To the world, the Siachen Glacier is the highest and the coldest battlefield located on the Eastern Karakoram Ranges at an average height of 20,000 feet. Zoom in to the Great Rivals of Asia, and you would discover that raw facts here, turn into a rich tale of parallels- a tale of bloodshed and tragedies running parallel to the tales of mountaineers drinking in the glory of their adventures.
The land is so barren and the passes so high, that only the fiercest of enemies and the best of friends want to visit us
These words, reeking misery and a chilling ambiance, welcome soldiers at the Indian Army’s Siachen Base camp. The Siachen conflict is an epitome of diplomatic failure that carries with it not just monetary costs running into millions, but heavy casualties and broken spirits of soldiers guarding The Line.
1) The genesis: Ambiguous demarcation
A series of wars from 1947-71 led to the slicing up of the state of Jammu & Kashmir along the LoC, demarcating Indian and Pakistani territories. The Karachi Agreement (1949) and the Shimla Agreement (1972) managed to clearly define the LoC up to the map coordinate known as NJ9842. However in the text, it was stated that from that point, the LoC moved ‘thence north to the glaciers’– a term that was not well defined and thus, sparked off disagreement among the 2 countries.
Pakistan interpreted it as the extension to the Karakoram Pass in a northeasterly direction; whereas India understood it as an extension through the nearest watershed- the Saltoro Ridge.
2) Strategic Significance of Siachen
Although the glacier has little to offer apart from biting cold and natural calamities, the two countries refuse to soften their stances on the issue primarily due to the immense strategic significance of this no-man’s land.
India’s claim on the entire region of J&K is just one of the factors driving the heavy guarding. India also fears that any softened stance that opens up a chance for Pakistan occupation of Siachen, would bring Pakistan and China closer geographically, by linking PoK with the Aksai Chin region. Being in control of the upper reaches of the glacier, India enjoys the “tactical advantage of dominating height” – an advantage that the country seems unwilling to surrender through demilitarization efforts. Siachen also offers India the opportunity to keep an eye on Chinese activities in the Shaksgam Valley.
The following timeline traces events of the conflict since its inception
- 1949 (Karachi Agreement): Signed on 27th July, 1949; bringing an end to the Indo-Pak armed conflict of 1948. Establishment of a ceasefire line- running from Manawar in the south up to NJ 9842. The ambiguous statement that the LoC moved ‘thence north to the glaciers’ creates a controversy.
- 1963 (Sino-Pakistan Pact):The Trans-Karakoram Tract (The Shaksgam Tract)- an area of nearly 6000 kilometer sq. that was claimed by Pakistan was given to China as part of the border agreement. China has since maintained that its status will be decided upon final resolution of the Kashmir issue.
- 1972 (Shimla Agreement):Signed on 3rd July,1972, the Agreement ended the 1971 liberation war and the ceasefire line was renamed as LoC-no alterations; the line was to remain the same as on 17 December,1971.
- 1984 (Operation Meghdoot):Cartographic aggression and subtle manifestations of Pakistan’s military plans to occupy the glacier, compels the Indian army to formally initiate this operation on 13th April, 1984. India manages to wrest control of two passes namely- the Sia La and Bilfond La; and Pakistan clings on to the Gyong La pass.
- 1999 (Kargil War):The War took place between May and July, 1999. It was sparked off when Pakistan decided to send infiltrators to occupy the vacated Indian posts at the Siachen- the motive was to use Kargil as a leverage so as to secure India’s surrender of the glacier.
Operation Vijay launched by India managed to regain lost ground and the remaining posts were released by Pakistan upon international diplomatic pressure.
- 2000-2016 (Avalanches and failed demilitarization):
The claiming of lives by the hostile weather of Siachen comes to the spotlight. In 2012, an avalanche buried Pakistan’s army base in Gyari, killing 129 soldiers and 11 civilians. 10 Indian soldiers met with a similar fate in February, 2016.
The frequent tragedies triggered efforts at demilitarization. However, every attempt has met with a dead-end street.
“At the highest battlefield in the world, the enemy is not so much an entity holding rifles and guns; it is the nature, the isolation, the mind and your body.” Writes Man Aman Singh Chhina in the Indian Express, documenting life at the Siachen Glacier, as recalled by Indian Army officers. A pointless cold war that has dragged on for decades has drained the two countries of wealth that could’ve brought light in the lives of many. An international intervention is long overdue; and it’s the citizens of the two countries that hold the power to bring their soldiers home.