strategy | kunal verma & m g devasahayam
Siachen Handout: Bartering India’s Security?
THE 50TH anniversary of the 1962 Sino-Indian War has evoked a feeling of anger–not so much at the Chinese, but towards our own leadership that failed the country in the most shocking manner. Amidst the groundswell of emotion that swept through the print and electronic media, the three Service Chiefs and the Defence Minister finally lined up and saluted the dead!
Since Independence, the Indian soldier has been called upon time and again to risk his life for cleaning-up the mess heaped by our blundering ‘civilian leadership’. Examples are endless: ceasefire in 1949 when Indian troops were poised to regain the whole of Jammu and Kashmir; the Tashkent Agreement ‘returning’ to Pakistan vital posts like Haji Pir and Black Rock in Kargil in 1965; repatriation of 93,000 POWs to Pakistan in 1971 without ensuring the return of our own men (some of whom are still languishing in Pakistani jails). The list can be quite exhaustive. Now, ironically, as we mourn our dead in NEFA and Ladakh, the Government is poised to get into another deep mess. Quite frankly, if the latest PMO initiative on the so-called demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier is pushed through, it could well be a real quagmire!
Next to its obsession with Kashmir since 1947, Siachen has been the biggest bone that is stuck in Pakistan’s throat since it ‘lost’ the glacier to the Indian Army in 1984. For years, talks between the two countries have been held on the issue and after the Kargil War in 1999, the situation on the ground had more or less stabilised itself. Then most incredibly, since November 2011, rumours of an impending ‘settlement’ on Siachen began to surface. Then odd articles began to appear in the media, mainly questioning the wisdom of having gone into the area in 1984, while focusing on the expense factor–both material and in terms of human lives–always implying that India was sitting on a wasteland that had little or no strategic value.
All this time, meetings between Indian and Pakistani Track II members were indeed being held to discuss various confidence building measures, among which Siachen was a key issue. Dubai (September 2011), Bangkok (February), Chiang Mai (April) and Palo Alto (July) preceded the Lahore meeting on September 23-25, where a formal agreement to demilitarise Siachen was inked. That the Lahore delegation was acting on a pre-determined brief was fairly obvious, for the handshake was done despite the strong reservations expressed by certain key members of the delegation.
The Lahore agreement was virtually kept under wraps, but the Atlantic Council of Canada that acted as a ‘peace-broker’ on Siachen let the cat out of the bag. The composition of the Indian delegation was, to put it mildly, incongruous–for despite an impressive array of ranks (including a retired Air Chief), none of the Army officers had ever served in the region. The Pakistani side, on the contrary, was led by General Jehangir Karamat, a former Army Chief, who understands the strategic implications of the Siachen region.
Says General V K Singh, India’s Army Chief till recently: “Let us first be very clear as to who is asking for this so-called demilitarisation. The Pakistanis are not on the Siachen glacier, but are west of the Saltoro Range. Contrary to what they want their own people to believe, they have a zero presence in Siachen. I wonder if demilitarisation will also result in Pakistan withdrawing from Baltistan, pulling back to the west towards the Karakoram Highway? Until recently, they had even refused to accept the AGPL for verification of who is where. It is ludicrous that in such circumstances we are talking of demilitarisation and withdrawal. Our troops are well-established and administratively well-off, so what is the rational to pull them out of the area?”
Lt General PC Katoch, a former commander of the Siachen Brigade adds: “For decades, India has always distrusted the Atlantic Council, which is perceived to be in bed with the Pakistani military. In this arrangement, Pakistan has grabbed the strategic opportunity to attain all its key goals. It is surmised that the Prime Minister is aiming for a Nobel Peace Prize to recover the legitimacy his Government has lost after a succession of scandals.”
Post the Shimla Agreement in 1972, delineation of the line of control (LC) between India and Pakistan extended up to NJ 9842. Beyond this, the two sides agreed that the LC would run ‘thenceforth north’. This clearly implied that the boundary would follow the ridgeline to the north along the Saltoro, but subsequently both Pakistani and USAF maps drew a lateral line from NJ 9842 directly to the KK Pass, which implied that the area belonged to Pakistan. A subsequent mountaineering expedition to Siachen found plenty of evidence of activity east of the Saltoro. Given the extreme conditions in what was at that time often referred to as the ‘third pole’, the Indian Army pulled off one of the most innovative and daring operations by pre-empting the Pakistani Army, which was rushing to occupy the heights that would dominate the glacier.
