Recently, India lost 10 soldiers in an Avalanche at Siachen. This has now become a yearly phenomenon and Former union minister Mani Shanker aiyyar once commented that Uncle Frost bite has killed more soldiers than the enemy soldiers. It has raised a debate once again about whether Siachen should be demilitarized .Let us explore the pros and cons of demilitarization.
When and why the glacier was militarized?
• The disturbing intelligence reports in 1983 highlighted that the Pakistanis were making probes deliberately through tourism and mountaineering groups. The obvious aim of the Pakistanis appeared to be cross the Saltoro heights and head for the Karakoram Pass on the Jammu and Kashmir border with Tibet (China).
• Given the aggressive manner in which Pakistan had begun to interfere in India like inciting Sikh extremists and supporting naxalites, India could not afford to become vulnerable on another front. Siachen in the possession of Pakistan would have meant Pakistan would have access from Skardu through to the Karakoram near the Aksai Chin and eventual linking with Shahidullah on the Kashgar-Xigatse road that runs parallel to the Tibet- India border.
• There was no option but to launch Operation Meghdoot on April 13, 1984. The Kumaon Regiment of the Indian Army with cover from the Indian Air Force reached the glacier to occupy 2 mountain passes at Bilafond La and Sia La while the Pakistan Army could only reach Gyong La. The battle zone was a triangle with point NJ9842 at the bottom, Indira Col due west and Karakoram Pass due east. Indian troops today control 2/3rd of the area and the world's highest motorable road at Khardung La with a helipad at a place called Sonam, at 21,000 feet. Pakistan overlooks the Nubra and Shyok valleys from the North. Saltoro lies almost exactly due north of Leh and North West of Kargil. Since then this highest battlefield in the world is manned by Indian Army.
• As of December 11, 2015, weather-related casualties in Siachen stood at 869, including 33 officers and 54 junior commissioned officers, and Rs 7,504.99 crore was spent on military operations in the last 4 years Compared to it the Pakistan Army, which operates at much lower altitudes, lost 213 soldiers in Siachen between 2003-10 out of which Alone in 2012 130 Pakistani soldiers were killed in an avalanche.
• The Siachen glacier, where temperatures dip to as low as - 45° Cl., is the world's highest and toughest battle field. Standing at 5,400 meters in height, its terrain is inhospitable for humans to stay over extended periods of time.
• Thirdly demilitarization would increase trust and confidence between India and Pakistan. It is one of the very few disputes between India and Pakistan which could be resolved with little diplomacy. The solving of Siachen issue with Pakistan could pave way for further talks on contentious issues like Kashmir and cross border terrorism.
• The demilitarization of Siachen is definitely doable. This is not only because it is diplomatically possible, but also because there is a critical mass of opinion in both India and Pakistan that neither can sacrifice, or put in harm's way, so many lives on the inhospitable glacier.
• The Army has streamlined procedures for better acclimatization, and this has helped to cut casualties. However, all that is no guarantee against the avalanche. It is said that on an average, India spends more than Rs. 6 crore a day for maintaining troops on the glacier.
• Siachen is strategically important to India for number of reasons:
• Saltoro ridge at Siachen overlooks and allows domination of entire area.
• Control of area prevents Pakistani and Chinese troops from linking up.
• Possession strengthens India's claim in case of eventual border settlement.
• The strong Indian presence on Saltoro Ridge also provides “some military depth” to Leh and Kargil, which could be threatened by the adversaries if the glacier is demilitarized.
• It is not a question of a glacier in the Himalayan heights; it is a question of India's security. The nation cannot afford to repeat the strategic mistakes of the past - like halting our advance at Uri in 1948 or not capturing Skardu; or giving up Haji Pir in 1966; or returning 93,000 troops and territory in 1972.
Is there any possibility of demilitarization?
• Because of its terrain, there can never be any incident like Kargil in Siachen. There's a huge difference between the geography of the 2 regions. The enemy can construct bunkers in Kargil to intrude into our territory but it's not so easy in Siachen. We can patrol the area with helicopters even without deploying soldiers. Helicopters can keep a watch on the border and on intrusion for every two to three kilometers. We have modern instruments by which we can keep a close watch and monitor the area. So there's no need for the deployment of forces, particularly during winter.
• However it is unlikely Indian army would ever accept demilitarization of army as they have attained control over it with so much sacrifice and at great cost to the nation. Trust deficit remains the biggest hindrance on any demilitarization. If the Pakistan Army could surreptitiously violate the well-recognized Line of Control during the 1999 Kargil conflict, can we trust them on the Siachen this is a major issue.
• Indian Army position in this issue is clear that there is no question of withdrawal of its forces unless Indian position on ground is authenticated. India has therefore insisted that joint demarcation of the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) on the ground as well as the map should be the first step to be followed by a joint verification agreement and redeployment of forces to mutually agreed positions.