Siachen: people or land or none of them?

Published: April 25, 2012

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Can you imagine a land nearly 19,000 feet above sea level with howling winds where the snow can be as much as 35 feet deep, or more? It is a 43 mile-long glacier, which makes it the second largest glacier in the world outside the poles. No animal is so stupid as to live there; indeed even plants do not exist. Day in and day out, the snow blinds you with its intense white glare. Even the rifles have to be heated so that they do not freeze. This is the Siachen Glacier where India and Pakistan have been fighting a totally idiotic war since 1984. Both sides concede that more soldiers have perished because of the climate than enemy fire. Both sides also agree that they are spending their taxpayers’ money in the millions every day for this insane conflict. There have been a dozen or so efforts at making peace and in June 1989, Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto almost agreed to a withdrawal. But the Indian generals would have none of it and the civilian government was not strong enough to put its foot down.

I was of the opinion that the establishment thinks that people do not matter while land does. One can read about any number of wars over land in history, which have wasted thousands of lives. Even the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between the kings of France and England was understandable. For the lands were fair and not wastelands. The Alsace-Lorraine region, which became the bone of contention between France and Germany, was also a rich and fair land. But, despite the fact that many people spoke German dialects, there were cities like Metz where the language was French. When the German king was advised to annex it by his generals who wanted to move the frontier to the west in order to have a strategic advantage over France, the wise minister Otto von Bismarck opposed the aggression. He said it would result in war with France. And that is exactly what happened. It resulted not in one war but several and, cost far more in men and money to both France and Germany than any strategic advantage could compensate for. Indeed, history talks of many conflicts over pieces of the earth which cost much more in terms of lives blighted and wealth squandered. Of course, the nationalists who go to war for these pieces of land, do so on some imagined principle of dynastic ego or national prestige or vague concept of  ‘strategic interest’ or  ‘national interest’. While the realist school of international relations would have us believe that decision-makers carry out a cold-blooded rational calculation of loss and gain before deciding to sacrifice their young men, the fact is they act irrationally. They act like foolhardy, gambling school bullies who jump into fights to satisfy their egos. Such are the decision-makers of the human race to whom we have entrusted our lives and in whose hands we have given weapons which can blow up the planet several times over.

As I said, in most cases of war, the land and its wealth was said to be a major cause. While it made sense in premodern warfare when the weapons were not as destructive and there was no spirit of nationalism to keep the dogs of war perpetually unleashed, the advent of modern weapons and nationalism have made these arguments obsolete. However, in the particular case of Siachen, we are in danger of losing the land too — not the wasteland of the glacier itself which ought not to interest any sane person, but the great plains of India and Pakistan. The reason is that the glacier is melting at the rate of 110 metres per year and the great Gangotri Glacier is also melting at a rate of 32 metres per year. This is unprecedented and it will be an ecological disaster if the glaciers melt because of human activity. The glaciers feed rivers and if we waste the water because of fast melting glaciers, we will have to face unprecedented disaster in the river systems of both India and Pakistan. In short, instead of gaining land our follies are going to make us lose the lands we inherited. Does this make any sense?

Well, in the face of such arguments the nationalists fall back on principles: the Indians contend this was their land and Pakistan had allowed expeditions near, or on some part of it earlier than their occupation of the Saltoro Range heights. The Pakistani position is that the land was unmarked but that India transgressed against this understanding in April 1984, when it sent in its army to occupy the heights of Saltoro. Since the 1990s, the Bharatiya Janata Party contends that Siachen is necessary for ‘strategic and security’ reasons. In Pakistan also, this argument is heard with the additional one that India can threaten Gilgit-Baltistan and China’s approach to Pakistan. The fact is that if India and Pakistan would only deploy their forces in the areas where human habitation actually begins, they would be more secure than they are now as they would not be constantly losing soldiers and money. After all, an army which crosses the formidable glacier would not be a match for an entrenched army sitting in trenches in habitable land. Moreover, if it is a question of crossing over into the other’s territory, there are other less daunting places. The real reason is that both sides are afraid of losing face and appearing to seem weak and appeasing. But these fears should transcend for the higher reason that there is nothing more important than human lives and ecology.

