On the morning of May 2, 2012, officers of the military operations directorate in Army Headquarters held a classified briefing for members of the National Security Advisory Board in Delhi. The presentation was on the strategic disadvantages of demilitarising Siachen Glacier. Now, they want to brief the National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The Army, guided by its chief General V.K. Singh, has pressed the panic button on Siachen in the wake of the UPA Government’s latest peace initiative with Pakistan. On April 30, Defence Minister A.K. Antony told the Lok Sabha that the Government was holding meaningful dialogue with Pakistan to demilitarise the Siachen Glacier. Defence secretaries of India and Pakistan will meet in Islamabad later this year to prepare the groundwork. The Indian Army, which won the battles for Siachen, is determined to prevent politicians from surrendering what soldiers won through blood and sacrifice.
Antony was, as usual, only following Manmohan’s peace script. Way back on June 13, 2005, addressing the soldiers at the Siachen base camp, the Prime Minister had said: “Siachen is called the highest battlefield, where living is very difficult. Now the time has come that we make efforts that this is converted from a point of conflict to the symbol of peace.” Sources in the Government say the Prime Minister has endorsed the Siachen talks on demilitarisation. For him, they say, the world’s highest battlefield-and a snow-capped symbol of Indian Army’s enduring sacrifice-comes without the baggage of Jammu and Kashmir and forward movement (read demilitarisation) would mean creating the right atmosphere for talks derailed by the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. Demilitarisation is his CBM (confidence building measure) offer to Pakistan. Cynics suggest that he, too, has become a victim of the Nobel Peace Prize syndrome, trapped by the desire of temporary personal applause at the cost of national interests. It is his ticket to history.
Siachen, 21,000 feet above sea level, is the world’s largest mountain glacier. Temperature plummets to minus 50 degrees centigrade. But it is the Indian Army’s permanent site of vigil. In 1984, Indian intelligence agencies provided concrete evidence about the Pakistani Army’s plan to occupy the Saltoro Ridge which lines the south-west flank of the Siachen Glacier. Pervez Musharraf was then the Skardu Brigade Commander and the officer in charge of the operations. On April 13, 1984, the Indian Army launched the heliborne Operation Meghdoot. Mountaineers of the Kumaon Regiment were dropped on the Saltoro Ridge to occupy the commanding peaks. Within 48 hours, the Pakistan Army too launched an operation. Battles were fought in extreme high altitude and cold climate but the first occupiers retained the edge. It is this advantage the Indian Army is just not prepared to surrender on a platter to Pakistan. The cost of maintaining troops there for India is roughly Rs 5 crore a day. The merciless peaks have taken a heavy and constant human toll. Pakistan military spokesman Maj-Gen Athar Abbas told The New York Times on April 14 that about 3,000 Pakistani soldiers have died in Siachen since 1984. And about 90 per cent of them from weather-related causes. On April 18, Pakistan’s Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, pained by the death of 140 Pakistani soldiers in an avalanche at Gyari base, spoke of the need to solve the outstanding dispute. “Both countries should sit together to resolve all the issues, including Siachen,” he said. “Pakistan deployed its forces on the Siachen Glacier in response to the Indian occupation of a part of the glacier. The soldiers are doing their duty to defend the country and it is for the political leadership to find a solution,” he added.
The tragedy has changed political hearts in Pakistan. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif spoke of the need for Pakistan unilaterally withdrawing from Siachen. “Let’s not make it a matter of ego. Pakistan should take the initiative,” Sharif told reporters at the Skardu airport on April 17 after visiting the avalanche site. But ground sentiment was still strong enough to force Sharif to deny the statement. Prime minister-in-waiting and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan told india today: “Pakistan and India should simultaneously withdraw troops from Siachen.”
Such sentences were music to Manmohan’s Delhi. Minister of State for Defence M.M. Pallam Raju was quick to welcome Kayani’s statement. Suddenly, the Prime Minister’s desire to convert Siachen into a mountain of peace got fresh impetus from across the border. Twelve rounds of talks have already been held between India and Pakistan on Siachen, with no substantive headway. Pakistan refuses to ratify the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) because that will prove to its people that its army was never on the Siachen Glacier. The Indian Army is on the Saltoro Ridge and Pakistan is at least two to seven kilometres from the glacier. But sources in the Government say the Prime Minister is confident of overcoming the hurdles on the road to demilitarisation.
Since 1984, the two countries have been jockeying for the heights. Musharraf mounted an operation in Kargil in 1999 to avenge Siachen but failed, suffering over 700 casualties. There was a ceasefire during Ramzan in 2003, which continues. Pakistan has tried desperately to force India out, and failed militarily. It now wants to win through diplomacy what it could not do on the battlefield.
The status quo, India believes, is bleeding Pakistan more. For the Indian Army, Siachen is not negotiable. “There is no reason for withdrawal from Siachen at this stage. Both tactically and strategically, holding those commanding heights is to India’s advantage. Pakistan has given no reason for India to trust it. The chief (V.K. Singh) is very clear in his mind. If ordered to withdraw troops, he would seek an order in writing and give his opinion that he opposes withdrawal in national interest in writing. After that, it is the Prime Minister’s decision,” a highly placed source in Army Headquarters said. When former former chief of Army staff Gen J.J. Singh came under pressure to accept withdrawal from Siachen, he went public saying it was not in national interest, sources said. “The present chief will not go public but at the same time he will not let national interest be compromised at the altar of political gamesmanship,” the source added.
