The significance of the Siachen Glacier, nestled high up in the mountains beyond the Shyok-Nubra Valley, has received a shot in the arm given the seriousness of the current face-off between India and China in Eastern Ladakh. Not many can perceive the deep linkage between Siachen, the Karakoram Range, Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) and the Shyok Valley through which the high-profile road from Darbuk to DBO runs.
An article by Brigadier Masud Ahmad Khan (Retd) of the Pakistan Army in that country’s newspaper The Nation datelined 24 August 2020 and titled ‘Siachen is Ours’ is as much a trigger for this piece as a progressively gleaned perception that Pakistani knowledge of this area is much more than meets the eye. However, this must commence by pointing out the folly of many Indian analysts and others who believed that New Delhi has gained no strategic advantage by spending `1,500 crore every year to maintain its hold over Siachen.
First, let us get to Brigadier Khan’s claims. His arguments are based on four issues; that after Partition, Pakistan controlled the area west of the line from NJ 9842 to Karakoram Pass; that foreign mountaineering expeditions sought its permission before proceeding to climb in the Siachen zone; that international atlases such as those of the National Geographic depicted the area as Pakistan’s; and lastly that various books published even by Indian publishing houses showed Siachen in Pakistani territory. Pakistani claims cannot get more bizarre.
Factually, the narrative remains that NJ 9842 was the last point up to which survey of the ceasefire line (CFL, later LoC) was done after 1 January 1949; it was recorded that beyond NJ 9842, the CFL would follow an undefined line ‘north to the glaciers’. It would have remained undefined and conflict-free but for Pakistan’s undercover efforts to take control of the glaciated area defined by the triangle NJ 9842-Indira Col (along Saltoro)-Karakoram Pass. It was providential that India took a timely initiative on 13 April 1984 and occupied the triangle, denying its use to Pakistan.
Pakistan may then have never fully appreciated the strategic value of Siachen. Not many in India did either as the ‘not a blade of grass’ theory from the 1962 days played into our understanding. Right at the outset, perhaps two things were clear to the government for it to be as proactive as it was in flying out troops to Bilafond La (pass) on 13 April 1984. The first was the fact that the Siachen triangle took us closer to the Shaksgam Valley that had been illegally ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963. It is the second reason that was evident to some but only progressively dawned on many others.
The second reason alluded to above was the fact that Siachen was the immediate flank of DBO. An infantry-based foray through Siachen could access the relatively unguarded Nubra Valley and head for DBO. If captured from that direction, a continuous swathe of territory on the Karakoram Range would fall to Pakistan. This would broaden its boundary with China and offer the two adversaries of India the ability to conduct operations in collusion to capture the entire Nubra and Shyok Valleys.
In that contingency with its western and northern flanks occupied, the Indian Army deployment in Eastern Ladakh would be severely threatened, to the extent of forcing it to retract to the Ladakh Range. The Indian Army’s defence of Ladakh resting on the Ladakh Range is an unthinkable contingency; Leh, the capital, would have just one mountain range to give it depth. It is only a deep study of the map and travel experience through the ground that brings this realisation.
For those like me who are fortunate to have commanded an infantry unit at Siachen and then in Eastern Ladakh, the realisation was crystal clear many years ago. In 2013, China commenced talk of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as its flagship arm. Many of us who knew the lay of the ground north of the Ladakh Range wondered how long it would be before China would be tempted by alternatives to the alignment; after all, the Old Silk Route never depended on single arteries; there were always a maze of them and the Shyok route had the potential to recreate that maze.
It was also just around 2012 that Pakistan, after all the failed attempts in Musharraf’s time, once again commenced a campaign for ‘mutual withdrawal’ of the Indian and Pakistan Armies from Siachen Glacier. The huge avalanche on the Pakistan Army unit on 7 April 2012 that took 140 lives was also used to spur the sentiment towards a ‘mutual withdrawal’. Like in 2004-5 when similar attempts were made by Pakistan, there were a few on the Indian side who understood the ploy about ‘mutual withdrawal’.
There can never be anything mutual about such a withdrawal simply because the only army that occupies Siachen Glacier is the Indian Army, strongly ensconced on the Saltoro Ridge to give the Glacier requisite depth. Thus only one army will withdraw under any such ‘mutual withdrawal’ agreement. Evicting the Indian Army has proven well-nigh impossible as experienced by the Pakistan Army. Interestingly the Siachen area has witnessed no ceasefire violations by either army since 2003, perhaps an attempt to lull India into accepting ‘mutual withdrawal’.
What Pakistan’s public and its media were never officially informed is the fact that India beat Pakistan to the occupation of the Glacier by a mere six days and that an Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) exists along the Saltoro Range, which Pakistan has never shown on its maps publicly. Besides the strategic angle of posturing for future collusion with China to seek more options for strategic connectivity, the Pakistan Army has in Siachen Glacier a symbol to recover its lost dignity in the eyes of the Pakistani people. It should remain the highest hanging fruit in today’s perceptions, not the lowest, the latter being the line that Pakistan was once trying to sell us not so long ago.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir