The Siachen Glacier is located in the East Karakoram Himalaya, at approximately 35.5° N 76.9° E. It is one of the five largest glaciers in the Karakoram, situated at an average altitude of 5,400 meters above sea level. Most of the Siachen Glacier is a hotly contested territory between Pakistan and India. The Siachen glacier lies south of the great watershed that separates Central Asia from the Indian subcontinent, and Pakistan from China in this region. The 78 km long Siachen glacier lies between the Saltoro ridge line to the west and the main Karakoram range to the east. Both India and Pakistan claim sovereignty over the entire Siachen region. In 1984, India launched a military operation and since this area is disputed between India and Pakistan. Historically, since the separation, Pakistan was controlling the area, including tourism and permissions for foreigner hiking and climbing teams.
The Siachen Conflict, sometimes referred to as the Siachen War, is a military conflict between India and Pakistan over the disputed Siachen Glacier region in Kashmir. A cease-fire went into effect in 2003. The conflict began in 1984 with India’s successful Operation Meghdoot during which it wrested control of the Siachen Glacier (unoccupied and not demarcated area). India has established control over all of the 70 kilometers (43 mi) long Siachen Glacier and all of its tributary glaciers, as well as the three main passes of the Saltoro Ridge immediately west of the glacier—Sia La,Bilafond La, and Gyong La. Pakistan controls the glacial valleys immediately west of the Saltoro Ridge.
According to TIME magazine, India gained more than 1,000 square miles (3,000 km2) of territory because of its military operations in Siachen. The Siachen glacier is the highest battleground on earth, where India and Pakistan have fought intermittently since April 13, 1984. Both countries maintain permanent military presence in the region at a height of over 6,000 meters (20,000 ft). More than 2000 people have died in this inhospitable terrain, mostly due to weather extremes and the natural hazards of mountain warfare. The 1972 Simla Agreement did not clearly mention who controlled the glacier, UN officials presumed there would be no dispute between India and Pakistan over such a cold and barren region. Severe conditions
A cease-fire went into effect in 2003. Even before then, every year more soldiers were killed because of severe weather than enemy firing. The two sides by 2003 had lost an estimated 2,000 personnel primarily due to frostbite and other complications. Together, the nations have about 150 manned outposts along the glacier, with some 3,000 troops each. Official figures for maintaining these outposts are put at $300 and $200 million for India and Pakistan respectively. India also installed the world’s highest telephone booth on the glacier. Kargil War
One of the factors behind the Kargil War in 1999 when Pakistan sent infiltrators to occupy vacated Indian posts across the Line of Control was their belief that India would be forced to withdraw from Siachen in exchange of a Pakistani withdrawal from Kargil. Both sides had previously desired to disengage from the costly military outposts but after the Kargil War, India decided to maintain its military outposts on the glacier, wary of further Pakistani incursions into Kashmir if they vacate from the Siachen Glacier posts without an official recognition from Pakistan of the current positions. Strategic Importance of Siachen
Siachen may have been occupied due to faulty military appreciation but notwithstanding that, its strategic significance is outlined by the following:- The Siachen glacier is considered to be the largest single source of fresh water on the Indian subcontinent. It is located in the Karakoram Range. Siachen is the source of the Nubra River that eventually feeds the mighty Indus— the major water source that irrigates the Punjab plains in Pakistan. Siachen is near the Karakoram pass, forming almost a triangle with India, China and territory occupied by Pakistan touching the edges. India advanced into it towards Pakistan controlled territory in 1983.
The region is a triangle between Pakistan, China and India. If India can advance further, it can come next to the Chinese regions and block Pakistan’s access to China and also gain strategic control over regions of Gilgit and Baltistan and blocking the strategicKarakorumhighway. Pakistan had advanced just a little more in Kargil in 1999 and that resulted in such a fierce war as India knew that if Kargil is taken, the entire Kashmir would be lost from the North. These regions are not defined borders but are called Line of Control and any nation which has more muscle and nerves can grab whatever it can. Nations defend their territories, even if they seem insignificant. These seemingly small regions play a great strategic role in shaping the destiny of the nations.
Pak View Point
If the alignment of Line of control just prior to NJ 9842 is extended, it will run in a North Easterly direction to Karakoram Pass. India has altered the status of line of control by its occupation of Saltoro Ridge. Indian View Point
Since the alignment of Line of Control just prior to NJ 9842 was altered by Pak by its occupation of Gyong Glacier in 1984, Pak argument of Line of control extending North Eastwards to Karakoram Pass is not tenable. Since the Line of Control does not extend beyond NJ 9842, Pak argument that India has altered the status of Line of Control by occupation of Saltoro Ridge is not valid either.
The Indian Army controls a few of the top-most heights, holding on to the tactical advantage of high ground, however with Pakistani forces in control of Gyong La pass, Indian access to K-2 and other surrounding peaks has been blocked effectively and mountaineering expeditions to these peaks continue to go through with the approval of the Government of Pakistan. The situation is as such that Pakistanis cannot get up to the glacier, while the Indians cannot come down. Presently India holds two-thirds of the glacier and commands two of the three passes including the highest motorable pass – Khardungla Pass. Pakistan controls Gyong La pass that overlooks the Shyok and Nubra river Valley and India`s access to Leh district.
