a war in the himalayas that the world can't ignore

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Indian Army's Aviation Corps division has built a helipad for its Siachen operations

by Prakash Katoch

One of the first tasks of the Imran Khan government in Pakistan was to seal all offices of the South Asian Free Media Foundation (SAFMA).

On April 7, 2012, after an avalanche in Gyari trapped 140 Pakistani soldiers and civilians, SAFMA stated that Pakistan withdrew from Siachen without any agreement. SAFMA’s reason may have been the 139 killed in the 10th-deadliest avalanche in the world at Gyari.

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However, the fact remains that all major passes in the entire Saltoro range, dominating the 76 km-long Siachen Glacier running east of Saltoro, are held by India while Pakistan holds low ground west of the Saltoro range, far away from the glacier. The Pakistani posts are located 900 meters below the 100 or so Indian Army posts on the Saltoro ridge.

After the Gyari tragedy, Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, asked his army to unilaterally withdraw from the area but the military remained adamant and sundry authors began to project Siachen as Pakistani territory. They began to assert fallaciously that claims India had “illegally occupied” the Siachen Glacier and that India demanded that Pakistan accept the current deployment along the Saltoro Range as a permanent border. It also claimed that India had signed an agreement in 1989 to withdraw from Siachen. They also argued that India wanted to sever the Karakoram Highway (KKH) advancing through the Saltoro Range. But all these contesting claims need to be viewed through the prism of a contentious history of the subcontinent emerging from colonial rule.

Having used 2.5 million Indian troops in World War II, the British brought Cyril Radcliffe to India on July 8, 1947, giving him five weeks to partition India into two entities. Radcliffe, who had never been to India, and never saw a map, was given two Muslims and two non-Muslim civilians for the task. He submitted the boundary award on August 17, sailing back to England the next day. Viceroy Lord Mountbatten had announced independence two days earlier; August 15 for India and August 14 for Pakistan. The partition ended in violence that killed more than a million people and displaced over 12 million. The entire state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) was acceded to India by its ruler, Hari Singh, through an Instrument of Accession signed on October 26, 1947, after the Pakistan infiltration started. This was the official position as far as princely states were concerned, and it was agreed upon by all sides during partition.

Siachen Glacier is the world’s highest battleground, India is holding it, while Pakistan lays claim

The role played by the British during this invasion and its instruments of governance – Mountbatten, Rob Lockhart, the then-commander-in-chief of the Indian Army, and Douglas Gracey, commander-in-chief of the Pakistan Army. They managed to keep the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Pakistan’s governor general, M A Jinnah, out of the picture. This enabled the Pakistan Army to get a foothold in the state, making it a party to the dispute when it was referred to the UN.

Winston Churchill instructed Douglas Gracey to let India and Pakistan to fight but keep a piece of India so that both would keep fighting in perpetuity. Not only did British officers lead Pakistani soldiers in Ladakh, General Douglas Gracey organised the fall and massacre of the Skardu Garrison, an area now part of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

The Ceasefire Line (CFL), drawn according to the 1949 India-Pakistan Karachi Agreement, went east only till NJ 9842 (a height of no relevance and unoccupied to date), beyond which it only said “thence North to the Glaciers,” which left the Siachen Glacier as un-demarcated; another deliberate omission orchestrated by the British. Not that Britain has given up its skullduggery; it refused India’s request in August 2018 to stop Sikh separatists from demonstrating in London.

Up to 1967-70, all maps of Pakistan depicted the CFL correctly only till NJ9842, but in 1967, the US Defense Mapping Agency began showing the India-Pakistan boundary on tactical pilot charts from NJ 9842 to the Karakoram (KK) Pass without justification or documentation, cartographically.

This detente in Siachen, with Pakistan on one side and China on the other, becomes imperative as we view the rising trade tensions between the US and China

This was hardly an innocent act given that US President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were reaching out to China through Pakistan, the latter having leased the Shaksgam Valley (part of Jammu & Kashmir state before 1947) northwest of Siachen to China in 1963. Many official-private cartographers and atlas producers followed suit and Pakistan started claiming the line NJ 9842 to Karokoram Pass as a boundary. Ironically, India remained lackadaisical rather than claiming the Cease Fire Line from NJ9842 to Dafdar; Dafdar in Taghdumbash Pamir near Beyik Pass (bordering the Wakhan Corridor) being the northwestern extremity of Kashmir State acceded to India in 1947.

Pakistan did send liaison officers with some foreign expeditions to the Siachen area but that does not make it Pakistani territory. Of strategic significance is the Saltoro range, which India successfully occupied in 1984, preempting Pakistani designs to occupy it – as admitted by General Pervez Musharraf in his autobiography In the Line of Fire.

India took this action after intelligence reports of Pakistan purchasing massive quantities of mountaineering and glacial equipment. Indian expeditions led by Colonel N Kumar discovered Pakistani troops camping west of the Saltoro range. The Chinese presence in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, including a PLA brigade in the proximity of Skardu and Chinese incursions in Eastern Ladakh, makes any withdrawal by India impossible. There were unofficial talks of disengagement in 1989, before the PLA’s presence in the Gilgit-Baltistan.

This detente in Siachen, with Pakistan on one side and China on the other, becomes imperative as we view the rising trade tensions between the US and China. In many ways, the US facilitated the rise of a belligerent China.

Washington turned a blind eye to China and Pakistan’s nuclear and military collaboration. It also ignored rising concerns about Pakistan sponsoring terror groups, since it was engaged in a covert war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

China is now openly challenging the US in the western Pacific, and particularly in the South China Sea. It is also rapidly consolidating its position in the Indian Ocean. The West is largely focused on China’s expansion across the oceans but remains impervious to its forays in the Himalayas. However, to India, China poses an existential threat, and therefore it must ensure that its military is prepared to meet any threat across the Himalayas. This makes any notion of India withdrawing from the Saltoro range very unlikely, and it needs to look out for possible collusion between Pakistan and China. This is a fact that global players can only ignore at their peril.

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces

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