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SOUTH ASIA: Case For Climbing Down The Siachen

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By Zafar Choudhary

Why not turn the glacier into Indo-Pak peace park?

Former prime minister and the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz President Nawaz Sharif has urged Pakistan and India to immediately start negotiations to resolve the Siachen issue and pull their troops out of the region… He said if the two sides managed to resolve the issue they would save a lot of money now being spent on troops and use it for development and people’s welfare.

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 the God is a different question but it is a shame that India and Pakistan should continue to engage their forces at a 20,000 feet high 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 the 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 in the glacier which is reported to have claimed nearly 140 Pakistani soldiers suggests that the political maturity of that 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.

The 1997 ‘Composite Dialogue Process’ shaped up by Prime Ministers Inder Kumar Gujral and Nawaz Sharif identified seven other areas as: 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 Siachen dispute to April 13, 1984 Operation Mehgdoot of the Kumaon Regiment of Indian Army which beat 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 still maintains. 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 the suit awarding over 5000 square kilometre area of Siachen-Saltoro in the Karakoram ranges to Pakistan. The 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 dispute over Siachen even as the Indian Army, all along continued to weigh, 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 Indian.

The biggest one 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 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 on a final settlement of Siachen and the deal was due to be signed in 2007 but the process got 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 the bilateral relations with India.

Cost of enduring stupid conflict

On June 12, 2005 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hit the headlines by becoming first Indian Prime Minister to see the soldiers at Siachen even as Benazir Bhutto was the first premiere ever from either side to visit Siachen in 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 as, third pole where frostbites have taken a huge toll and rendered many maimed. Though no authentic data is available on the casualties since 1984 standoff, some independent estimates claim that nearly 4000 soldiers from both sides have died of 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 today’s value. The average daily spent of enduring, what many strategic experts have called as, 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 daily 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 the politics that triggers conflicts and then 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. 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 dozen other conflicts and resolution Siachen is the least harmful to their stated strategic and political positions. An end to Oropolitics may lead to beginning of resolution of other more contentious issues.

*Zafar Choudhary is Director of Indus Research Foundation. His email contact: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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