The tragic incident at Ghayari, Siachen, where a 25-meter high hurtling wall of snow smothered a battalion headquarters and trapped 138 officers and men of the Pakistan Army under it, has riveted the national attention on this rather ignored battle front where more casualties are the result of natural disasters than the enemy action. Deployment at 180,000 to 22,000 feet covers an area that is unnatural for human habitation and full of unpredictable and invisible dangers.

Accidents are unavoidable rather inevitable and in line with the military culture, stoically accepted as a professional hazard in line of duty. Yet, the size and scale of the recent disaster have managed to bring the Siachen issue from the periphery of national consciousness to the centrestage of public attention. A debate has been kindled as to what pressing circumstances and vital national objectives have forced a deployment that necessitates such perilous presence and why the two countries cannot dismantle this costly and painful confrontation that, to start with, is a consequence of India’s stealthy aggression.

It was in 1984 that India moved the belligerent pursuit of the Kashmir dispute to the Siachen Glacier by occupying positions along Soltoro Ridgeline in an area, which had remained demilitarised ever since the Kashmir operations in 1948. Even when the Ceasefire Line (CFL) in Kashmir [dubbed Line of Control (LoC) vide Simla Agreement - 1972] between India and Pakistan came into force following the Karachi Agreement in 1949, as a consequence of the UN supervised ceasefire, it could not be extended to the glacier due to extreme constraints of an inhospitable terrain and inaccessibility. Its delineation ended at the last mutually agreed upon point in the northern area; village of Khor on the Shyok River, which was changed to a map reference point; NJ9842 during the Tashkent Conference. From Khor onwards, the Karachi Agreement then described alignment of the CFL as going “thence north to the glaciers”, leaving the ‘Line’ north of this point yet to be defined and demarcated. Pakistan considered the onwards continuation of the CFL to Karakoram Pass, which demarcated the Siachen glacier within Pakistani territory; a position on which the Pak-China Accord of 1963 was based and which was tacitly accepted by India. Other occasions of articulating the Indian dissenting position presented themselves later as well. India had an opportunity to challenge Pakistan’s claim at the time of Tashkent Conference in 1965 where the two countries agreed to change the terminal point of CFL and, more so, at Simla in 1972 when it had the chance to dictate terms; the CFL, now dubbed LoC, still terminated at NJ9842, despite small changes made to the erstwhile alignment of the CFL.

Following Simla, Pakistan continued to exercise administrative control over the Siachen glacier and opened it for international mountaineering expeditions in the mid-seventies. Various international atlases also reflected the Siachen glacier as part of Pakistan by showing the LoC as proceeding north eastwards towards the Karakorum Pass. However, the threat of an Indian aggression was surreptitiously taking shape in the manner of earlier occupation of the Kashmir valley by military aggression in October 1948; an Indian brigade strength force was landed on the northern end of the Siachen glacier in April 1984 to initiate another bleeding wound in the saga of Kashmir tragedy. Pakistan rushed in its troops to contain the Indian aggression and so began a senseless and costly conflict, shorn of any worthwhile strategic or military considerations that could justify the loss of life and heavy expenditure involved in maintaining troops in an area that is regarded as the highest battle ground in the world.

An extension of Indian hegemonic designs, the Indian occupation of the Siachen glacier remains an act of blatant aggression. It is a gross violation of not only the Karachi Agreement of 1949 but also Simla Agreement whose Para 4(2) stipulates: “In Jammu and Kashmir, the line of control resulting from the ceasefire of December 17, 1971, shall be respected by both sides without prejudice to the recognised position of either side. Neither side shall seek to alter it unilaterally, irrespective of the mutual differences and legal interpretations. Both sides further undertake to refrain from the threat or the use of force in violation of this line.”

Heavy intermittent clashes ensued in the following years without affecting any significant change in the ground situation. Artillery duels continued to take place, even as the two sides refrained from introducing air power to further expand the zone of conflict. A modicum of rationality prevailed after five years when after an initial meeting of the military commanders the Indian and Pakistani delegations began talks for resolving the dispute in July 1989; a process that after 13 rounds of talks has yielded no tangible progress even as the earlier rounds were marked by anticipation that the area would be returned to a status quo ante, returning troops to a deployment prevailing in the area prior to the Indian aggression in 1984.

Notwithstanding the considerable common ground that should facilitate movement on Siachen, the Indian posturing has not been very encouraging; in fact, the later rounds of talks have indicated a marked degree of inflexibility in the Indian stance. Instead of rolling back aggression from Siachen, the Indians have insisted upon verifying the existing positions of opposing forces stationed at the glacier; introducing; in addition to international boundary, working boundary, LoC, and CFL, a new term in the lexicon on Kashmir called the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). For Pakistan, these demands are unacceptable because once this line is acknowledged it would be tantamount to validating the Indian aggression in Siachen and by extension in Kashmir as well. While it is desirable that sufficient flexibility be exhibited by Pakistan in resolving the Siachen dispute by making concessions that would prevent costly loss of life, it is another matter to agree to mark an Indian dictated line in Siachen and for good reasons.

India’s aggression in Siachen is a military blunder, which needs to be retracted to avert the senseless loss of life and stop the haemorrhaging of resources. There is a dire need to demilitarise this conflict zone. In such a scenario, a major role can be played by the UNMOGIP (UN Military Observers Group in India and Pakistan) observers in demilitarising the treacherous landscape. These observers, who are mandated by the UN under the authority of a UNSC resolution to monitor the CFL, are present on ground and can perform a positive and active role in overseeing demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier and assuming a post evacuation supervisory role. Perhaps, this is the only way of melting the glacial ice of frigid Indian hostility in Siachen.

n    The writer is a freelance columnist.