Author: Parveen Kaswan ( Author is an Engineer and holds a Masters Degree in Engineering Designs from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Why is Siachen Glacier important?
The Siachen glacier is considered to be the largest single source of fresh water on the Indian subcontinent.
It is located in the Karakoram range. Siachen is the source of the Nubra River that eventually feeds the mighty Indus— the major water source that irrigates the Punjab plains in Pakistan. Siachen is near the Karakoram pass, forming almost a triangle with India, China and territory occupied by Pakistan touching the edges.
How did the disagreement over the glacier start?
India and Pakistan have a disputed border in Jammu and Kashmir, most of it delineated as the Line of Control (LoC) with troop positions on either side. While most positions were delineated as per the 1972 Shimla agreement, the boundary line was specified to only a point called NJ 9842, till the area from where Siachen starts. The agreement stated that after this point, the boundary would proceed “north to the glaciers” without specifying which nation would have control over which area. The matter remained non-controversial until the 1980s when the Indian Army discovered that Pakistan was issuing permission to foreign expeditions to trek in Siachen. Indian intelligence agencies found out that Pakistan army under orders from General Zia was planning to conduct a military operation to capture Siachen, from their supplier of High Altitude mountain warfare gear provider in London, (as Pakistan had placed orders for Arctic gear from the same supplier) Thus the Indian army launched Operation Meghdoot and Indian troops belonged to the Kumaon Regiment were air-lifted and moved into the glacier.
Where do the two sides disagree?
India’s stance is that the LoC runs from point NJ 9842 along the watersheds formed by the Saltoro ridge that puts the entire Siachen glacier within Indian territory. Pakistan claims that the line joins point NJ 9842 with the Karakoram pass that lies towards the northeast, putting Siachen within its territory. The ground position now is that the Indian Army controls the entire Saltoro ridge. There is no presence of Pakistani troops on the Siachen glacier. In fact, the nearest Pakistani locations are on the lower reaches of the Saltoro ridge.
How much does India control today?
As India managed to get the upper hand, it currently controls all heights along the glacier on the Saltoro ridge and uses the glacier as a logistics base. Since 2007, India has been promoting treks and expeditions by civilians and foreigners in the vicinity of the glacier to reaffirm its claim on the region. The Army has given permission to several groups of mountaineers to climb peaks in the Eastern Karakoram range that adjoins the glacier. The Army also holds a civilian Siachen expedition every year and will in the future invite even foreigners to trek up the glacier.
Where do negotiations stand?
A year after India took over the glacier in 1984, talks started. After 13 rounds, both sides are now in agreement that the Siachen glacier should be demilitarised. As it is very tough to maintain army over there, approximately Indian government spent 4 crore rupees daily on glaciers management. Due to extreme climatic conditions, a lot of casualties also taking place from both sides. The disagreement is on how this withdrawal of troops will take place. The Indian position is that both nations should jointly demarcate the current troop positions in the region. This would involve an exhaustive process to determine and delineate current troops positions both on the ground and on a map. After this demarcation or “authentication” of troop positions, India believes, troops can be moved back to pre-1984 positions and the border issue can be solved with dialogue. Pakistan agrees that the issue should be resolved with talks but is strongly against a demarcation of troop positions. Pakistan believes that any joint demarcation or authentication of troops positions can be used as a claim by India for future talks to resolve the matter. It insists instead on a mutual withdrawal of troops to pre-1984 deployments for talks to begin. India, however, has hardened its stance for authentication of troops positions after the 1999 Kargil conflict in which insurgents supported by the Pakistani Army occupied critical locations along the LoC. India wants a demarcation so that it can take military action, if necessary, if Pakistan stealthily occupy troops positions even after vacating these as per the demilitarisation plan.
What is the way forward?
A number of suggestions have been made on how the problem can be resolved, including
- declaring the area a peace park,
- joint patrolling of the region
- international peacekeeping force being deployed in the region.
However, the Indian Army stand, which is backed by the government, is very strict on the point of authentication of troop positions. The argument is that a demarcation will not take anything away from Pakistan on the negotiating table as current troop positions is a hard, cold fact. Marking the positions on a map, the Army believes, will facilitate a comfortable withdrawal of troops from both sides. Pakistan, on the other hand, believes India’s “occupation” of the glacier is illegal and hence cannot be authenticated jointly by both sides, lest it get validation.