by Syed Ata Hasnain
Thirty-five years ago in April 1984 India flew a helicopter-borne task force to the Siachen Glacier and set foot the first soldiers who would shortly thereafter spread out into the inhospitable glaciated terrain and occupy heights up to 21,000 feet to firmly plant the Indian Tricolour on the adjacent Saltoro Ridge. Before that Pakistan had already commenced its attempts to assimilate the territory as its own by sending mountaineering expeditions and patrols into the icy wasteland; India discovered that only in 1978. The arduous wait of six years was prompted by uncertainty about the ability of the Indian Army to hold its own operationally and logistically at a scale of heights which would soon classify Siachen as the highest battlefield in the world. It was a question of taking the first step with huge risk to occupy a glaciated wasteland which many continue to the day to call a monumental waste of resources and precious human lives.
Over the last five years, I have managed to sneak in a PowerPoint slide or two about Siachen Glacier wherever I have been asked to speak about the Indian Army. In fact when a particular corporate house wanted me to speak on a most fascinating yet challenging subject — How does the Indian Army convert Mission Impossible to Mission Possible — I chose the theme of Siachen to highlight the subject for it. It left the audience enthralled, so little being known about the highest battlefield in the world.
Before getting to understand a few issues of the basic background — the why and the how — it may be motivating for the Indian public to know a few things about Siachen. First, every Pakistani general claims that the Pakistan Army is also at Siachen; they have even made a few documentaries about their presence there and spread the word around among the international community and the Pakistan media and public too.
However, such Pakistani generals scurry away when they are confronted by people like me who have lived and commanded in Siachen. The stark truth is that the biggest hoax of our times is the manner in which the Pakistan Army has spread disinformation that it too is in the occupation of Siachen Glacier and that they would agree to a mutual withdrawal if India agrees to it too. Pakistan’s public and media do not realise that when the Indian Army beat their army to the occupation of the risk-laden and challenging terrain, the entire Saltoro Ridge which runs on the western and southern flank was also occupied.
The Pakistan Army made repeated attempts from 1984 till 2003 (declaration of the ceasefire) to dislodge the Indian Army from the Saltoro to obtain a small toehold but it never succeeded. What took time for the Indian Government also to realise is the fact that any so-called ‘mutual withdrawal’ from the Siachen Glacier would, in reality, mean the withdrawal of only one army, the Indian Army. If then the Pakistan Army repeated what it did in Kargil in May 1999 i.e. the occupation of vacant heights in winter it could cost the Indian Army more than 5,000 lives to regain just partial control again.
So how did it all begin and what was the strategic importance of the frigid zone then and what is it now that we have the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) flowing not too far from where the Siachen Glacier exists. Very briefly the story line commences from 1972 when the erstwhile ceasefire line (CFL) of 1949 was being converted to the Line of Control (LoC), with delineation and demarcation under the Shimla Agreement. On the map, the delineation was done till NJ 9842, a map coordinate north of which existed the glaciated zone perceived as uninhabitable. The signed agreement stated that the LoC would thereafter run ‘north to the glaciers’; four words which came back to haunt India Pakistan relations.
Only in 1978 did India realise that Pakistan was laying claim to the area west of the line joining NJ 9842 to the Karakoram (KK) Pass (see map); patrolling activity and expeditions indicated this. India’s own claim thereafter follows international norms of aligning along a watershed which is what the Saltoro Range is. The triangle formed by NJ 9842, Indira Col and KK Pass is the ground in contention and it is currently entirely under Indian occupation.
The Siachen Glacier, 75 km in length, is a river of snow/ice, many hundreds of feet deep. Its ‘snout’ is where the original base camp of the Indian Army was (now shifted slightly due to shooting stones). It is not really flat but compared to the high mountains on its flanks it is almost like a table top
The Indian Army occupies the glacier with its bases, smaller camps, headquarters and artillery gun positions.
We are at a major advantage over the Pakistan Army since we also occupy the western ridge of high mountains along the Saltoro Ridge and therefore deny Pakistan Army any peep on to the Siachen Glacier. However, that makes the task of deployment far more difficult as much as it affects the logistics of maintenance. For Pakistan Army, by comparison, it’s a cake walk because of much lower deployment the other side of Saltoro Ridge; it even has motorable roads coming up to some of its deployment areas, unlike our side where the logistics and the approach are entirely on foot or by helicopter. Much can be written about the challenges of deployment, operations, survival and logistics in Siachen.
Coming down from the Saltoro Ridge towards the main glacier are a number of sub glaciers; these facilitate the routes and camps which support the deployment of the Indian Army at Saltoro. The latter deployment is on razor-sharp peaks and ridges where construction of any shelters becomes near impossible. The final ascent to the deployment areas is sometimes by use of ropes over vertical ice walls. As few as two to six men could be deployed at a post; there isn’t space for more. Snow caves are used in some cases. There are small snow-beaten helipads in the main glacier and at logistics hubs at the sub glaciers (example Bila Fond La) but the helipads which need to be seen to be believed are tucked away at the Saltoro Ridge in nooks and corners. Helicopters are the lifeline because they transport radio batteries, kerosene oil, tinned food and special rations besides letters from home.
The takeaway for the reader should be a lesson on the strategic significance of the occupation of Siachen; how a Rs 4 crore per day expenditure remains justified.
It needs to be noted that the strategic significance has only enhanced over time. It commenced with the possibility of full Pakistani occupation of the triangle which would bring the Pakistan Army to the edge of the Saltoro Ridge, affording it domination over the crucial Nubra Valley drained by the River Nubra which emanates from the snout of Siachen. That would do three things for Pakistan. First, it would broaden the China Pakistan link into a larger contact zone to afford operations against Indian deployment in Nubra Valley. Second, it would make Indian deployment at the Karakoram (KK) Range relatively untenable if the Nubra Valley were to fall to China Pakistan combine. The extreme high altitude area of the KK Range around Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) and stretching into Eastern Ladakh would be threatened. Third, the potential threat to Nubra would entail the defence of Leh (capital of Ladakh) being based upon a single range – the Ladakh Range, not the most prudent operational way of defending the core centre of the Ladakh region.
With the construction of the CPEC India’s northernmost deployment which can threaten it remains the Siachen area. What has rarely been spoken about is the fact that for China the ultimate salvation lies in making the CPEC a maze of old world Silk Route alignments through the Ladakh region into Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, making Ladakh that much more strategic for India. The defence of Ladakh without holding Siachen would make the task of the Indian Army far more challenging than it already is.