Case for Climbing Down The Siachen


Why not turn the glacier into Indo-Pak peace park

Think of Siachen and the first description that comes to mind is “world’s highest, costliest and one of bloodiest battlefields.”

It is a slur on the collective global identity of India and Pakistan. Who is to blame for taking war to the feet of God is a different question, but it is a shame that India and Pakistan should continue to engage their forces at 20,000 feet, in inhospitable terrain, for no practical strategic gains or political advantage, that defines their position of strength on the world map.

Instead, imagine an alternate situation: the Siachen glacier is turned into a peace park, jointly managed by India and Pakistan with their diplomatic missions designated to issue permits to international climbers for a price that goes to the national tourism economies of both countries!

Wouldn’t that identify India and Pakistan as sophisticated countries committed to the philosophy of peace and progress of their people?

The recent catastrophe on the glacier, reported to have claimed nearly 140 Pakistani soldiers, suggests that the political maturity of this kind has yet to come.

The Siachen Dispute

Besides the psychological hostility rooted in the original sin of religion-based partition and the following naturally perpetual or perpetually natural trust deficit between two countries, the Siachen glacier is one of the eight listed disputes or areas on the table of dialogue between India and Pakistan.

Siachen: World’s highest, costliest and one of the bloodiest battlefields

The 1997 ‘Composite Dialogue Process’ shaped up by Prime Ministers Inder Kumar Gujral and Nawaz Sharif identified seven other areas:

  1. Peace and Security including Confidence Building Measures;

  2. Jammu and Kashmir;
  3. Wullar Barrage;
  4. Sir Creek Estuary;
  5. Terrorism and Drug Trafficking;
  6. Economic and Commercial Cooperation and
  7. Friendly Exchanges in Various Fields.

Pakistan traces the origin of the Siachen dispute to April 13, 1984. That was Operation Mehgdoot, by the Kumaon Regiment of the Indian Army, which beat the Pakistan Army to Soltoro Ridge, to secure control of nearly 2600 Kilometres of the unpopulated and barren territory. Barring insignificant alterations, the position secured on this day 28 years ago, still remains.

India, however, blames Pakistan for triggering the dispute way back in 1957 when it started permitting British and Japanese expeditions, thus leading the international cartographers to show the undemarcated glacier as an area under Pakistani control. The pilotage maps and atlases followed suit, awarding an over 5000 square kilometre area of Siachen-Saltoro in the Karakoram ranges, to Pakistan.

Political wisdom never factored in any major dispute in the making. Even the India-Pakistan Shimla agreement of 1972 did not accord much significance to the dispute over Siachen, even as the Indian Army, all along continued to weigh the strategic implications of Pakistan’s advances and therefore plugged all such possibilities in 1984.

In the following years, Pakistan made at least four major attempts to resurrect the territory from India. The biggest and most organised operation was in 1995, when Pakistan lost 40 soldiers of its elite Special Strike Group and retreated without being able to force any change in the Actual Ground Position Line.

In 1997 India and Pakistan recognised the Siachen dispute as one of the serious issues between them, and initiated dialogue for its resolution. There has not been much headway since.

Pakistan’s former President Pervez Musharraf, however, claimed in an interview last year, that both countries had arrived at a final settlement of Siachen and the deal was due to be signed in 2007. That process was derailed due to internal political upheaval in his country. The Government that replaced Musharraf in 2008 has largely refused to recognise any progress made by the beleaguered military ruler, on bilateral relations with India.

Cost of enduring stupid conflict

On June 12, 2005 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hit the headlines by becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to see the soldiers at Siachen, even as Benazir Bhutto was the first premier ever from either side to visit Siachen in the 1990s. Their visits are remembered as glorious, but there is very little public knowledge of the daily life of soldiers who guard the positions on what has often been called “the third pole,” where frostbite has taken a huge toll and rendered many maimed.

Though no authentic data is available on the casualties since the 1984 standoff, some independent estimates claim that nearly 4000 soldiers from both sides have died, due to the inhospitable conditions in sub zero temperature. Interestingly, cumulative casualties out of clashes have not been more than 150 in 28 years.

While there cannot be any price for every single human life lost, the economic cost incurred to both India and Pakistan is too enormous to be justified worth a reason for these struggling economies. The estimated cost of Operation Meghdoot was put at Rs 3500 Crore in 1984 – it doesn’t need an economist imagine its value today. The average daily spent for enduring, what many strategic experts have called a stupid conflict, is Rs 7 Crore – which means Rs 2555 Crore a year. For the strategic advantage it maintains since the capture, India’s task of deployments and maintaining the lines of supplies is far tougher than that of Pakistan. Pakistan’s forces are down the ridge and most of their supplies are pumped through road links close by in the Northern Areas of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Despite that advantage, Pakistan’s spending on Siachen is Rs 5 Crore a day – or 2.83 Crore in Indian currency. Therefore, Pakistan’s annual spending on Siachen is Rs 1825 Crore.

Honourable Exit

It is often politics that triggers conflicts, and then the military becomes a tool of implementation. Siachen is precisely the case in point.

Joydeep Sircar, the famous Bengali mountain historian, shall always be remembered for coining the term Oropolitics – or the politics of mountains – in 1982 when he pointed to possible making of conflict in Pakistan’s covert politics of permitting mountaineers to climb Siachen from the west of Karakoram.

An end to Oropolitics may lead to resolution of more contentious issues

It therefore needs a grand political gesture from both India and Pakistan to climb down the Siachen and convert the glacier into a peace park. History will remember, with glory, the war worth losing. India and Pakistan are embroiled in dozens of other conflicts and the resolution of Siachen is the least harmful to their stated strategic and political positions. An end to Oropolitics may lead to the beginning of resolution of other, more contentious, issues.

Zafar Choudhary is a senior journalist and Asia Society Fellow on India-Pakistan Young Leaders Initiative. He can be reached at [email protected]