Spotlight on Siachen

Print edition : July 17, 1999

NEW DELHI was not unduly surprised at Pakistan Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz's reported statement in London early in July, which linked a Pakistani pullout from Kargil to the Indian Army vacating the Siachen glacier. After Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's meeting with President Bill Clinton and Islamabad's decision to retreat from Kargil, the question of saving face was of paramount importance. So it was expected that Pakistan would resort to diversionary diplomatic tactics.

The Pakistani media quoted Aziz as saying that Pakistan has made the infiltrators' withdrawal from the Kargil sector conditional on India agreeing to revert to the 1972 positions on the Line of Control (LoC). Aziz, who accompanied Nawaz Sharif for talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, told reporters: "Pakistan has agreed to request and appeal to the freedom fighters to withdraw from Kargil if India also agrees to vacate the areas that it occupied on the LoC after the signing of the Simla Agreement."

Indian officials quickly rejected the linkage between the fighting in Kargil and Siachen or the Kashmir issue. In response to the statement by Aziz, an External Affairs Ministry spokesman said: "There is absolutely no correlation between Siachen and the Saltoro Ranges, which are well north of NJ 9842 and the LoC. This is another attempt to create confusion and detract attention from the focal point that the intruders must withdraw."

The Siachen dispute became a major bilateral issue in 1984, when the Indian Army airlifted mountain-trained forces to positions overlooking key passes in the Saltoro range, a spur of the Karakoram mountains that flanked the glacier's southern rim. The unexpected Indian action saw the start of a costly high-altitude military struggle for supremacy.

Indian and Pakistani troops confront each other at elevations higher than 6,000 metres above sea level. The area contested is a desolate stretch of about 2,500 sq km situated immediately south of the Chinese border. The United Nations-supervised ceasefire line (CFL) of 1949 extended from the international border between India and Pakistan near Chhamb in Jammu and Kashmir in a rough arc that ran nearly 800 km north and then northeastwards to a point, NJ 9842, nearly 20 km north of the Shyok river in the Chulung group of mountains of the Saltoro range. Since the territory beyond this point witnessed no military activity and appeared inaccessible, no attempt was made at the time to extend the CFL beyond NJ 9842 to the Chinese border. At least a 65-km stretch was left undelineated.

The 1949 Karachi Agreement between the two countries contained a generalised statement which said that the CFL "moved thence north to the glaciers". India has used this line to justify its claim that most of the Siachen glacier is unambiguously and lawfully part of its territory. Pakistan rejected this interpretation and insisted that the delimitation agreement of 1949 contained no reference to the CFL beyond NJ 9842.

New Delhi has vociferously denied that its induction of troops into the Siachen glacier has in any way violated the Simla Agreement of 1972. India's stand is that its troops staved off an attempt by the Pakistan Army to wrest control of the Siachen glacier. In the first few months after the action in 1984, the Pakistan Army tried repeatedly to remove the Indian Army from the commanding heights it had captured, but after some time the Pakistan Army was reconciled to a strategy of containment, operating as it did from a lower height.

Between January 1986 and June 1989, India and Pakistan held five rounds of talks over the Siachen glacier. Pakistan's argument remained that the Indian military action in the Saltoro range was a direct violation of the Simla Agreement, which barred the threat or use of force to bring about a change in the LoC. Both sides stuck to their positions until the fifth round of the talks in June 1989. Benazir Bhutto had come to power and New Delhi gave the impression that it was willing to be more flexible on the Siachen issue.

The Indian side demanded that Pakistan cease its "cartographic aggression", that is, its unilateral attempt to extend the LoC from the agreed terminus at map reference point NJ 9842 to the Karokoram pass on the border with China. The other Indian terms included the "establishment of a demilitarised zone (DMZ) at the Siachen glacier, exchanges between India and Pakistan of authenticated maps showing present military dispositions on the ground, the delimitation of the map based on "ground realities" and the redeployment of Indian and Pakistani forces to mutually agreed positions. The Pakistani side, on the other hand, insisted that the deployment of forces should be in mutually agreed positions that were held at the time of the ceasefire in 1971 and called for the "delimitation" of an extension of the LoC beyond the map reference point NJ 9842.

In 1989, the two countries seemed to be in agreement on working towards a comprehensive settlement by redeploying forces to reduce the chances of a conflict at Siachen. But the expected breakthrough did not materialise.

Siachen figured prominently in the December 1998 bilateral talks in Delhi. Pakistani officials insisted that both countries had agreed in 1989 to redeploy troops to positions held in 1984. They claimed that India had again made a commitment to redeploy troops during the bilateral talks in 1992 and that the redeployment was to be monitored using helicopters. The Indian position was that Pakistan's demand that Indian troops withdraw to the 1984 positions was "untenable". Indian officials said that Indian troops were now in control of not only Siachen but also of higher ground in the Saltoro range. The Indian offer of a ceasefire in Siachen was also not accepted by Pakistan. Pakistan said a ceasefire proposal could only be considered if it was to be monitored by a third party. New Delhi's stand has been that any third party involvement would lead to "internationalising" the issue.

Linking Siachen with Kargil may only be a diversionary ploy by Islamabad. Pakistani officials have privately suggested that their country is not averse to seeing India tied down militarily in Siachen. Indian troops in Siachen have to be supplied by air while the Pakistanis, who occupy the lower heights, can be supplied by road. Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, when he was Pakistan President, once described Siachen and the surrounding areas as barren wasteland. Pakistani officials claim that Siachen is of little military importance to Pakistan and that Pakistan did not perceive the Indian military presence there as a threat. They point out that the strategically important Karakoram highway was hundreds of miles away from Siachen.

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