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The Siachen Conflict

By M.M. Munshi

“Siachen” is  more well known as the highest battleground on earth  rather than place of wild roses, i.e , what it means in the Balti dialect,  where India and Pakistan have fought intermittently since  April 1984. Both countries maintain permanent armed forces in the region at a height of about 6,000 meters. More than 3, 500 soldiers have died in the inhospitable terrain mostly due to extreme weather sub zero temperatures, blizzards, avalanches  and ailments associated with extreme cold and rarity of air rather than actual fighting. Siachen  is the second longest  glacier outside the polar regions  after  the 77 kilometer long Fedchenko  glacier of the Pamirs in Tajkistan  It is 70 Kilometers long  and is  located  on the southern flank of the Eastern  part of Karakoram Range flanked on the west by Saltoro ridge  and in the east by main Karakoram Range, immediately south of the  great watershed that separates Indian Sub continent  from Eastern Turkistan- Sinkiang  the modern Xinjiang autonomous province of China, in the extensively glaciated region and sometimes called the third pole. The Karakoram is itself a misnomer used earlier by  western geographers after the Turki word meaning black gravel. and not be confused with Qara Qorum the capital of Gengis Khan in Mongolia. The crest of the  Saltoro ridge  varying  in altitude between  7,722 meters (25,330 ft) and  5,451 meters (17,880 ft.) bifurcates from the main Karakorum Range slightly north of Sia Kangri Peak, extends in a south and southeasterly  direction The main passes on this ridge from north to south are Sia La 5,590 meters (18,336 ft.) Bilafond La 5,451 meters (17,880 ft.) and Gyong La 5,690 meters (18,665 ft.) The average winter snow fall is about  12 metesr (40 ft.)  and temperature falls to about minus  55 degrees C. The  catchment area of the Siachen glacier system including its feeding tributaries covers about  720 sq kilometers (275 Sq. miles)  The glacier  descends from  the head of its  accumulation  zone at an altitude of about  6,000 meters (20,000 ft) to its snout at the end of its zone of ablation  3,621 meters (11,875 ft) much below the perpetual snow line in the area. The  firn  line  traverses the glacier at about  5,121 meters (15,800 ft.)

The roots of the conflict over the Siachen  lie in the non-demarcation  of the cease fire line northwards of point NJ9842. In the Karachi agreement 1948-49 it was surmised   by both  India and Pakistan. that  it was not feasible for human habitation to survive north  of point NJ 9842. The UN Officials presumed that there would be no dispute between India and Pakistan  over such a cold and bleak area . In 1972 Simla agreement  also did not clearly mention as to who actually controlled the glacier ,merely stating that from the point NJ0842 the LOC would run northwards.

Today the two sides have about 150 pickets with about  3000 troops on either side ..Official figures for maintaining  these pickets are $300 and $200 million for India and Pakistan respectively. India has constructed the world’s highest helipad  at Point Sonam at  6,402 meter(21,000 ft) to ferry and supply  the troops. The problem of reinforcing and evacuating  from this ridge line  led to India’s  development of  it’s indigenous  Dhruv Mk II Helicopter , powered by the Shakti engine  which was flight tested  to land and lift personal and stores from the Sonam point  the highest permanently manned helipad in the world.. India also installed at Siachen the world’s highest telephone booth in the world

In 1957 a British  expedition under Eric Shipton  with the permission of Pakistani authorities approached Siachen Glacier  via  Bilaford La  and carried out reconnaissance of  Saltoro  Kangri In 1962  two Japanese and one Pakistani  climber scaled the  Saltoro Kangri.  By about 1967 the United States Defense Mapping Agency [At present Geospatial –Intelligence Agency] without any legal or historical justification  or any documentation pertaining to boundary started showing on their Tactical Charts available to Public and pilots as proceeding northwards from  NJ9842 east northeast to Karakoram  Pass* on the China border on Pakistan’s side of the Cease Fire Line.  Numerous government and private  cartographers  and publishers of atlases  followed suit. This was further  followed by United States Cartographically  “awardingthe entire 4,880sq. kms (1,900Sq miles ) of the Siachen –Saltoro area to Pakistan. In 1970s and early 1980s Pakistan permitted a number of mountaineering expeditions to climb the high peaks  in the Siachen area due in part to United States Defense Mapping Agency. And Teram Kangri  I and Teram Kangri II were climbed by a Japanese Expedition  led by Katayama  which approached Siachen via Bilafond La.. This was done to reinforce the idea that Siachen Glacier was under the control of Pakistan .In 1978 Indian government having taken notice of this and as a counter measure Army mounted a mountaineering expedition led by Col.N.Kumar  [then commanding officer of Indian Army’s High Altitude Warfare School ]  to  Teram Kangri Peaks.and actually climbed Teram Kangri II the news and photographs of which  were given wide publicity

The first public mention of a possible clash in Siachen area appeared as an article ”High Politics in Karakoram “ in the Telegraph news paper of Calcutta in 1982 which was  subsequently reprinted in the Alpine journal London under the title “Oropolitics in 1984.

