The Siachen storyWhy Indian Army cannot withdraw from the glacierby Maharajakrishna Rasgotra
The Tribune, Chandigarh
The Tribune, Chandigarh
In July 1982, under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s direction, I had restarted the India-Pakistan Foreign Secretary’s talks which had remained stalled for over two years. Before my departure for Islamabad the Prime Minister’s instructions to me were typically laconic: “Talk to them about everything they want to talk about, including Kashmir; what I want to know from you when you come back is whether there is a grain of sincerity in him”.
President Zia-ul-Haq had been making noises about wanting peace with India. My very first meeting in Islamabad was with President Haq, who advised me to work out with his officials a Treaty of Peace and Friendship, including a No-war Pact. Over the next two and a half years we did successfully negotiate such a treaty, but at the last minute under American advice, Pakistan backed off from signing it. But I shall not dwell on that long story here.
On return from Pakistan, I told Prime Minister Gandhi that while my talks with the officials had gone off well, I could not really vouch for much sincerity on Zia-ul-Haq’s part. For I had picked up information from other sources in Pakistan that many Kashmiris from both sides of the LOC were being trained by ISI agents for armed jihad in Kashmir at the end, in success or even failure, of the ongoing jihad in Afghanistan. In another visit to Pakistan in 1983, I had heard some vague talk about the Pakistan army’s plans to extend its reach to the Karakorram Pass and link up Pakistan-occupied Baltistan with Chinese Occupied Aksai Chin inside J&K’s Laddakh region. When I mentioned this to Prime Minister Gandhi she asked me to speak about this with some people in our Defence establishment, which I did. Our Army already had information about some such schemes being hatched in Pakistan and was monitoring developments.
In early March 1984, I accompanied Prime Minister Gandhi to a meeting in the Defence Ministry’s high-security Map Room. There were no more than six or eight other persons there, including the Defence Minister and the Chief of Army Staff. On a large map were flagged the positions of the Pakistan army’s base – posts below the Saltoro Range, which constitutes the Siachen glacier’s western flank, and the routes the Pakistan army’s so-called “scientific” expeditions had been treading in the region for the last one year or two. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s two allies – China and the US — had been publishing maps showing the entire glaciated region up to the Karakorram Pass as territory under Pakistan’s control. This was a blatant violation of the Cease-Fire Line (CFL) Agreement of July 1949. Under that agreement the CFL from point NJ 9842 onwards was to run “north to the glaciers”, which would leave the larger part of the Siachen glacier and the region east of it in India. Perhaps, the US and China viewed this as a sort of consolatory recompense for Pakistan’s losses in 1971.
Particularly vexing for us was the thought that our two difficult neighbours, already in illegal occupation of large chunks of J&K territory, would link up to surround Central Ladakh on three sides within our own territory. Such a juncture would give them dominance over the Shyok Valley and easy access to KhardungLa Pass, and from that vantage point their forces would threaten Leh, a mere half days’ march from the Pass. The myth about Siachen, the adjoining glaciated areas and the Karakorram Pass being of no strategic importance is a recent invention: now that the region is secure, such myth making comes easy. Things looked very different to us when a clear danger loomed on the horizon.
So, the Army was given the order to move in and prevent the Pakistan army from occupying any part of the Saltoro Ridge or the Siachen glacier. The risks were carefully weighed; the Pakistan army’s plans to gain territory and strategic advantage in Ladakh, by stratagem or stealth, had to be forestalled and defeated, and if that led to war, so be it. The one post the Pakistan army had succeeded in occupying on the Saltoro Ridge was quickly removed, and ever since no Pakistani soldier has been allowed to set foot on the Siachen glacier: a reality which Pakistan’s army and governments have assiduously kept away from their people.
I was asked to be at that critical meeting, because I was to go to Islamabad a few weeks later to continue with the ongoing treaty negotiations. Sure enough, General Zia-ul-Haq’s Chief of Staff, General Khalid Mahmud Arif, in a private meeting with me gently chided India saying that Siachen was Pakistan’s and what we were doing was not right! I suitably rebutted his claim; the matter was not raised with me again, and there was not the least hint of the ongoing negotiations being broken or stalled. General Arif and I have remained good friends and have been engaged, poste-retirement, in the search for India-Pakistan peace and reconciliation in a forum called the Neemrana Initiative.
I am a firm believer in the mutual need of our two countries for peace, friendship and cooperation. I also think that in view of the Pakistan army’s changing perception of India, New Delhi should creatively respond to Islamabad’s positive gestures. I think it is time for military leaders of the two countries to meet from time to time to inform each other of their respective security perceptions. I also think Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should now pay his long over-due visit to Islamabad. Siachen does not appear to me as ripe for settlement just now, but a mutually satisfactory agreement on the Sir Creek is within easy reach. The visit should also be used to allay Pakistan’s suspicions and fears on water-related issues.
Scrutiny of the records of discussions surrounding the demarcation of the ceasefire line in 1949 will show that leaving the glaciated region as a ‘No-Man’s Land’ or an ‘International Peace Park’, etc, was never in anybody’s thoughts; for invariably always such areas become playgrounds for adventurers, spies and trouble makers. It should also be remembered that the entire line that divides India and Pakistan in J&K has resulted from armed conflicts followed by ceasefires. That is what has happened in the Siachen region also. In due course as this reality finds recognition in Pakistan, demilitarization of the region should become possible. Meanwhile, if requested, we could even consider allowing genuine Pakistani scientific expeditions to the glacier.
After the recent tragedy in which Pakistan lost 150 soldiers in an avalanche, if its army wishes to withdraw from these treacherous heights, they should feel free to do so. Prime Minister Singh can assure them that while the prevailing public opinion in India does not permit his government to agree to immediate withdrawal of the Indian Army from the Saltoro Ridge, it will not step beyond its present positions.n
The writer was India’s Foreign Secretary from 1982 to 1985.