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The Siachen Impasse

Srinath Raghavan
June 18, 2012

The latest round of talks between India and Pakistan on the Siachen glacier ended on June 12th without a breakthrough. It’s been twenty-eight years since India launched Operation Meghdoot to pre-emptively occupy the dominating Saltoro ridge on the glacier. It’s been twenty-seven years since Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India and President Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan agreed to begin talks at the level of defence secretaries on the Siachen dispute. Thirteen rounds of talks have taken place over these years and both sides have expended considerable amounts of lives and treasure. And yet, an agreement on demilitarization of the glacier continues to prove elusive.

The seeming intractability of this dispute would be easy to understand if the two sides had strong interests at stake. In fact, the Siachen glacier is of no strategic advantage to either side. On the Indian side, a number of specious arguments have been advanced by opponents of demilitarization about the ostensible strategic value of occupying the glacier.

For a start, it is claimed that continued occupation of the glacier is vital to the defense of Ladakh, including Leh. On the contrary, Siachen is hardly suited to being a launch-pad for a major Pakistani offensive into Ladakh. It would be a logistical and operational nightmare to attempt such an attack. Besides, the Pakistanis have much more suitable places from which to undertake an offensive into Ladakh. It is also asserted that India’s presence on the glacier is critical to “keep watch” on Gilgit and Baltistan. This is particularly important given reports of increasing Chinese presence in these parts. However, climatic conditions on the glacier make it rather unsuitable as a watch-tower in the region. India has much more sophisticated technology to monitor activities in these areas. Finally, it is held that if India pulled back from the glacier, Pakistan would easily occupy the vacated positions. In fact, Pakistan’s ability to occupy areas currently held by India is rather dubious. India has enough surveillance and monitoring capability to ensure that a demilitarization agreement is not violated.     

The obverse of this lack of strategic utility is the cost being incurred by India in holding onto its positions on the glacier. It is estimated that the Indian Army’s presence on glacier costs Rs. 1000-1200 crores ($180-220 million) a year. Add to this the physical and psychological toll of living and operating in such inhospitable conditions, and it is not surprising that Indian and Pakistani leaders have periodically called for demilitarization.

Speaking to soldiers at the glacier in 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh observed that it was time to convert Siachen from a point of dispute to a “symbol of peace.” In April 2012, following an avalanche that killed 140 Pakistani soldiers, military and civilian leaders in Pakistan stressed the importance of ending the stand-off over the glacier. The Indian Defence Minister, A.K. Antony, however, stated in Parliament that “dramatic decisions” should not be expected from the forthcoming round of talks, as “it is a very complicated issue.”

To unpack the ostensible complexity of this dispute, one must consider the historical background to it and the institutional dynamics at play.

The Cease-Fire Line (CFL) in Kashmir, agreed by India and Pakistan in 1949, was delineated on the map only up to grid-point NJ9842. However, the summary description stated that the CFL moved from its last described physical location “thence North to the glaciers.” The Line of Control (LoC) agreement of 1972 repeated this discrepancy. On the map, the LoC was marked only up to NJ9842. But the summary description mentioned the glaciers. It said that the LoC “runs north-eastward towards Thang (inclusive to India) thence eastward joining the glacier.” The agreements of 1949 and 1972, then, were vague in their description of where the LoC ran beyond NJ9842. On both of these occasions it was expected, mistakenly as it turned out, that the glacier, devoid of strategic utility, would keep the two sides out of the area.

When the dispute came to the forefront in the mid-1980s, the two sides had very different notions of how the LoC stretched beyond NJ9842. India maintained that it should run north along the Saltoro ridge all the way to the border with China, which would put the glacier squarely on the Indian side of the LoC. Pakistan insisted that it should take a north-easterly course up to the Karakoram Pass, which would place the glacier on Pakistan’s side of the LoC.

Given the wide crevasse between these positions, the two countries sensibly decided to focus on demilitarization of the glacier. The sticking points here relate to the modality of demilitarization. The first point of difference pertains to the geographic extent of the demilitarized zone. The two sides have advanced rather different ideas about the scale of demilitarization. Second, and more importantly, is the issue of recording the current troop deployments of both sides prior to withdrawal, or authenticating the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL), to use the official jargon. Since the late 1980s, India has insisted that such authentication is critical to any agreement on demilitarization. Pakistan has been reluctant to do so, as it thinks that this would prejudice its claims by legitimizing India’s occupation of the glacier and amount to rewarding Indian “aggression.” 

Here, we come to the institutional dynamic at work in the Indian government. New Delhi’s insistence on authenticating the AGPL stems from the fact that the Indian army regards this as an essential hedge against the possibility of Pakistani perfidy. In the negotiations conducted between 1988 and 1994, the Indian army insisted that any demilitarization agreement should include a map recording the AGPL. In 1992, the Pakistanis suggested that they might be open to appending such a map as an annexure to the agreement but with the explicit proviso that it did not amount to recognition of India’s claims about the LoC. However, faced with India’s unyielding stance, they rolled back from this.

The Kargil conflict led to a further hardening of the Indian army’s position on this issue. The army now insists that a withdrawal from Siachen must be preceded not just by authenticating the AGPL on a map but also by demarcating it on the ground. The Pakistanis are obviously unwilling to consider this further demand.

The Indian political leadership, however, is loathe to over-ride the army’s advice. In fact, the army brass has even gone public with its opposition in order to bring pressure to bear on the government. During his tenure as army chief, General J. J. Singh, publicly aired his views on more than one occasion. One of these statements was given on the day when the defence secretaries were resuming talks on Siachen. The army has also expressed its position through leaks to the media. Most recently, India Today quoted an officer in the army headquarters as saying that “there is no reason for withdrawal from Siachen at this stage.” He added that the army chief, who was already at logger-heads with the government, “will not let national interest be compromised at the altar of political gamesmanship.”

The assumption that the army can or should define the national interest is deeply problematic. The chain of accountability is clear: the military is responsible to the political leadership, who in turn are answerable to the people. If, in disregarding military advice, politicians jeopardize national security, it is for the people to take them to task by voting them out. The military must realize that the line between advising against a course of action and resisting civilian efforts to pursue it is a rather fine one. In issuing statements opposing a withdrawal from Siachen, the Indian army comes very close to transgressing this line.

The military, moreover, is competent only to assess risks. It is the politicians who must judge them, and decide what chances are worth taking. It is up to the political leadership to consider whether the dubious risks attached to a withdrawal without demarcation outweigh the decided benefits of improved relations with Pakistan. At a time when India-Pakistan ties are improving – especially on the economic front – an agreement on demilitarization of Siachen will undoubtedly impart greater confidence and stability to the relationship. Indeed, the case for an accord has never been stronger. The Indian political leadership must seize this opportunity and not remain in thrall to imagined insecurities.  

Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. He can be reached at srinath.raghavan@gmail.com .


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania and funded by the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI and the Khemka Foundation.

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