Pakistan had conflicting claims. As the UN had accepted India’s legal status in Kashmir we should have bid for the no man’s land to be made inclusive to us.
At Karachi, Gen. Delvoie presented a notional line as the basis for discussion. We were horrified to find that this line was almost a complete reproduction of the line claimed by Pakistan. We had a Herculean task contesting against both Gen. Delvoie’s notional line and Pakistan’s claim line. It took us seven days of hectic discussions to delineate an agreed 740 km ceasefire line on a quarter-inch map, from Lalealli in the south to NJ 9842 in the north. By and large, we managed to get an agreement on our claimed line except for minor adjustments. Using the no man’s land argument, we succeeded in getting the 200 square mile Tilel Valley. Pakistan desperately tried for this Valley, eventually bidding for equal share, but failed. The MiniMarg area beyond the ceasefire line but south of the Burzilbai pass was to be kept demilitarised to deny Pakistan infiltration routes into Tilel Valley.
No one at that time thought that military operations could take place at the forbidding heights beyond NJ 9842. In any case, the ceasefire line was only something temporary. After plebiscite it would become irrelevant. Thus, we drew a straight line running north from NJ 9842 to the glaciers. It is easy to be wise after the event.
It would have been better if the line beyond NJ 4982 had not been left vague. On the basis of the no man’s land argument the entire Siachen glacier should have been made inclusive to India.
A straight line north from NJ 9842 makes half the region, including parts of the Saltoro ridge, inclusive to us.
Pakistan soon violated the clause of MiniMarg’s demilitarisation. This was in keeping with Pakistan’s practice of violating all written and verbal agreements, as in the case of the Standstill Agreement in 1947, the Karachi Agreement (ceasefire agreement) of 1949, the Tashkent Agreement of 1966, Simla Accord of 1972, Lahore Declaration of 1999 and the joint statement of 2004 to not allow cross-border terrorism from Pakistan or Pakistan-controlled territory. In view of this, an agreement on Siachen without Pakistan categorically accepting the Actual Ground Position Line, and without a realistic punitive clause, makes little sense.
For nearly half a century till 1984, Siachen had no military presence from either side, not even during the 1965 or 1971 wars. Mountaineering expeditions towards K2, the second highest peak in the world, and other peaks were taking place. From the late 1960s, Pakistan started cartographic aggression by showing Siachen as a Pakistani territory. Some US maps followed suit, favouring a most friendly non-Nato ally. Apart from Siachen providing Pakistan access to Nubra and Shyok Valley, this region also provides access to Gilgit from the illegally gifted Shaksgam Valley by Pakistan to China. There was a sharp increase in foreign mountaineering expeditions into this area from the Pakistan side. Pakistan started giving permits to expeditions to show its administrative control over this region. In 1984, we received confirmed intelligence of the Pakistan Brigade at Skardu commanded by Pervez Musharraf launching a commando operation to occupy the Saltoro ridge. We preempted Pakistan by 48 hours and beat back its attack. The approach to the ridge from the Pakistan side involves a steep climb from 12,000 to 22,000 feet, making defences on the ridge impregnable. Operation Meghdoot conducted on April 13, 1984, in small helicopters, was a most hazardous operation which was successful. In the next nearly 20 years, Pakistan launched four major and several minor attacks till 2004 when a ceasefire came about. As the governor of Kashmir, I visited Saltoro positions in 2004. No doubt living at those forbidding heights is most difficult, but with improved technology for living and excellent medical cover, our casualty figures have not been too high. We have suffered about 1,000 casualties in Siachen since 1984, with a ratio of nine to one of nonbattle to battle casualties. Our current casualty figure is about 10 per year. For the Pakistan Army, living at 12,000 feet and repeatedly attacking those dominating defensive positions, the ratio of battle and non-battle casualties is in reverse. I recall that in November 1948 during the battle of Zojila at a height of about 10,000 feet, when we had no snow clothing at all, due to sudden heavy snowfall we suffered 200 cases of frost bite in one night. Many had to be amputated. In the mid ’60s, commanding a battalion at the height of 16,000 feet for two years, I found our casualty figures not much less than now in Siachen as we did not have comparable living facilities or medical cover.
Although our positions on the Saltoro Ridge are impregnable, Pakistan has the advantage of better communication from the plains. Its forces can trek to Saltoro in a week, while we will take three weeks. If Pakistan does a Kargil there, it will be totally impossible to evict Pakistan. In the circumstances, a step-by-step approach to peace in Kashmir with Siachen as the first step can be suicidal. Demilitarisation of Siachen should only be a part of the complete peace arrangement in Kashmir.