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  • The Battle for Siachen Glacier: Beyond Just a Bilateral Dispute

    Contemporary scholarship working on Indo-Pak issues has tended to view Siachen as a bilateral issue, and therefore, not much literature has been generated analysing the conflict beyond this spatio-temporal realm. Stephen Cohen terms the battle over Siachen as a ‘struggle of two bald men over a comb’ and dismisses the conflict as militarily unimportant. Veteran journalist Myra Macdonald’s book Heights of Madness gives an excellent account of the Siachen saga from both Indian and Pakistani sides but does not provide any strategic evaluation of the conflict. Lt Gen.

    September 2017

    Nagaraju asked: What is the geo-political significance of Siachen Glacier?

    Reply: Refer to earlier replies posted in following pages of this section:
    Sachin Shukla asked: What is the strategic importance of Siachen from the Indian point of view?

    Sandeep Madkar asked: What is the strategic and military significance of Siachen glacier for India?

    Samadhan Vilas Patil asked: Is Siachen deal with Pakistan in India’s interest?

    Also, refer to following IDSA publications:

    Siachen: Possible New International Moves for ‘Mediation’

    India must develop comprehensive and workable proposals to not just tone down the present Indo-Pak standoff on the glacier and the international attention it may be inviting, but also to ensure reasonable security arrangements against treachery by any third country.

    March 20, 2013

    Sachin Shukla asked: What is the strategic importance of Siachen from the Indian point of view?

    Mandip Singh replies: The Siachen Glacier was occupied in the ‘race to the top’ in 1984. The Glacier region is not just the glacier per se but includes the Saltoro Ridge, a crucial mountainous stretch which acts as a watershed, and the area around shown in dark brown on the map below. The Indian view point is best described by Major General Sheru Thapliyal (Retd), who was responsible for the defence of this region, in an article published in the January-March 2006 issue of the Indian Defence Review where he stated:

    ‘It needs to be remembered that the origin of Siachen dispute lies in the fact that both the Karachi Agreement of 1949 and the Shimla Agreement of 1972 have left the status of Indo-Pak boundary vague North of Pt NJ 9842. While the Karachi Agreement says, “From Pt NJ 9842, the ceasefire line will run Northwards to the Glaciers”, Shimla Agreement does not even make a mention of it.’

    Pakistan, on the other hand, believes that the alignment of the boundary runs in a north-easterly direction (see dotted red line) to the Karakoram Pass (see red star). In effect, Pakistan views the entire area within the triangle shaded in brown on the map as its territory.

    The strategic importance of the region from an Indian point of view can be seen from the map. Firstly, the Saltoro Ridge overlooks the area of Gilgit–Baltistan of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) that is under dispute with Pakistan. Secondly, it guards the routes leading to Leh, the principal town and capital of Ladakh. Thirdly, it overlooks and dominates the Shaksgam Valley, which was illegally ceded to China by Pakistan. Fourthly, it is close to the Karakoram Pass through which the Karakoram Highway passes connecting Gilgit-Baltistan to Xinjiang Province of China.

    A Siachen Resolution: Why Now?

    India should put Pakistan on parole and watch its behaviour for 20 years before even beginning to think of any concessions in Siachen or elsewhere.

    November 08, 2012

    Samadhan Vilas Patil asked: Is Siachen deal with Pakistan in India’s interest?

    Reply: It is argued by peaceniks on either side that the Indian military’s presence in the Siachen region at the cost of nearly Rs. 3000 crores per annum is too costly and unaffordable from the point of view of the debate on development-versus-defence. The alternative is demilitarisation with a bilateral agreement not to reoccupy the heights at any cost and eventual delimitation or demarcation. Demilitarisation is much easier than demarcation, which will take long and protracted negotiations. The basic issue of lack of trust which is coming in the way of resolution of Siachen will not be addressed by withdrawal and may not lead to delimitation.

    Moreover, with the geo-strategic importance of Siachen increasing at the moment because of the expanding footprints of China in the Gilgit-Baltistan, any resolution of the issue emphasising on demilitarisation of the region will hurt India’s strategic interests. Demilitarisation will mean vacating the military posts from Saltoro which gives Indian army an advantage at the moment. Even if Pakistan were to recognise Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL), the strategic costs of withdrawal will be much heavier for India than for Pakistan. Indian military is distinctly unprepared for such an eventuality. At a time, when Pakistan is finding it difficult to maintain its forces in the Siachen sector, from a realist perspective, it hardly makes sense for India to make these strategic concessions. Defence analysts in India believe that the cost is not unaffordable while the experience gained by Indian troops in high altitude warfare is invaluable.

    In view of the above, any argument for resolution of Siachen issue with Pakistan, leading to complete withdrawal of Indian military from the Siachen heights, will have to be carefully analysed.

    Sandeep Madkar asked: What is the strategic and military significance of Siachen glacier for India?

    P.K. Gautam replies: Siachen glacier is a part of India. The State of Jammu and Kashmir has two illegal encroachments. One is of that of Aksai Chin by the PRC together with part of Shaksgam region handed over by Pakistan to the PRC in 1963, and the other is the well known Pakistani Occupied Kashmir and Northern Areas. Ensuring territorial integrity is a duty of a sovereign state. Thus, to thwart the Pakistani designs to occupy the undemarcated region, India troops had to occupy the heights and passes in 1984. Although the terrain is extremely difficult and not an avenue of approach for armies to march in and invade a country, the region has ideational strategic significance based on cartography and historical reasoning. Since 2003, though the firings have stopped by either side based on peace agreement, troops still need to man the region. If the region is not held then it can be occupied by an adversary and later it will become very difficult to dislodge them. This is its military significance. Till trust is built up, no withdrawal seems in sight. Another complication is unwarranted entry of the PLA in the garb of road builders, and the administration in the Northern Areas and the POK.