Siachen: Can This Ice Melt?

After Siachen Glacier devoured more than 130 men in a single avalanche early this month, Islamabad is again seeking a way out from the inhuman, refrigerated battleground it is sharing with India for the last 28 years. In the apparent spring of relations, if the two countries warm up to undo their glaciated positions, there is possibility of other issues being pursued, analyses R S GULL.

A view of Siachen Glacier

A view of Siachen Glacier

Snowstorms are common over the Siachen glacier on either side of the invisible divide. But it was for the first time in last three decades that such a large number of soldiers vanished over the inhuman heights. On April 7, 2012, an avalanche swept away 124 soldiers from Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry and 11 civilians. Despite Islamabad’s all out efforts such a large number of men and machinery could not be traced.

The tragedy, however, triggered a peace talk. It was initiated, unusually, by Rawalpandi and followed by Islamabad. Indications suggest that India and Pakistan are heading towards reviving negotiations on Siachen by picking up the threads from earlier failed sessions. Ahead of meeting, both the sides have made their positions clear, once again. Pakistan wants status quo ante (the troops moving to the pre-1984 position) and India seeks authentication and delineation of the respective positions all along the 110 kms long Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) before considering demilitarization.

“The withdrawal of Pakistani troops is possible provided India also agrees,” Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari told a gathering after his India visit. “It will not be a unilateral decision.” However, the real risk associated with the talks between India and Pakistan seems to be their perpetual agreement to disagree. Siachen glacier located in Ladakh is one of the best examples that explains the crisis.

The Siachen crisis that many refer to as the refrigerator of Kashmir issue, owes its genesis to the UN assisted Karachi Agreement, which the two countries signed in July 1949. The agreement demarcated the cease-fire line in the J&K but stopped at a point NJ 9842. In fact, the line that later became the LoC was not delineated beyond this point as the two armies restored status quo ante after the 1971 war. Had they tried to do it they might have failed because of the series of glaciers in the Saltoro range.

The Saltoro range, of which Siachen is a part, has a series of challenging icy peaks. The heights got the attention of the mountaineers from across the world. While New Delhi was lackadaisical in permitting the foreign mountaineers, Islamabad readily permitted it. Since the entire set of peaks – Sia Kangri, Teram Kangri, Saltoro Kangri, the Rimo Group and Mamostong Kangri – are better accessible from West (Pakistan) instead of East (India), it led to misconception that Siachen belongs to Pakistan. Even maps suggesting this were available in the market. India termed it “cartographic aggression” saying Islamabad had unilaterally extended the LoC from NJ 9842 to Karakoram Pass thus slicing over 10,000 Sq Kms from Indian territory.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered army to launch `Operation Meghdoot’ on April 13, 1984 in violation of the Shimla Agreement. Initially company strength of 4-Kumaon regiment was sent uphill to the Bilafond pass and the Sia Pass. Delhi stated that the move was aimed at preempting a Pakistan initiative in the region. Pakistan retaliated and within a couple of years the entire 110 -KM stretch from NJ 9842 to Karakoram Pass became a battleground. Now, recent media reports suggest India has deployed 15000 soldiers manning more than 120 posts over seven peaks as Pakistani soldiers are holding around 35 posts over five peaks that are in its controls.

In this standoff, thousands of families on either side of the Radcliffe divide, whose members are deployed on the inhuman battlefield will have to wait.

Though a ceasefire holds since November 2003, body-bags continue to fly down the peaks as weather continues to be the principal predator. This is the soldier’s ultimate nightmare in which he breathes purest but scarce oxygen, sleeps in ice-caves, and endures blizzards and storms with thunderous

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