Having been beaten at their own game (as acknowledged by President Parvez Musharaff in his book), the Pakistani Army subsequently succeeded in establishing a foothold on the 22,143 feet Qaid-e-Azam post, its only real significant position on the Saltoro at that time. In 1987, in what surely must rank as one of the most incredible military operations, men from 8 JAK LI pulled off the near impossible and wrested it from Pakistan. Re-named ‘Bana Top’ after Subedar Bana Singh, who led the attack, even today Pakistan does not acknowledge its loss. After all the fighting on the glacier over the years, the bottom line is that Pakistan has no worthwhile presence on the Saltoro!
As for Baltistan, Pakistan’s position is precarious, as its anti-Shia policies over the years have alienated it from the local population. Most observers believe that even maintaining its current position west of Saltoro is becoming untenable. Watchdog groups in the West, along with a few vernacular Pakistani newspapers, have been regularly reporting on parleys to hand over the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region to China on a 50-year lease. It is perhaps pertinent to point out that the Shaksgam Valley (to the immediate north of the Siachen region) was ceded to China by Pakistan in 1963 while the area to the east was occupied by the PLA in 1962 to provide depth to the Western Highway.
In an ever-changing geo-political scenario, to look at Siachen only from an India-Pakistan perspective is absurd, especially as Chinese footprints over the entire Northern Areas are getting more and more obvious. From the US point of view, the geo-political relationship between them and Pakistan has always revolved around the Gilgit-Baltistan region. A counter-balance and a possible launching pad against Tibet (perceived to be China’s soft underbelly), the Northern Areas have always been the hub around which the ‘great game’ is being or was played.
Talk of leasing the region to China cannot be lost on the Americans, who would be desperate to keep Pakistan in Gilgit-Baltistan and keep the Chinese out, especially as China is today also making serious attempts to cut its way through the Wakhan corridor into Afghanistan. By getting India to take a step back on Siachen, it gives the Pakistan leadership the incentive to hold on to the region, for the border with north-western Ladakh, which is currently static, becomes active again. In the guise of ‘peace moves’, the new situation sought to be thrust upon us is far more dangerous. India has never understood the British concept of pushing its frontiers out, and has a history of losing ground regularly. As defence analyst Maroof Raza points out, Siachen has been the one exception where India has gained ground since Independence.
Over the years, subsequent Army Chiefs, including the current COAS General Bikram Singh, have categorically rejected the demilitarisation of Siachen. Says an incensed General VK Singh: “Have the proposers of such recommendations ever visited or stayed at the glacier or the higher posts? Has our trust deficit with Pakistan disappeared? Please remember what happened after PM Vajpaye’s visit to Lahore. We must also be clear on the implications of this to our stand on the Shaksgam Valley. Has the government or the Track II team sent by it decided that we have no further claim on POK? Let us not get carried away by what can at best be described as sentimental hogwash.”
This brings us to the issue as to whether India has a foreign policy and architecture that serves the nation’s security and self-interest!
Let us look at the Government’s self-sacrificing relationship with the US. It is genuflection, prostration and crawling all the way, as the ‘reform cacophony’ emanating from the Prime Minister and his drum-beaters clearly indicate. The Indo-US Nuclear deal by buying Parliament votes and ramming in FDI-in-retail by totally ignoring the ‘sense of the nation’ are standing examples. And the Prime Minister nearly signed the Nuclear Liability Convention that gives immunity to US companies setting up nuclear power plants in India! As for Russia, the PMO is falling head over heels and is letting loose the worst forms of oppression and repression on the ordinary farmer-fisherfolk who are protesting against the unsafe Russia-built Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant. A Minister of State in the PMO has been put in charge of supervising this!
On the China front, the PMO’s dealings appear mysterious. India actively facilitated Sri Lankan Army’s fight-to-the-finish against the Tamils using Chinese weapons. India acted as China’s surrogate in the UN Security Council and UN Human Rights Commission to defend, protect and uphold Sri Lanka’s war crimes and crimes against humanity. India worked with China for a $2.6 billion IMF bailout loan to Sri Lanka to cover these expenses. India endorsed Chinese-type rule of oppression, repression, torture and concentration camps in Sri Lanka. All these have resulted in India losing its hold over Sri Lanka, which has now come under virtual Chinese hegemony.
Now, by handing out the Siachen glacier, India is giving up its main leverage
against Pakistan without gaining anything in return. The ‘Siachen egg’ that UPA lays
in the last days of its reign can emerge as a monster of epic proportions,
severely haunting national security.
Here then are the pointed questions. Can a small cabal take such monumental decisions that concern the nation’s sovereignty and foreign policy without involving the ‘People, Parliament and President of India’? Can they keep on bulldozing Generals and civilians who come in their way of bartering nation’s security for a mess of pottage? Sooner the answer is given, the better!