In short, what I would recommend in the interest of human beings on both side of the conflict and the ecological system of the two countries is for them to withdraw to the pre-1984 positions. And if India does not agree, then Pakistan should do so unilaterally while reserving the right to appeal to the International Court of Justice or some other UN agency for a final marking of the maps acceptable to both countries.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 26th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (34)

  • Truth
    Apr 26, 2012 - 1:13AM

    Fact #1:

    When analysts say that “both sides should withdraw from Siachen”, it effectively means that only India should withdraw, since India controls the entire Siachen Glacier. The Pakistani Army is only present on the western side of the Saltoro range, so even if they were told to “withdraw from Siachen”, they wouldn’t have to withdraw, since they were never on Siachen in the first place.
    What the analysts effectively mean to say is that India should withdraw without any reciprocal move from Pakistan.

    Fact #2:

    India does not mind withdrawing from Siachen. All it wants is for Pakistan to sign the Actual Ground Position Line first.

    Fact #3:

    Pakistan is responsible for ceding huge tracts of the Karakoram Range away to China. Until date it has failed to give any explanation as to why it gave away parts of Kashmir to China in the first place. The tract of land it ceded to China is right opposite the Siachen Glacier.
    Above that, Kayani has also mused about ‘leasing’ Gilgit-Baltistan to China for 50 years, whatever that means.
    Under the present conditions it is impossible for India to know whether the land it withdraws from in favour of Pakistan will eventually be ‘given away’ to China or not, and for this reason India just can’t trust Pakistan (leave alone China) on this matter.


  • John B
    Apr 26, 2012 - 1:13AM

    Indians were happy to leave Saichen alone until PAK started to fool around on the region. Indians will never leave Saichen until PAK retreats. Even so I doubt indians will reciprocate.

    Saichen is too important for Indians than for PAK for several reasons and PAK is not one of them, and PAK has to live with that.

    What PAK needs is to think in terms of PAK future by looking within its borders. Neither China nor India is interested in PAK territories other than it’s market. PAK territories are indefensible for any conquerors.

    By the way, the Himalayan glaciers have been melting for centuries and the physics states the rate of melt will progressively increase until it reaches equilibrium and the human activities have nothing to do with it. Please look at the survey map of geological society of India since its beginning (British raj time).


  • ayesha_khan
    Apr 26, 2012 - 1:20AM

    India is not standing on ego. all it asks is that Pakistan authenticates the AGPL (Actual Ground Position Line) and then both countries can withdraw armies.

    So really India is not asking for anything other than an asurance for status quo to continue even if we withdraw actual people. Hence there is no loss of face involved for India.

    In signing the AGPL, Pakistan loses not an inch of land that they currently hav, so from that perspective they too are unlikely to lose face. What they do give up is the right to make one more attack and try to occupy Siachen glaciers. Since several attempts in the last 28 years have not succeeded, it is unlikely that they can succeed now. authenticating the AGPL would amount to admission by Pakistan that it has been unable to snatch India’s land. If it considers that as losing face – maybe.


  • Babloo
    Apr 26, 2012 - 1:33AM

    With rare exception, all Pakistani columnists , skirt the 1972 Loc Accord that defines the border and “thence North to the glaciers” and talk about everything else under the sun except the only piece of document that’s relevent to the conflict. It amazes me.


    Apr 26, 2012 - 1:38AM

    Siachen has been the bone of contention since long.To me, it is no use because it has cause a heavy loss for the human and financial resources for our country which already affected by the unstable political conditions and world-wide terrorism.If more is spent on it, more damage will be faced by the crippling economy of Pakistan.