With specific intelligence of a Pakistani operation India launched operation Meghdooot [named after the divine cloud messenger in a Sanskrit play by Kalidasa] on 13th April 1984. When about 300 men of the  Kumaon Regiment  supported by Indian Air Force entered Siachen area and quickly  took control of the Sia La and  Bilafond La on the Saltoro ridge a week earlier before  the arrival of Pakistanis  Pakistanis finally  found three hundred Indian soldiers firmly dug on the highest  mountain tops. The contiguous area is about 1000 sq miles (2600 Sq Kilometers). According to  a  now retired Pakistani  Colonel Pakistani  authorities committed an intelligence blunder “by ordering Arctic weather gear from a London based firm which also supplied to Indians Once the Indians got wind of it they ordered 300 outfits –twice  as many as Pakistanis had and rushed their men to Siachen.”

After 1984 Pakistanis launched several attacks to dislodge Indians from their positions but without any success. The most determined attack came in 1987  with newly raised  elite SSG  commando led by Pervez Mushraf [latter Army Chief and President of Pakistan]  with the aim of capturing Bilaford La but after bitter fighting including hand to hand combat, with troops of J & K light Infantry Pakistanis were thrown back and position remained unchanged. In this action  Niab  Subedar Banna Singh of the JAK Light Infantry now retired Subedar Major and Honorary Captain  was awarded the Param Vir Chakra –India’s highest military decoration awarded for highest degree of valor in presence of the enemy Pakistan made repeated attempts  in 1990,1995, 19996 and even early 1999. In 1995 the attack by the Pakistani SSG  was significant as it resulted in high  casualties among the  Pakistani commandos.

The Indian troops dominate  the entire 70 Kilometers  length of the Siachen Glacier and all its tributary glaciers  as well as the main passes of  Saltoro Ridge immediately west of the glacier – Sia La, Bilafond La  and Gyong La  thus holding the tactical advantage of the high ground while  Pakistanis control the glacial valley five kilometers  south-west of  Gyong La. The Pakistanis despite their best efforts  have been unable to get up to the crest of Saltoro  ridge while Indians  cannot afford to  withdraw from their high posts  by coming down the line where Indian and Pakistani  troops are holding on to their posts is.

After the army personal of both sides having suffered more from extreme cold, bad weather amd other factors at high altitudes  in the past both countries had  desired to disengage from the costly  military confrontation of the highest battlefield in the world i.e  Siachen  and negotiations were held but resulted in failure  as Pakistan was and is not  willing to give official recognition to the present status.

One of the factors behind the Kargil War of 1999 when Pakistan sent their regular troops mostly from their Northern Light Infantry in the garb of Mujahids  across the LOC to occupy the Indian posts vacated for the winter with the belief that India would be forced to withdraw from Siachen in exchange for a Pakistani withdrawal  from Kargil heights. Though a cease fire is in force since  2003 ,but after the Kargil War India decided to maintain its military outposts on the glacier wary of Pakistani intrusions into Jammu & Kashmir if they vacate from the glacier  without an official recognition of the present status from Pakistan. for which the latter is not prepared. Since September 2007 India has opened up  the area for mountaineering and trekking expeditions. The first group included cadets from Chail Military School, National Defense Academy , National Cadet Corps , Indian Military Academy, Rastriya Indian Military College , followed by civilian trekking parties.. These expeditions prove that Indian Troops hold  almost all the dominating heights  on the key Saltoro Ridge  and Pakistani Troops are not within  15 kms.  of the main Siachen Glacier Ignoring protests from Pakistan  in October 2008 trek was undertaken to send a message that every civilian can visit this part of the country A senior Indian Officer explained “The civilian treks started  despite  vehement protests from Pakistan which termed it India’s tourism" in disputed territory. India maintains that it does not need anybody’s approval for sending expeditions/trekking parties in its own territory President Zardari of Pakistan during his recent visit to India raked up the need for a solution for Siachen Issue. Pakistani Army Chief Gen, Kiyani  also expressed a desire for demilitarization  of Siachen after an avalanche hit a Pakistani camp and buried 120 Pakistani soldiers and 10 civilians  on 12th April 2012. But latter Foreign minister of Pakistan again claimed  Siachen as Pakistani territory.  It seems that fresh negotiations on the issue  are bound to fail as Pakistan is likely to insist  on demilitarization  first and demarcation of the status latter. While India is going to insist  on official recognition first and withdrawal latter. After all what is the guarantee  that a Pakistani Army Chief / General or President will not occupy  Siachen in future with so called freedom fighters / Mujahids?

Copyright M.M. Munshi  2012

 
 

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