Following the 1947-48 war between India and Pakistan, the Cease Fire Line was delineated under the Karachi Agreement of 1949 only up to a point on the map known as Point NJ 9842. The area to the north, being highly inaccessible and glaciated, was not delineated, but the direction of the CFL beyond NJ 9842 was unambiguously stated as ‘thence north to the glaciers.’ The same happened when the CFL was replaced by the LoC after the 1971 war.
In 1984, having received hard intelligence that the Pakistani army was about to secure the area, the Indian army, in a preemptive move, occupied the Saltoro Ridge, which constitutes the watershed and runs parallel to the length of the Siachen Glacier on its western side. It has been called the Actual Ground Position Line since. The Pakistani army made many attempts to throw us back, but all such attacks were repulsed. Having failed militarily, Pakistan decided negotiations were a more pragmatic option.
Discussions so far have been unsuccessful as Pakistan has been insisting on their terms for a resolution.
The Pakistan army’s last audacious attempt to dislodge us from Siachen was made in 1999, when they captured Kargil and surrounding areas with the aim of cutting off our supply routes to Ladakh and secure Siachen by this indirect stratagem. However, the bravery and courage of our troops saved the day. Another pertinent fact that must not be lost sight of is that in 1963, Pakistan had unilaterally and illegally conceded the Shaksgam area, north of Siachen, to China.
Since early April, following a major avalanche in the area occupied by the Pakistani army, an orchestrated attempt is being made to bring the issue back in focus. The important myths and realities are discussed below.
First, the contention that Siachen and Saltoro have no strategic value is wrong. If Saltoro had not been occupied by our troops, Pakistan from the west and China from the east would have long since linked up, with the strategic Karakoram Pass under their complete control. The illegal ceding away of the Shaksgam Valley by Pakistan to China has completed the encirclement of this crucial area. It is only our occupation of Saltoro that has driven a wedge between the two. By controlling Saltoro, we have also retained the option of negotiating with China over Shaksgam valley at the appropriate time.
Second, the Pakistani stance that since India is the aggressor, it should vacate the area, is a travesty of truth, as what our troops did in April 1984 was to occupy our own areas; no border or line was crossed as the entire area, not having been delineated, belongs to India.
Third, it is stated that unnecessary casualties are being incurred on account of the treacherous terrain and climate. This is no longer the case with us, as the Indian army has learnt its lessons. Fourth, an additional reason stated is that Rs5 crore is being spent every day on our troops there. While the figure may be disputed, should sovereignty be measured in this manner?
The Siachen issue is important for the peace process, but there are many others that are more important and pressing, and which need to be resolved first. We seem to have fallen for the Pakistani ploy of looking at Siachen as a separate issue, unrelated to the LoC, when de facto it is an extension of the LoC. Pakistan’s compulsion on the issue must not translate into a sellout by India, for it will be an unmitigated disaster if it happens.
The most important point we have to keep in mind is that while it suits Pakistan to get our troops to vacate the commanding heights of the Saltoro Ridge, we would lose them permanently if we do so, as regaining them would be militarily extremely difficult. Despite this, if there is a compulsion to resolve the issue, then the first action must be to delineate the AGPL, before any shifting of troops takes place. Pakistan has so far refused to accept this, perhaps with an ulterior motive of occupying it at some future date!
Pakistan has been proposing that both sides should withdraw to positions that existed prior to the occupation of the Saltoro Ridge, but this must not be accepted as our troops will take longer to return to their positions, should this become necessary, on account of the difficult terrain on our side. There is also a need to work out a detailed joint mechanism to ensure that the terms of the resolution are strictly adhered to.
The writer is a former vice chief, Indian Army