Located in the Karakorum/Himalayan mountain ranges, Siachen or “the place of wild roses”, as it is ironically known (in Balti, a Tibetan dialect spoken around the region), has been at the heart of a constant conflict between the countries of India and Pakistan.
The Indian Army occupies the upper ridges of the glacier giving it a strategic edge while Pakistan is in control of area west of Saltoro ridge. India’s defence secretary Shashikant Sharma met his Pakistani counterpart Nargis Sethi to discuss demilitarisation of the glacier but there has been no progress and talks have remained deadlocked.
Former Major General MC Nanjappa told GovernanceNow, “We can’t trust the Pakistan Army. If they want mutual demilitarisation then they must accept the actual troop positions and put it on paper.” Adding that holding on to Siachen required huge manpower and resources, Major General Nanjappa said that, “Demilitarisation will be good for both the countries. It will save huge amounts of money and lives on both sides. But we cannot trust Pakistan.”
It is this trust deficit that Sharma and Sethi are trying to build but there has been no visible progress. Pakistan wants to demilitarise the glacier. India agrees but wants Pakistan to accept the actual ground positions of troops and draw a border before it decides to move its troops out of Siachen.
Considered to be the highest battlefield in the world, Siachen has claimed the lives of over 2,000 Indian and over 1000 Pakistani soldiers due to the harsh climatic conditions. The glacier`s melting waters are the main source of the Nubra river, which falls into the Shyok river. The Shyok in turn joins the Indus river which is crucial to both India and Pakistan. The root cause of the conflict over Siachen lies in the non-demarcation of the ceasefire line on the map beyond a map coordinate known as NJ9842.
The 1949 Karachi agreement and the 1972 Simla Agreement presumed that it was not feasible for human habitation to survive north of NJ9842. Prior to 1984 neither India nor Pakistan had any permanent presence in the area.
In the 1970s and 80s Pakistan started giving permission to mountaineers to scale the Glacier via the Bilafond La pass. This led to United States Defense Mapping Agency and most other maps and atlases showing it on the Pakistan side of the line of control. This in turn led to protests by the Indian government which more or less was not heeded to.
In 1984, India got wind of a planned Pakistani operation to take over the glacier. According to a legend, India placed an order for Arctic gear from a London manufacturer which happened to be supplying the Pakistan Army as well. India consequently acted fast and ordered twice the number of Arctic suits and initiated an operation codenamed Meghdoot.
Following operation Meghdoot, India secured almost all the high ground and ridges around Siachen and Saltoro except the western side which Pakistan occupied. Indian troops, till date, have to rely on air dropped supplies to survive as there is no proper roadway unlike on the Pakistan side which has accessible roads to the glacier.
According to the TIME magazine, the Indian operation resulted in the gain of 3,000 square kilometres of land. Former Pakistan president General Musharraf in his autobiography “In the Line of Fire: A Memoir”, says Pakistan lost more than 2,300 square kilometres of strategic land in the conflict.
For many years now both the Indian and the Pakistani sides have been trying to work out an arrangement to demilitarise the Siachen glacier, but to no avail.
According to an article in The Hindu, in 1992, India and Pakistan had almost agreed to a settlement of the issue but plans were scuttled by then Indian Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao. For full draft of the article, log on to: http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article3509868.ece
The talks held on Tuesday have not led to any major breakthrough. According to a story in the Times of India, pressing for a "time-bound'' demilitarisation of the region, the Pakistan-side, led by Nargis Sethi, again called for both sides to simultaneously pull back troops to the pre-1984 positions. The Indian delegation headed by Shashikant Sharma promptly shot this down, holding military disengagement from the Saltoro Ridge could be considered only after Pakistan first agreed to the sequential pre-requisites of "authentication, delineation and demarcation".
The story also mentioned that, “India wants the authenticated troop positions to be made a part of the proposed agreement on Siachen, and not the annexures as Pakistan has been demanding, as a legal and diplomatic safeguard if Islamabad reneges on the agreement and moves its troops into the positions vacated by Indian troops.”
Pakistan has, for a long time, been demanding that Siachen be demilitarised. But it does not look like that is going to happen in the near future unless Pakistan accepts actual troop positions as an authentic border demarcation which would build trust among the two countries allowing complete demilitarisation of Siachen.