Interacting with media during his annual press conference on January 12, General MM Naravane, Chief of Army Staff said, “We are not averse to demilitarization of the Siachen glacier, but a precondition to that is to accept the AGPL (Actual Ground Position Line). Pakistan has to accept what are their positions and what are our positions, and both of us have to sign on the dotted line before any kind of disengagement takes place.”
Considering this cannot be an off the cuff remark, is the government considering demilitarizing Siachen? Is China ‘blackmailing’ the government to vacate the Saltoro Range else they will attack; buoyed after coaxing the government to force the Army withdraw from the Kailash Range.
Recall the following: verbal assurance by PV Narasimha Rao to Pakistan for demilitarizing Siachen; ‘Mountain of Peace’ bogey by Manmohan Singh seeking a Nobel Peace Prize – Sanjay Baru’s book ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’, and perception building through the Indo-Pak Track II (2011-2012) chaired by the Atlantic Council of Ottawa for India to vacate the Saltoro Range – completely ignoring critical strategic disadvantages. Both China and the US supported this demilitarization.
AGPL and Demilitarization
According to a former Secretary of the MEA, Narasimha Rao (who was both PM and EAM) gave verbal yes to Pakistan for demilitarizing Siachen without consulting the MEA. Pakistan was asked for a ceasefire in Siachen which they readily agreed being advantageous to them with India holding dominating heights. Pakistan was then asked to accept the positions along the AGPL and they agreed to delineation though no deal was signed, which left the MEA in quandary. But why the quandary with Chinese lodged in POK, Gilgit-Baltistan leased to China for 50 years and Pakistan heightening proxy war?
As for signing on the dotted line – how many times do we have to be stabbed in the back to understand the real intentions of China and Pakistan? Once vacated, Pakistan-China will reoccupy the Saltoro Range and adjoining areas leaving us to protest to the UN or attempt recapture at the cost of horrendously enormous number of casualties.
Strategic Importance of Saltoro Range
By virtue of holding the crest-line of the Saltoro Range, which is at the tri-junction of India, POK and China occupied Tibet (COK), India dominates the surrounding areas including the Siachen Glacier which is the fourth largest fresh water source of India. North of it is the Shaksgam Valley (Indian Territory), illegally transferred by Pakistan to China.
The strategic importance of Saltoro is clear from: Pakistan wanting to capture it – Musharraf’s autobiography acknowledges India pre-empted his plan to occupy it; Pakistan always talking of demilitarizing Siachen in discussions on border; Pakistanis like Ghulam Nabi Fai soliciting foreign support; Pakistan drawing imaginary boundary from NJ9842 to Karakoram (KK) Pass for claiming Saltoro-Siachen north of the line; successive Pakistani attempts to capture Indian posts on Saltoro, and Pakistan’s Kargil intrusions in 1999 to cut off Siachen for subsequent capture.
Chinese Designs on Siachen
Tibet is the water tower of China. But China has 20 percent of the world population and mere seven percent of global freshwater. It faces severe water scarcity with the second lowest per capita water supply of any country. Pakistan faces a similar dilemma because of which Musharraf as a Lieutenant General recommended Pakistan should capture J&K for its rivers.
China’s expansionist designs include capture of water bodies. It took Shaksgam Valley from Pakistan for the water availability. The Pangong Tso in Ladakh is one third in India and two-third in China. But China has restricted Indian deployment on the North Bank to the solitary Dhan Singh Thapa Post towards the western end and is feverishly bridging Pangong Tso in Khurnak area to restrict Indian deployment along the South Bank also.
China has built posts and roads linking them in Shaksgam Valley and extended the road to the rear of KK Pass (also read article published in January 2018 at http://usiofindia.org/publication/cs3-strategic-perspectives/beyond-shaksgam-china-scorching-himalayas-blatantly/). China wants to link up with Pakistan along the Shyok River cutting off the Siachen-Saltoro Range and open the old silk route through the KK Pass. That is why China has been intruding into Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) earlier and has made fresh intrusions in Demchok and the 20-km deep intrusion at Bottleneck in Depsang Plains, which China will not vacate come what may – no matter how many more rounds of military talks.
The KK Pass is at the border with China and but China has been building a road to it through Shaksgam. The Chinese used to be seven km north of KK Pass. When Indian and Chinese troops exchanged sweets on January 1, 2022 at KK Pass did Chinese troops traverse seven km through difficult terrain in winter only to exchange sweets? Have they gone back or had they already ‘occupied’ KK Pass? The Defence Minister needs to clarify this though patrolling up to KK Pass is done by ITBP which is not under the defence ministry.
Dangers of Demilitarizing Siachen
Demilitarizing Siachen will help China achieve its strategic objectives in the area on fast forward. Following adverse fallout will accrue by vacating the Saltoro Range (also read article published in July 2014 at http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/siachen-unmasked/):
- Sub Sector North (SSN) east of Siachen Glacier and below KK Pass plus Sub Sector West (SSW) west of Siachen Glacier adjoining POK will become untenable, catalyzing possibility of two-front war.
- Where will we withdraw to? Next line of defence perforce will be the Ladakh Range requiring additional troops, possibly two divisions worth – compared to one brigade holding the Saltoro. It may be noted that prior to the Kargil intrusions, we had one brigade deployed in Kargil but now one division is holding the sector with nine battalions deployed forward. In addition, additional forces have to be deployed during summers to counter infiltration.
- There would also be a requirement to permanently deploy troops for counter infiltration in depth areas of Ladakh range and on the Zanskar Range – similar to north and south of the Pir Panjal Range in J&K.
- Enormous expenditures and time will be required for preparation of the new defence line post-demilitarization; new posts, bunkers, gun positions, helipads, administrative echelons, new communications infrastructure with increased quantum of troops, maintenance and recurring expenses.
For the Demilitarization Protagonists
Some supporters say Pakistan is in no position to re-occupy the area. But even while Indian troops were deployed at Saltoro Range, Kargil intrusions were never visualized on the plea of difficult terrain. In 1999, Pakistan’s SSG establishing a post at the glaciated unoccupied Point 5770 in southern Siachen glacier were attacked and killed in the nick of time. Otherwise it would have been near impossible to dislodge them. Some writers recommend withdrawing to the pre-1984 defence line without knowing what that defence line is and that it would lead to huge gaps lending to intrusions many times of what happened in Kargil.
There is also talk of huge expenditure though Siachen has stabilized over the years. But what about the expenditure after the Siachen Brigade vacates the Soltoro, as mentioned above, in addition to the expenditure along the entire LAC now with permanent mobilization?
Some also argue that that the terrain does not permit large scale movement of troops. Pakistan knows we will not attack them by rolling them down the Saltoro because better axes are available – so why the insistence to vacate Saltoro? Small bodies of troops are enough to occupy unoccupied heights, vertical envelopment too is very much possible and a China-Pakistan handshake in the area would be catastrophic for us. Incidentally, decades back a European mountaineering expedition entered Siachen Glacier from the north through the Shaksgam Valley, traveled up the Teram Shehr Glacier (east of Kumar Post) and returned the same route.
The enormous strategic significance of the area particularly the Saltoro Range becomes clear only when one views the demilitarization together with defence of Ladakh post demilitarization and resultant ramifications on India’s security. Delineation of the AGPL and India-Pakistan inking the same would not stop Pakistan backstabbing us and definitely not China.
Finally, Siachen is our territory. So why are we vacating it and forfeiting our claim to POK in the process?
-The author is a veteran of the Indian Army. Views expressed are personal.