The glacial watershed

By K.N. Pandita

World’s highest battlefield atop the Karakorum glacial region of Siachin is again under focus of the two contesting countries of South Asia. It is decades that both India and Pakistan are fully conscious of the perils of stationing troops on such inhospitable and treacherous region as have only recently consumed the lives of a hundred and forty Pakistani soldiers in the twinkling of an eye when they were buried under a massive avalanche. But alas such is the obstinacy and intransigence and such is the deep-seated doubt and suspicion between the two neighbours that they are unable to come to any agreement based on the ground reality. At least 1-3 soldiers on either side get killed every day on this deadly and desolate region, not by enemy fire but by the cruel and tyrannical cold and frost bite.  

A country that allows its soldiers to perish in such circumstances is intransigent and conceited.

Defence Secretaries of two countries will be meeting this month to discuss demilitarization of Siachin. The two countries have been talking about demilitarization of the region for many years. Even at times they gave hints that they were about to reach an agreement. But then talks broke down. The issue is a complicated mix of political and military strategy. Which of the two components has the upper hand is difficult to pronounce. Why reconciliation of these two elements is becoming elusive remains to be explained? However, the reality is that Pakistan’s several minor and major attempts to throw out Indians from the Saltaro heights and establish her control over it were not only unsuccessful but disastrous for her. Is Pakistan, sticking to her aggressive intentions in the region on the behest of China? We hope Pakistani policy planners are not that naïve in analysing contours of regional strategy. Indian defence minister has said that ‘Siachin is very very important for the country’s security.’ He did not elaborate the cryptic sentence in anticipation of impending defence secretary level talks. But he did say without mincing words that India had made her stand on Siachin clear to Pakistan and she stuck to it. What is her stand? If Pakistan wants to be realistically intending to demilitarize the region, she needs to understand India’s point of view.  Siachin overlooks the Nubra Valley which meets India’s border with China.  One who controls Siachin controls Nubra valley and has solid defence in place. China and India are not friendly and nurse rivalry for supremacy in Asia. In the light of Mao’s dictum that enemy’s enemy is a friend, Pakistan has been gloating over China’s friendship. She ceded five thousand kilometres of Baltistan to China and has now allowed China a strong foothold in strategic Gilgit region against the wishes of the local people. Thus it is Pakistan that has compelled India to be atop Siachin whatever the circumstances because it commands India’s northern defence outpost.

This is not the situation with Pakistan. She has no military, political or border incursion threat from India along this ridge.

Therefore China considers Pakistan’s presence in Siachin an indirect support to her aggressive designs in the region which India is bound to counter. This is the clear stand to which the defence minister has referred. Therefore India has been suggesting formal recognition of Indian military position in Siachin as precursor to demilitarization.

This is quite reasonable and compatible with ground situation.

Pakistan needs to understand this reality as the basis of an agreement for demilitarization. Moreover, Pakistan has also to realize the impact of allowing China a foothold in Gilgit-Baltistan on the security arrangement in India’s northern border. China intends to build railway line along Karakorum Highway and also lay oil and gas pipeline that would bring Central Asian hydrocarbon energy to her eastern province of Xingjian. China has built road and railways to connect Xingjian along Indian border in Eastern Ladakh with Tibet.

Indian security concerns cannot overlook this ground reality and Pakistan cannot expect India to underestimate its strategic impact.

All this explains the succinct statement of the defence minister that nothing dramatic is to be expected from the defence secretary level talks with Pakistan. Siachin is a complicated matter and nobody should expect miracles to happen. Of course everybody in India and Pakistan laments at the compulsions that force the two countries to expose their material and human resources to unwanted damage and destruction.

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