Every year more soldiers are killed because of severe weather than enemy firing. The two sides have lost close to 4,000 personnel primarily due to frostbites, avalanches and other complications. Both nations have 150 manned mirroring outposts along the glacier, with some 3,000 troops each. Official figures for maintaining these outposts are put at ~$300 and ~$100 million for India and Pakistan respectively. The Indians rely on helicopters made indigenously, which are probably the only choppers that can reach such heights, whereas Pakistan has simplified the logistical nightmare by building roads and paths to all of its positions across the glacier.
India has also built the world`s highest helipad on this glacier at a place called Sonam, which is 21,000 feet above the sea level, to serve the area and ensure that her troops are kept supplied via helicopter support (adding to considerable cost).During her tenure as Prime Minister of Pakistan, Ms Benazir Bhutto, visited Gyong La pass making her the first premier from either side to visit the glacier. On June 12, 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the glacier calling for a peaceful resolution of the problem. In the previous year, the President of India, Abdul Kalam became the first head of state to visit the area.
India based Jet Airways plans to open a chartered service to the glacier`s nearest airlink, the Thoise airbase, mainly to fly the soldiers. Pakistan`s PIA flies tourists and trekkers daily to Skardu, which is the jumping off point for K2, although bad weather frequently grounds these scheduled flights.The glacier`s melting waters are the source of the river Indus, a vital water source for both India and Pakistan. Global warming has had its worst impact here in the Himalayas with the Glacier melting at an unprecedented rate. On average, one Pakistani soldier is killed every fourth day, while one Indian soldier is killed every other day.
Over 1,300 Pakistani soldiers have died on Siachen between 1984 and 1999. According to Indian estimates, this operation had cost India over Rs. 50 billion and almost 2,000 personnel casualties till 1997. Almost all of the casualties on both sides have been due to extreme weather conditions. During recent visits to the site of the disaster, Pakistan Army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said all issues between the two countries, including Siachen, should be resolved to ensure “peaceful co-existence” which would allow them to focus on development. However, Kayani also contended that India had hardened its position on the Siachen issue, especially compared to the situation in 1989, when the two sides were “close to a resolution”.
WHY THE SIACHEN ISSUE MUST BE RESOLVED
The Pakistan Army camp near the Siachen Glacier was buried under snow after history’s largest avalanche — about a square mile across — swept over it on April 7, burying 124 soldiers and 11 civilians under it. The rescue operation is underway, involving 240 troops and civilians with the aid of sniffer dogs and heavy machinery, supervised by Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani himself. Needless to say, given the magnitude of the slippage, no survivors have been recovered at the time of writing. The tragedy has occurred at an altitude of over 4,000 metres in the Karakoram mountain range, the highest battlefield in the world where Indian and Pakistani troops are face-to-face in a war that no one in the world appreciates. The irony that can’t be missed is that the Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has offered to help! Sensible people in India and Pakistan have repeatedly advised the two armies to climb down and leave the glacier alone.
India’s Air Marshal (retd) Nanda Harappa advised India and Pakistan to call off their absurd high-altitude confrontation, “where Indian troops took 80 per cent of their casualties from weather and the human waste and war detritus produced by the two armies polluted crevasses and gullies that provide 70 per cent of the water used in India and Pakistan”. The quarrel is absurd. The 1948 Indo-Pak war ended with an agreed map that delineated the Line of Control which reached the grid NJ9842. From this point onwards, the agreed map simply said “thence north to the glaciers”, thus creating a no-man’s land. India says Pakistan moved its troops into the region beyond NJ9842 before it ‘responded’ in 1984: Pakistan says the Indian move began the conflict and that Pakistan was taken by surprise. And the two repeatedly came close to signing an agreement over Siachen only to be pushed back by untoward incidents in the plains. And now the first big disaster has taken place. The glacier is becoming unstuck because of unnatural warming and has killed Pakistani troops forced to be there because of Indian deployment, threatening the economy of a water-scarce South Asia. A UN official, whose book Biodiversity Conservation in Himalayas has just been released, says:
“The Siachen Glacier in Ladakh has receded by about 800 meters’ in the last 20 years and is facing threat of climate change caused by military activities in the region”. Siachen is the most unlucky natural location in the world because 3,000 Indian troops are living and operating there, “hundreds of machines and scores of choppers flying daily over the region, with the result that the environment and ecosystem have deteriorated. The two armies survive by keeping themselves warm and by artificially making the high altitude surface suitable for their activities, depositing tons of chemicals on the surface of the glacier, thereby not only polluting the headwaters of the Indus river but also raising the temperatures in the area”.
The tragedy struck just before Pakistan’s peace-seeking president, Asif Ali Zardari, went on a visit to India during which he had lunch with the Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, very much a man of peace himself. Now that both sides are committed to normalisation of relations through trade and Pakistan knows the consequences of its non-state actors perpetrating cross-border terrorism, perhaps, it is time for rationality to prevail over Siachen. Let us not destroy human life in South Asia just because the two states can’t find solutions to their bilateral problems.
WHAT IS THE WAY FORWARD
A number of suggestions have been made on how the problem can be resolved, including declaring the area a peace park, joint patrolling of the region International peacekeeping force being deployed in the region. However, the Indian Army stand, which is backed by the government, is very strict on the point of authentication of troop positions. The argument is that a demarcation will not take anything away from Pakistan on the negotiating table as current troop positions is a hard, cold fact. Marking the positions on a map, the Army believes, will facilitate a comfortable withdrawal of troops from both sides. Pakistan, on the other hand, believes India’s “occupation” of the glacier is illegal and hence cannot be authenticated jointly by both sides, lest it get validation.