  • BlackJack
    Apr 26, 2012 - 1:42AM

    I think this is another of the several reasonable articles that have emerged on Siachen. However, it assumes that this is unclaimed property that both countries are fighting over – that is not the case. The Karachi agreement, if implemented in spirit, cannot but serve to support India’s position. And once that is agreed, no nation would allow another to transgress its boundaries into its sovereign territory, whether waste lands or fertile plains – and India is no exception (or maybe you would wish to chastise your Chinese friends for the 1962 altercation with India over a similar waste land?). Bringing the BJP into the picture, which has been in power all of 6 out of the 28 years that the Indian army has occupied the Siachen heights merely seeks to obfuscate this dispute by ascribing a right-wing agenda to a fairly logical argument.


  • Charu
    Apr 26, 2012 - 1:47AM

    To quote the esteemed Major Bearls, “the all weather friends next door may not be pleased that Pakistan gave away a pass into Tibet to India. So in many ways, Siachen is about the territorial integrity of China, about which there can be no compromise by Pakistan.”

    Pakistan’s propensity to give away territory that it does not own to the Chinese, and its harebrained brinkmanship in Kargil in territory that was clearly demarcated, is why India will never vacate Siachen. Besides North means North everywhere else in the world except in Pakistan.

    As for the fig leaf of an ecological disaster due to human, presumably Indian soldiers, activity; how about Pakistan trying to pull this one on the Chinese about activity in Aksai Chin or the other Kashmir territories that it generously ceded to its all weather friend? Javed Hussain in another opinion piece on Siachen was a lot more honest!


  • Hafeez
    Apr 26, 2012 - 3:10AM

    Never read a more rational and well argumented piece. It is important to value human lives more than land in this case. And the this argument: “The fact is that if India and Pakistan would only deploy their forces in the areas where human habitation actually begins, they would be more secure than they are now as they would not be constantly losing soldiers and money. After all, an army which crosses the formidable glacier would not be a match for an entrenched army sitting in trenches in habitable land,” is so obvious that Pakistan should act erven unilaterally.


  • Rao
    Apr 26, 2012 - 3:20AM

    For once Pakistan can lead by making the suggested unilateral withdrawal of its troops into a zone of comfort for it and then go to an appropriate international forum seeking help for the delineation of how the LOC would/could/should run beyond NJ9842. With an abiding but misplaced faith in the fairness of the international community, India went to the UN Security Council in 1948, complaining of aggression by Pakistan and had faced the consequences of that one foolish act for the past six decades. Post imperial machinations of UK and the cold-war logic of the USA played havoc in the region. It’s now Pakistan’s turn to receive the favor – not only from the UK/USA but from the world at large and in an environment – that is largely hostile to it.


  • Ravish
    Apr 26, 2012 - 3:24AM

    Exactly my point! Now hurry up, sign on the dotted line which respects the AGPL and we’re done here.Recommend

  • DB
    Apr 26, 2012 - 3:47AM

    Indians invaded Siachen but now act as innocent victims and holy angels. It is truly only the arrogant minded who can think that invading a glacier is good for anyone but their ego. Of course, once India invaded, Pakistan had to respond to defend it’s territory from further occupation.

    As usual, I expect the Indian internet brigade that lives daily in obsession with Pakistan to cry about Pakistan in the comments.


  • Roperia
    Apr 26, 2012 - 3:56AM

    India never wanted this place to militarized. It was Pakistan which allowed foreign expeditions for which Pak army helis were provided. When India sent a patrol up, Pak sensed mischief and decided to move in its army. Unfortunately, ISI failed to background check the store from where arctic equipment was bought in London. The owner turned out to be a RAW mole and the Pakistani desire to move in first was preempted by Indian Army. Now Indian army occupies the entire 70 kms of glacier plus all the three strategic passes to Siachen on Soltoro Ridge. Pakistan Army is present on some lower ridges here and there but that NOT Siachen Glacier.

    India’s defence budget is $40 billion for the financial year 2012-13 and Pakistanis was $5.6 billion last year. Sooner or later Pakistan economy would fail to sustain the growing Indian military build up (thanks to a much faster economic growth in India). Its in Pakistan’s interest to delineate the AGPL today as India’s stand, given its increasing clout, might get even more rigid in the years to come.

