Post – avalanche Siachen dilemma

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Almost one month after at least 125 Pakistanis, most of them army personnel, were buried under several meters of ice due to a massive avalanche in Siachen, the world’s highest battlefield is being discussed hotly in diplomatic and strategic circuits.

On his visit to the avalanche-hit area with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, the chief of the tragedy-hit Pakistani Army triggered a new debate by stating before the media that it was high time to think of demilitarization of Siachen. Strong reactions erupted on both sides of the border on the issue. As usual, the Indian side responded in a balanced manner. Across the border, Pakistani authorities had to clarify to their people that it was not an offer of unilateral withdrawal from Siachen. The very idea of the demilitarization of these snow-clad heights of the Karakoram Range in the Himalayas found a few takers among the so-called intellectuals on the Indian side, too.

The highest battlefield and its demilitarization

Siachen is considered the longest glacier of Karakoram and second longest non-polar glacier in the world. One third of the glacier is controlled by Pakistan, while the rest of it is under Indian control.

The area is uninhabited by civilians on both sides. The temperature remains several degrees below zero on the Celsius scale. In fact, the Indian and Pakistani troops constitute the human population of the glacier, which is at an average height of 5700 meters from sea level. The cost of maintaining troops at these heights to both neighbors is extremely high in monetary as well as human terms. There is ample data to suggest that more soldiers from both sides have died due to the tough climatic conditions of the region than those who died during exchange of fire between the rival forces. The proponents of demilitarization use these facts to press for their case for withdrawal from this region.

This line of reasoning is sufficient to make a layperson believe that the two sides must seriously think of military disengagement in Siachen, but those who have a minimal understanding of the strategic importance of Siachen would outrightly reject the idea. Lt. General Vijay Oberoi, former Vice Chief of the Indian Army, has publicly ridiculed this utopian idea, saying that the decisions of deployment of armed forces or their withdrawal cannot be based on the financial cost of maintaining the same. The issues related to sovereignty of the country and defending the frontiers have to be considered with an entirely different approach.

It should be kept in mind that the presence of Indian forces in Siachen is necessary to keep a check on the ever-growing presence of China in Gilgit-Baltistan to the north of this glacier. China illegally controls a sizable part of Indian territory in the region that was handed over to it by its ally Pakistan decades ago. The ‘Dragon’ can climb the Siachen glacier openly or clandestinely with the help of Pakistan the moment we relax our hold on this frontier. India can neither trust Pakistan nor China is this matter.

Legal and constitutional perspective

There is an Indian legal and constitutional perspective to the issue that cannot be ignored while discussing Siachen or the entire Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Being a part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen is an integral part of India, as is the legal position of the rest of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK). If any demilitarization at all has to occur or begin, it is for the aggressor that is Pakistan to withdraw first.

It may be recalled here that after India’s independence in 1947, the then ruler of Jammu-Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh, signed the Instrument of Accession, making the entire state an integral part of India. By virtue of this document, which was further ratified by the Legislative Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir, the POK part of Kashmir and the northern areas comprised of Gilgit-Baltistan must be returned to India. We in India have never relinquished our claim on these areas.

The official map of India ever since 1947 shows these areas as part of India, despite the fact that on the ground, it the writ of Pakistan that runs there. In the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly we have kept a certain number of seats vacant for the representatives of the POK for the past several decades. The Indian Parliament, through a unanimous resolution in 1994, had reaffirmed the nation’s commitment and resolve on this issue by stating that the entire Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India that is Bharat and Pakistan should hand over the occupied territories back to India.

Constitutional experts claim that on the Pakistani side, despite all the hue and cry that Pakistan has been making during the past six decades, Jammu and Kashmir are not included in the boundaries of Pakistan as mentioned in the Pakistani Constitution. Hence, anybody who talks about withdrawal of Indian troops from Siachen runs the risk of going against the spirit of the resolution of the Indian Parliament.

The trust deficit

While the freedom of Pakistan occupied Kashmir from the clutches of an invader neighbor may appear to be a distant dream today, as a nation, India cannot surrender its claim on the areas under illegal occupation of Pakistan. As far as Siachen is concerned, the Pakistani Army is free to return to safer areas if they feel that it is difficult for them to stay where they are today.

Even if there are some saner elements in the Pakistani political and defense dispensation and they can prevail upon those who still openly vow to cut India into hundred pieces, it appears almost impossible for them to advocate Pakistan’s unilateral withdrawal.

Even if Pakistan decides to unilaterally withdraw from the glacier under some compelling circumstances (it has already ruled out the possibility), the fact remains that India’s response has to be more cautious and calculated. If it comes some day, first we would have to try to see through it to find whether it is some strategic game plan of the hawkish Pakistani Army.

For Delhi, it is very hard to trust the political and military leadership of Pakistan that has a consistent history of deceit and mischief, so far as Indo-Pak bilateral ties are concerned. India cannot afford to forget the Pakistani ‘return gift’ of the Kargil intrusion and limited war that followed immediately after the ‘Lahore Bus Yatra’ of the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Dr.  Poonam V. Singh
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Dr.  Poonam V. Singh obtained her doctoral degree in Hindi Literature from the Hindi Department of Panjab University Chandigarh. Born in Mandi District of Himachal Pradesh, she was brought up and educated in the City Beautiful. She started her journalistic career as sub-editor with Hindi Daily Divya Himachal. Later she also worked as a correspondent of The Times of India and a regional news channel Dinbhar at Rohtak in Haryana. Married to senior journalist and media educator Virender Singh Chauhan, she now writes for India’s premier news agency the Press Trust of India from Sirsa in Haryana. Apart from this she writes on Jammu and Kashmir affairs in various Hindi dailies. 

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