One of the ineluctable inferences drawn from history is that public memory is often short leading to fatal consequences. But what about the memory of some well-meaning Indian analysts today who favour the withdrawal of Indian forces from Siachen? Their argument goes that India has consistently adhered to Nehruvian policy of fostering peace, democracy and development in the world in general and South Asia in particular. As part of this tradition, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been emphasising development in the region and talking of converting Siachen, “the world's highest battlefield” into a “peace mountain.”
The time is opportune, they say, for India to move forward and withdraw from the region. The current civilian government in Islamabad is pragmatic enough to see the benefits the nation can derive from its closer relationship with India. Islamabad has of late decided to grant Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India's exports of nearly 6,000 items. It is interested in buying India’s power to feed its own industries. Islamabad is interested also in allowing transit rights for India’s gas pipeline projects to Central Asia and Iran as this would go a long way in taking care of its current balance of payments deficits.
Besides, they say, now the Pakistan Army, the most powerful institution in the decision making of the country, too reflects the same spirit of cooperation with India. While visiting Skardu after the region was hit by avalanche resulting in deaths of a number of civilians and military personnel in April last, Pakistan’s Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani spoke of "peaceful co-existence” between India and Pakistan and said that the Siachen issue must be "resolved so that both the countries don't have to pay the cost".
The advocates of withdrawal add the Indian deployment is hardly needed in the region today. There is already an informal cease-fire and that is holding up quite well. India can avoid the casualties its troops suffer because of the treacherous terrain and the super high altitude weather there. Also, she can avoid the economic cost of maintaining an infantry brigade group at Siachen to guard the mountain passes and approaches leading to them from the western slopes of the Saltoro Ridge. Such analysts seem to be forgetting the reasons that led India, under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to conceive, and under her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi to execute, ‘Operation Meghdoot’ that brought the hitherto neglected inhospitable Siachen Glacier region under India’s effective control . It is well documented that ever since Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir signed the Instruments of Accession with India, Islamabad has been hatching sinister designs to wrest the Valley from New Delhi. After a Cease Fire Line (CFL) was delineated under the Karachi Agreement of 1949 up to Point NJ 9842 on the map and replaced by the LoC in1972, Islamabad was conspiring to secure the Siachen region.
Against this background, New Delhi should remain cautious against any advice to withdraw from the region. Both the Indian Constitution and the historic resolution its Parliament has passed on the issue make it mandatory on the part of New Delhi to protect this region as part of defending the integrity of the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir that acceded to India. It would be better by far to heed the advice of those strategists who argue that while New Delhi must take care of the human and financial cost of its deployment in Siachen by improving itsinfrastructure in the region, it must hold on to Siachen. The region lies with Aksai Chin to its east, Shaksgam Valley (ceded to China by Pakistan in 1963) to its north, Gilgit-Baltistan (erstwhileNorthern Areas of POK) to its west and the Leh-Kargil garrisons of Ladakh to its south and south west. The Saltoro Ridge under New Delhi’s control prevents the convergence of potential enemy forces from the Aksai Chin, the Karakoram Highway (KKH) and Gilgit-Baltistan.
If the Saltoro had not been occupied by India, Pakistan from the west and China from the east would have linked up, with the strategic Karakoram Pass under their complete control. Islamabad has never reconciled to New Delhi’s control of the region and has been attempting to dislodge it from there. In 1999 it attempted to captured Kargil and surrounding areas with the aim of cutting off our supply routes to Ladakh. If India abandons Siachen today, Pakistan might rush in and capture it, to quote a former Chief of Army Staff, ‘by deceit.’ In that eventuality, India might find it well-nigh impossible to retake these positions. Apart from the difficult terrain, New Delhi might have to factor the Pak nuclear capability too now. New Delhi need not come to an understanding on Siachen even if Pakistan agrees to delineate and demarcate the AGPL . Any such formulation holds little validity after what Pakistan did in1999 and has still been doing in J&K.
Most importantly, New Delhi would do well to bear in mind that there is hardly any dilution in the nature and purpose of the state of Pakistan . It has rather moved fast towards its radicalisation against India (as well as the West). Islamabad has not yet stopped its moral, material and political support to the jihadi insurgents in the Valley or those who have caused various terror strikes in different parts of India (and other secular democracies). The current establishment in Islamabad can do little positive even if it wanted to do so. The mindset of a powerful segment of its army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is rabidly anti-India (and anti-West). With their support the Islamist forces have been able to survive America’s war on terror in the region. After the planned Western exit from Afghanistan they would only get emboldened further to execute their designs against India.
Dr Jagdish N Singh is a senior Indian journalist
Views expressed are personal