A Battle Against Nature
Political will is needed to stop the conflict on Siachen
SIACHEN CONFLICT BY SAJAD PADDER
The Siachen Glacier is one of the most inhospitable and glaciated regions in the world. Sliding down a valley in the Karakoram Range, the glacier is 76 kilometers long and varies in width between 2 to 8 kilometers. It receives an annual snowfall of more than 35 feet. Blizzards can last 20 days. Winds reach speeds of 125 miles per hour. Temperatures can plunge to minus 60 degrees. For these reasons, the Siachen Glacier has been called the ‘Third Pole.’
Initially Siachen was considered to be completely inhospitable and not worth any conflict on the ground. The original cease fire line (CFL) agreed to by India and Pakistan in the July 1949 Karachi Agreement did not cover the area of the glaciers because of the difficulties of delineating the line. When the ceasefire line was changed into a mutually accepted line of control (LoC) in October 1972, the newly delineated line ran from the Shyok River west of Thang (a village) to Point NJ 9842. The area north of it was left blank and open to encroachments. Indians and Pakistanis have tried to stake their territorial claims by interpreting the vague language contained in the 1949 and 1972 agreements to prove their respective points.
India launched Operation Meghdoot on 13 April 1984, after the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave the go-ahead call to the Indian army and air force. Pakistan quickly responded with troop deployments, and what followed was literally a race to the top. India and Pakistan held seven rounds of bilateral talks on the Siachen conflict between 1986 and 1998. These negotiations failed for various reasons. The death of Pakistani President General Zia-ul-Haq in 1988 certainly stalled the process. With the revival of the Composite Dialogue Process in 2004, India and Pakistan have entered a new cycle of negotiations on the Siachen conflict.
While offering a treaty of “Peace, Friendship and Security” to Pakistan in March 2006, Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had hinted that issues like the dispute over the Siachen glacier region and the boundary dispute in Sir Creek could be resolved soon. Also the former Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Khurshid Ahmed Kasuri, has been claiming that discussions to demilitarize the Siachen conflict zone, as a prelude to a final agreement to extend the Line of Control (LoC) beyond map reference NJ 9842, have been proceeding slowly towards reaching an agreement.
Since September 2007, India has welcomed mountaineering and trekking expeditions to the forbidding glacial heights. These civilian treks to Siachen started despite vehement protests from Pakistan, which termed it India’s tourism in ‘disputed territory’. Pakistan conducts similar expeditions in nearby areas under its control with no requirement of a military liaison officer to accompany trekkers.
The twelfth round of defense secretary level talks on Siachen was held in New Delhi on 30-31 May, 2011. During these talks Pakistan presented a non-paper on Siachen. Both sides showed satisfaction over the continuation of ceasefire on Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). They agreed to continue the discussions in a meaningful and result oriented manner. However, no major breakthrough could be achieved at the end of the talks.
Resolution of Siachen could be a big step towards building trust and confidence between India and Pakistan. Its resolution has also become a priority from ecological point of view. The pollution and degradation of the environment, resulting from thousands of men living at these heights, is appalling. The cans, drums, fuel containers, oil and lubricants, tetra-packs for fruit juice, aluminum packaging, chemicals and medical waste can neither be burned nor destroyed, nor can any of them be removed. Human waste amounts to 1000 kg a day on the Indian side alone. It is packed in metal drums and dropped into crevasses at the rate of up to 4000 drums a year. Then there is the war material: guns, arms, millions of rounds for small arms, ammunition and shells. Eventually, all this garbage and waste will end up in the Nubra River, which flows into the Shyok River, which latter on flows into the Indus, on whose waters millions of people survive.
Although a cease-fire is in place since 25 November 2003, and there are now no battle casualties, even at the peak of fighting in the 1980s and 1990s, maximum casualties occurred because of medical reasons due to the harsh terrain and climatic conditions. The lack of oxygen at heights between 18,000 and 22,000 feet and prolonged periods of isolation are a lethal combination and take a heavy psychological toll. The weather gods are equally unkind on both sides of the AGPL. On an average, one Pakistani soldier is killed every fourth day, while one Indian soldier is killed every other day. Due to a terrible avalanche on Saturday (07 April 2012) almost 124 Pakistani soldiers and 11 others got buried alive on Siachen. If today these are Pakistani soldier who got trapped in the glacier heights, tomorrow they might be Indian Soldiers. Apart from the heavy cost in lives and the human suffering resulting from this situation, the financial drain is also heavy. It costs the Indian exchequer anywhere from 3 crore to 5 crore a day; the cost to Pakistan is less but is nevertheless a heavy drain.
Political will and innovative approaches are necessary to stop the conflict on Siachen. Many military and strategic analysts in South Asia now question the strategic significance of the Siachen Glacier. Lt. General M. L. Chibber (retd.), who planned the occupation of Siachen in 1984, said flatly in an interview in December 2004 that “Siachen does not have strategic significance; the strategic significance being talked about is all invention.”
It is ripe time for the governments of India and Pakistan to begin the process of building a national consensus around this important bilateral measure. Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari, is on a private visit to India. Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh must reciprocate by accepting to make a return visit to Pakistan. Both sides must come to the rescue of their soldiers who are fighting with nature at the height of 18,000 to 22,000 feet. Disengagement in the Siachen Conflict Zone could serve as a precedent for the entire LoC. Starting with the somewhat less contentious issue of Siachen, India and Pakistan may well come to reach compromises and a solution to the entire Kashmir region.
(Sajad Padder is a research scholar in the Department of Political Science, University of Kashmir. Mail at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Lastupdate on : Mon, 16 Apr 2012 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Mon, 16 Apr 2012 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Tue, 17 Apr 2012 00:00:00 IST
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