    That generally applies to all issues. :)


  • vasant Deshpande
    Apr 26, 2012 - 4:47AM

    Absolutely sensible


  • trewq
    Apr 26, 2012 - 9:40AM

    why are crying like a loser?


  • Varun
    Apr 26, 2012 - 10:04AM

    It just might be that India likes the location for the potential of snooping around contiguous territories in China & Pakistan. So, it may neither be people or land that’s the incentive here.


  • Maria
    Apr 26, 2012 - 10:27AM

    Why to sign Actual Ground Position Line? It would mean to alter LOC which would be a violation of Simla Accord.


  • Abdullah Kashmiri
    Apr 26, 2012 - 11:11AM

    Isn’t it all foolish. Forgetting the Kashmir problem, of which Siachen is a part, and talking of a solution out of no solution to the main problem!
    It is a curse on both sides leaving Kashmiris suffer. Let then both India and Pakistan keep suffering!
    Solve Kashmir, there will be no Siachen problem.


  • Apr 26, 2012 - 11:28AM


    How can India invade its own land? The Karachi document says North of NJ9842 is the LOC. This document is signed by Pakistan. Now, Pakistan says the LOC is to the East! When did North started being East?

    India is the aggressor so goes the popular Pakistani response. But, tell me again, how can India be the aggressor when the LOC is authenticated by Pakistan itself?

    The exact words were,”thence north to the glaciers”. Please enlighten us why it is NOT our territory..


  • Bilal
    Apr 26, 2012 - 11:36AM


    Just one question, what was the position of Indian Army Pre 1984 on Siachen?

    also, who controlled the Siachen from 1947 -1983?


  • Udaya Bose
    Apr 26, 2012 - 11:39AM

    If I give you my address would you please send me a Pakistan School Atlas?
    I want to learn how to identify North.


  • Rajendra Kalkhande
    Apr 26, 2012 - 5:30PM

    Its very interesting how Indians and Pakistanis look at Siachen issue. Human suffering at Siachen is a non-issue in India. May be this is do with Hindu love with icy mountains. Many of our sacred places are deep in icy mountains. One will believe it watching the old men and women walking to Mansarover Lake in Tibet through High Himalayas almost for a month. Then we have Amarnath Yatra, in which lacs of people take part each year. People of all age walk to Gaumukh and many such other places in Himalayas.Icy mountains are an integral part of Hinduism. Icy Himalaya is the abode of Lord Shiva. Trust me, Indians can sit at Siachen for next 1000 years without complaining.


  • Apr 26, 2012 - 6:20PM

    Meaningless article.


  • Afridi
    Apr 26, 2012 - 7:30PM

    Yes it was empty land and india did ingress into it. But don’t thing its an waste land it has a strategic value which one can’t deny. any one sitting on high ground has an extreme benefit its only a roll down for the force down so india can easily cut off northern parts of pakistan even india can threaten chinese and tibet route from there. More so almost all rivers in pakistan originates even from india itself or northern areas of pakistan which india will have control if they get siachen
    **Yes i am for peace but sincere peace if india willing, its good for both countries**

  • Rao
    Apr 26, 2012 - 8:09PM

    It is undisputed that several exploratory missions made it to the glacier with permits issued by Pakistan and several world atlases depicted erroneously the boundary from NJ9842 straight to the KK Pass. It is only when these missions began being accompanied by Pak military personnel and India received intelligence that Pakistan was planning to establish military presence in the area north of NJ9842-KK Pass, India pre-empted it through it’s occupation. Per the Karachi and Shimla agreements the legal ownership of the territory cannot be taken away except through another agreement. In fact this applies to the whole of Jammu & Kashmir – wherein Pakistan occupied territory is in it’s possession (which is nine-tenth’s in law) but illegally, because India has the title. China’s occupation of Aksaichin illustrates a similar situation and Pakistan wanted to do a China in Siachen but the Indians were more alert than they were during 1949-1979.


  • Rao
    Apr 26, 2012 - 8:22PM

    NO! It means extension of the LOC to its logical conclusion!


