Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee announced at Siachen Base Camp during a visit on August 13, 2004, that "Military personnel will meet to discuss the demilitarisation exercise and report back to their respective governments." Referring to the issue of demarcation of the Actual Ground Position Line, he said that "Delineation should first be done on the ground and then it should be reflected on the map so that any violation by either side could be proven." A Pakistani newspaper reported that General Musharraf assured the Indian Prime Minister during their meeting at New York in September 2004 that the Pakistan army would not reoccupy the Glacier if both the armies vacated their positions and the area was demilitarised. Perhaps the Pakistan army fears that it's lies to the nation since the conflict began in Siachen will be discovered.
It is senseless to be fighting at Siachen, the world’s highest and coldest battlefield. In India, no one understands this better than the Indian army that was asked to rush to the Glacier by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. However, despite several genuine attempts to disengage from the icy heights and withdraw forces to agreed positions as a prelude to demilitarisation of the Siachen battle zone, India and Pakistan have failed to reach an agreement. The Pakistan army’s nefarious incursion into Kargil district in 1999 has hardened the Indian stance even further as an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion has developed.
With the benefit of hindsight, it can now be said that the genesis of the Siachen conflict lay in the inexplicable decision of the Line of Control (LoC) demarcation committee to limit the demarcation of the LoC up to nap reference NJ 9842 after the 1971 war. Beyond this point, the agreement stipulated that the LoC was to run “thence north to the glaciers’. Whether or not the Siachen area has major strategic significance is debatable. However, considering the fact that Pakistan had illegally ceded 5,180 square km of territory in POK just north of the Siachen area to China under an agreement of March 1963, India’s defence policy planers should have been extremely careful during the LoC demarcation negotiations. China, of course. built its Karakoram Highway linking Xinjiang with the Northern Territories of Kashmir now under Pakistani occupation through this area.
During the 1970s, Pakistani maps and several important world atlases started showing the LOC running in a north-easterly direction from NJ 9842 towards Karakoram Pass. Soon Pakistan turned its cartographic aggression into a more material one by giving permission to mountaineering expeditions to go to the Siachen area, Its army followed up by sending reconnaissance patrols to Siachen. Based on inconclusive intelligence reports of the Pakistan army’s plan to surreptitiously capture the Siachen ridges during the summer months of 1984, the Indian army launched a preemptive push to the snowy wastes in April that year and is now physically holding most of the heights on the Saltoro Range west of Siachen Glacier including Indira Col, the highest point and Sia La, Bilafond La and Gyong La, the major passes.
All of this is now history and the past cannot be undone. However, 20 years after the Siachen conflict began, neither side has been able to formulate a convincing rationale for fighting at an average height of 18,000 to 20,000 feet — heights that are mostly higher than the Swiss Alps. Over three thousand infantry soldiers and those from the other arms and services serve with a smile at super-high altitudes without oxygen in harsh climatic conditions. It is well known that the army has suffered more casualties due to extreme cold climate and pulmonary oedema caused by a prolonged exposure to high altitude conditions than those resulting from enemy action.
Maintaining the Siachen brigade is a logistics nightmare. The daily expenditure is approximately Rs 3 crores as all supplies have to be transported by helicopters. At some posts on the upper reaches of Saltoro Range, a Cheetah helicopter can carry just one 20-litre tin of kerosene oil per sortie, making it the most expensive kerosene in the world! The fact that the helicopter has to be flown by a single pilot under treacherous wind and weather conditions during snow blizzards which start without warning makes the Siachen sector the most difficult area to fly in for helicopter pilots.
Hence, there is huge interest in India and Pakistan and in the international community for the demilitarisation of the Siachen area. The two countries have been discussing this thorny issue at least since June 1989 when both the armies are reported to have “agreed to re-deploy to pre-Shimla positions”; however, the agreement floundered on the issue of joint inspections. In November 1992, the Narsimha Rao government Is said to have hacked out at the last minute due to lack of political consensus on the issue. This was the period when the Babri Masjid crisis was looming large before the nation. In November 1998. Pakistan rejected India’s proposal to accept and authenticate present positions-and allow bilateral monitoring after withdrawing troops.
The last round of talks between the two Defence Secretaries was held on August 6, 2004. As per the joint statement issued at the end of the talks, the two sides agreed to “continue their discussions with a view to resolving the Siachen issue in a peaceful manner. Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee announced at Siachen Base Camp during a visit on August 13, 2004, that “military personnel (of the two countries) will meet to discuss the demilitarisation exercise and report back to their respective governments.” Referring to the issue of demarcation of the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL), he said that “Delineation should first be done on the ground and then it should be reflected on the map so that any violation by either side could be proven.” A Pakistani newspaper reported that General Musharraf assured the Indian Prime Minister during their meeting at New York in September 2004 that the Pakistan army would not reoccupy the Glacier if both the armies vacated their positions and the area was demilitarised.
The greatest stumbling block to demilitarisation is Pakistan’s stubborn refusal to allow demarcation of the present positions on the ground and on the map. Perhaps the Pakistan army fears that it’s lies to the nation since the conflict began in Siachen will be discovered.
From India’s point of view that is the first step to eventual withdrawal of troops and demilitarisation. Unless Pakistan reviews its rigid stand on delineation of the AGPL, the Siachen conflict will remain an intractable issue. Only then can the two armies graduate to pulling out their troops. The natural sequence for a final settlement will be a permanent Ceasefire, demarcation of the AGPL on ground and on the map, a joint verification agreement that can be practically implemented, redeployment to mutually agreed positions and, finally, a political agreement to resolve the dispute.