In the wake of the Prime Minister’s peace overdrive, the Army, through its retired generals, is trying to create awareness about the ground realities and the need to hold on to the Saltoro Ridge. The Army is drawing a laundry list of Pakistan’s deceit since 1947 and will share it with “veterans” to “educate the country”. “Pakistan has violated every written agreement and verbal commitment since 1947. Why does our Prime Minister want to close his eyes to hard facts and trust Pakistan blindly?” asks Lt-Gen Ravi Sawhney, former director-general of Military Intelligence. “What are the guarantees that Pakistan will not occupy the heights vacated by India? Months after the Lahore peace process in February 1999, the Pakistan Army violated the Line of Control and occupied several Indian posts in Kargil. And the Kargil intrusion was the violation of the Line of Control signed and verified by both armies and governments during the Shimla Agreement of 1972,” says General Ved Prakash Malik, former chief of army staff.
The strategic community is opposed to the Indian Government’s piecemeal approach to peace. They want Pakistan to stop infiltration, close down terror camps, crack down on terrorist groups hostile to India on their soil before there is forward movement on Siachen. India has suffered major casualties on the glacier. Government statistics for the past 10 years reveal that the Army suffered 204 casualties in 2000 in Siachen. It came down to 198 in 2001, 201 in 2002, 187 in 2003, 23 in 2004 (after the Ramzan ceasefire) and just two in 2005. Defence Minister Antony told Lok Sabha that the casualties in 2011 were 26. “The Army is well deployed in the glacier. Its casualties are low and troops as comfortable as the situation permits. Pakistan, on the other hand, is in dire straits. Its troops resent being in those inhospitable conditions and this deployment is hurting Pakistan. Should it deem fit, it can withdraw unilaterally. India will not move forward,” says Maj-Gen G.D. Bakshi, former division commander and defence analyst.
“For India, the core concern is Pakistan-sponsored terror. Has Pakistan closed the terror factories? Has it arrested Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed or Dawood Ibrahim? Has Pakistan closed down the mints that print fake Indian currency notes? Prime Minister Singh cannot compel the Army to withdraw from commanding heights based on empty, meaningless words not backed by action,” cautions Ajit Doval, former director, Intelligence Bureau.
The strategic community calls Manmohan Singh’s Siachen gamble “strategic hara-kiri”. Why is Pakistan desperate for India to withdraw, asks Lt-Gen Sawhney. “Because the Indian Army is strategically deployed to overlook and-should the need arise-interject the Pakistan-China axis in the Northern Areas. Holding Saltoro Ridge is also important to block routes of ingress in the Ladakh and Kargil sectors. It forms a part of forward defence. The cost of withdrawal and redeployment would be higher than staying where we are,” he says.
The Army has prepared a detailed presentation for the Government on why India should not demilitarise the Siachen Glacier.
Indian Army is deployed on commanding heights, crucial for mountain warfare.
From its position on the Saltoro Ridge, Indian Army can monitor the growing Pakistan-China movement. Pakistan has reportedly handed over large parts of Gilgit and Baltistan to China for development. There are reports of thousands of Chinese troops and engineers stationed in these areas.
Indian Army is deployed on the Saltoro Ridge beyond the Siachen Glacier and it is important for the forward defence of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
Pakistan wants to focus on Afghanistan to regain strategic depth in view of the planned US withdrawal in 2014. Pakistan cannot afford to have troops on two fronts. Post 2014, it will once again focus on its eastern flank with its resurgent fourth arm, the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Taliban and al Qaeda.
The strategic community is livid. “First the shameful sell-off at Sharm-el-Sheikh where Manmohan Singh accepted the inclusion of Balochistan, then the Thimphu thaw where Pakistan was let off the terror hook despite no action against the 26/11 perpetrators, and now the proposed Siachen demilitarisation. Dr Manmohan Singh will do grave injustice to the nation if he ignores Army’s sincere advice on Siachen,” says Maj-Gen Bakshi. However, Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal, former director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, argues that “today, technology permits monitoring of troop movement and violation, if any, of agreements. There will be a clause in place on punitive action should Pakistan violate the iron-clad agreement”. Brigadier Rajeev Williams, who commanded a brigade in Drass, concurs: “India and Pakistan need to look beyond Kargil and Siachen. Demilitarisation will help the Army save lives and precious resources.”
As his tenure inches towards an inglorious finale, Manmohan Singh is desperate for a peace trophy, even if it means a Siachen sellout. But he has to win his own Army first, headed by an unpredictable fighter. On June 1, the Army will have a new chief. Will Gen Bikram Singh provide the alibi that the Prime Minister needs to gift Siachen to Pakistan?
– With Qaswar Abbas in Islamabad
Courtesy – IndiaToday