  • Himalayan
    Apr 26, 2012 - 8:36PM

    I am too in full agreement with the author about the natural calamity the Indian military presence will bring. But, I am even more apprehensive about Indians vacating the glacier, and Chinese stepping in and blasting the glacier, as they have done all along the Himalayas in their procession. India at the most can ask Pakistan to authenticate its current position on the map before its withdrawal, but it can not seek assurance from Pakistan about not ceding the territory to China. Let the dispute be between India and Pakistan, as we have shared inheritance. Let Pakistan start negotiating with China too to restore its own territory the Aksai Chin back to it. This will also bring back in India the lost so called “trust deficit” back, leading to its withdrawal from the Siachen heights


  • Sara
    Apr 26, 2012 - 11:17PM

    @DB EXACTLY!! So true what you said! ….”Indian internet brigade that lives daily in obsession with Pakistan to cry about Pakistan in the comments.”…..Any and everywhere you go, you have droves of Pakistan obsessed Indians making it their mission in life to malign, insult and destroy Pakistan’s image… even on neutral youtube videos, you find nasty comments by them, for no rhyme or reason…. Just see these comments under these articles…
    I still remember reading blogs and comments by Indians celebrating when the US murdered those 24 Pakistani soldiers and now they celebrate this avalanche as well…not to mention the Indian media, which beats Fox any day…. proud that Pakistanis and the Pakistani media, don’t stoop to such a sickeningly, low level like them.


  • Shahzad
    Apr 26, 2012 - 11:21PM

    @Udaya Bose:
    Send me an atlas which explains north to to the glacier…word glacier not redundant


  • Rao
    Apr 27, 2012 - 12:41AM

    Please note that it is north to the ‘glaciers’ and no just a single ‘glacier’. Does that clarify the context?


  • Dr V. C. Bhutani
    Apr 27, 2012 - 5:56AM

    Trust deficit.


  • Kaalchakra
    Apr 27, 2012 - 6:59AM

    It is a matter of basic fairness. India has occupied Siachin for x number of years. Now, it is Pakistan’s turn. Then China can have it for the same number of years. Thereafter India can get it back, again – naturally.

    We have wasted so many years in conflict. Now it is important to start a new era of mutual trust and respect among nations. We are waiting for India to make the start. After all, what are friends, good neighbors, and big brothers for?


  • Hunter Punter
    Apr 27, 2012 - 2:12PM

    @Kaalchakra: I think a good starting point is that pakistan apologise to its 180 million poor and to India for its 65 yr obsession with Kashmir, leading to non stop inflicting poverty on the neighbourhood. Pakistan must be the only unique country in the world, that wants to poke its nose in its neighbours. Kashmir acceded to India in 1947. Pakistan invaded it, and continues to oppose accsesion. World is sick and tired of this. After pakistan could not get any support from any quarters, it decided to use state sponsored non state actors/terrorists to foster trouble in India. So it is for pakistan to gropw up, assume responsibilty for its own wellbeing and stop troubling neighbours. In short, get back to being a good global citizen. If not..then too bad..maybe the same carries on for another 100 years..


  • Rehana
    Apr 27, 2012 - 5:00PM

    @ the writer an excellent and most sensitive piece of writing. After reading all the comments on this article I was surprised to see only one thing has no meaning for most of them and that is the precious human life of our soldiers and its not just life but the misery they go through due to unbearable weather conditions and many of them become paralyzed for life but ofcourse what do these people care as long as they and their loved ones are in a safe and comfortable place!!!
    @Rajendra your comment is so silly,well if you want to say worship is equal to perforce appointing your army at such a terrible height just for the sake of your chauvinism then I pity your soldiers and am glad that atleast on our side there is some human sympathy and care for all life –yours as well..And mind you this is not complaining this is being SENSITIVE if you understand the meaning of this word!!!!!!!


  • observer
    Apr 28, 2012 - 11:03PM


    As usual, I expect the Indian internet brigade that lives daily in obsession with Pakistan to cry about Pakistan in the comments.

    No, actually I will let a Pakistani (an ex-Brigadier) ‘cry about Pakistan’, for a change.


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