On April 13, 1984 a small force of the Indian Army occupied the Bilafond La pass. Four days later, another small force occupied the Sia La pass. Both passes, the former at over 18,000 ft and the latter at over 20,000 ft are located in the Saltoro Range and serve as the gateway to the Siachen Glacier. The Indians had moved fast after receiving intelligence that the Pakistan Army was planning to occupy them. The first Pakistani reaction to the occupation of the passes came on April 24/25, 1984 when a small force attempted to get to the Bilafond La in an uphill assault but was thwarted by the difficult glaciated terrain and adverse weather conditions.
In the days that followed, the Indian Army built up a large force to defend the 80 kilometre-long Saltoro Range ridgeline. Since then, the Saltoro Range has been the focal point of operations — the Pakistanis seeking to gain a foothold on the ridge line, the Indians denying it.
In early April 1987, another attempt was made by the Pakistan Army to gain a foothold on the Saltoro ridgeline. A small force consisting of about a dozen SSG commandos, using ropes and ladders, went up a vertical cliff and occupied a position at over 21,000 ft that dominated the Indian positions at Bilafond La. They named it Quaid post. The Indian Army made several attempts to evict the commandos but each time they were repulsed with heavy casualties. On June 25, 1987, they succeeded in taking the post as the commandos had run out of ammunition and could not be resupplied as the base supporting them came under fire. With the only foothold on the ridgeline lost, the Pakistan Army launched a major attack in September 1987 to get to Bilafond La. The attack was repulsed. In March 1989, another attempt was made, this time in the Chumik glacier, three kilometres east of Giari (recently hit by an avalanche). At over 19,000 ft, the place chosen is the most difficult to scale in the Saltoro Range for either side. In a daring operation the peak was occupied by two men, an officer and a non-commissioned officer, slung from a helicopter on a rope, turn by turn. The two thwarted all Indian efforts to get to the top for 36 hours after which they were reinforced by a handful of soldiers dropped in similar fashion. But in May 1989 when the Indians succeeded in neutralising the supply base supporting the soldiers on the peak, the post was vacated.
In November 1992, yet another attempt was made to get to the ridgeline by means of a major attack. Launched in haste, the attack ended in failure. As a consequence, the general officer commanding was sacked. Most of the casualties suffered by Pakistani troops in combat were in the two major attacks (September 1987, November 1992).
The Indians have rarely embarked on a major offensive venture. They have left this to the Pakistanis who have obliged them at least twice . The loss of Quaid post and withdrawal from the Chumik glacier post due to lack of logistic support to a handful of men, are cases in point. Despite twelve rounds of negotiations, the two have not been able to reach an amicable settlement because of domestic political compulsions and mutual mistrust (exacerbated by the Kargil conflict). The dispute revolves round the extension of the Line of Control (LOC) beyond a point on the Saltoro Range known by its map reference as NJ 9820420. The demarcated LOC ends at this point —“thence north to the glaciers” is what the Karachi agreement of 1949 states about the extension. According to the Indians, this meant that the LoC should extend northwards along the Saltoro Range up to Sia Kangri.
On the other hand, Pakistan’s stand is that beyond NJ 9820420, the LOC should extend eastward up to the Karakoram pass. Extending the LOC northwards would give the entire Siachen Glacier-Saltoro area to India, while extending it eastward would give it to Pakistan.
The only way out of this morass is to demilitarise the zone with the UN acting as the guarantor. Can the leadership of the two countries show for once statesmanship to resolve not only the Siachen dispute but all other outstanding disputes and can the two armies assist them in doing so?
Until then, for the soldiers on the Saltoro Range ‘theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die’.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2012.