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Bullish on Siachen
Despite a ceasefire nearly 150 Indian and Pakistani soldiers perished in Siachen last year. As both nations remain locked in a 'cold war' on the world's highest battlefield, TOI-Crest meets Narinder Kumar, the fauji behind the spat.
It is not for nothing that the Siachen conflict is sometimes referred to as 'Bull's War'. As with many of the world's remotest frontiers, icy Siachen, too, required a plucky explorer to claim it with a flag and then rally a nation to defend a new cause. Narinder 'Bull' Kumar did both about three decades ago. His derring-do might have perhaps made Rudyard Kipling wax eloquent in another age - if Kumar had been one of the British Empire's many intrepid paladins that is, carving out colonies with greedy relish in this very part of the world a hundred years ago.
But just as many of those efforts were lambasted even back then, by perceptive anti-colonialists, Siachen is an issue that now riles many. In fact many Indians regard it as a jingoistic spat over a forbidding chunk of ice in the high Himalayas - a meaningless shooting war in a place where even eagles don't dare.
It's been a costly affair too. Besides the high cost of maintaining posts on the glacier, which experts peg at Rs 5 crore a day, seven Indian soldiers died there last month, killed by an avalanche. Another killed over 140 Pakistanis in April, adding to a grim combined casualty count that some say is well over three thousand. Largely why many have once again started questioning what both armies are doing there anyway. Prime minister Manmohan Singh is said to be keen on resolving the conflict. Surprisingly, even Pakistan's army chief recently called for a way out. But Siachen remains a vexed issue, fiercely defended by strong voices either side of Wagah - usually strategic affairs pundits, prominent politicians and generals.
The 79-year-old 'Bull' Kumar, a retired army colonel and one of India's most distinguished mountaineers, is a first among equals here perhaps. And he puts forward some of the most deliciously detailed arguments on the glacier's strategic worth.
Besides, there's certainly a hint of the Kipling-esque sahib to Kumar. The first thing I'm told after a firm handshake is that I'm late. "I'm an armyman and a Punjabi, so I do come across as blunt, " he declares, even as he carefully adjusts his fauji side cap and ushers me into a maplined study in his south Delhi flat. It is this characteristic bluntness that many in India credit for bagging Siachen;which helps us keep Ladakh safe, they point out.
THE NEW GREAT GAME
Over 70 km long, Siachen (Balti for 'place of roses' ) is one of the world's largest glaciers and lies between the Aksai Chin plateau and the Nubra River. Significantly, it forms the watershed between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Surrounded by some of the world's highest peaks and passes, this high-altitude glacier in the eastern Karakoram mountain range also abuts the old Silk Route into China.
In 1949 India and Pakistan ratified a ceasefire line (now the 'Line of Control' ) in J&K that ended near the glacier's base. Mapmakers dubbed this point 'NJ 9842'. Made out to be some sort of no man's land to the north, Siachen was left well alone. But beginning in the 1960s Pakistan slowly began allowing international mountaineering expeditions into the area.
Kumar, who first gained fame as deputy leader of India's first successful Everest expedition in 1965, learnt that by the mid 70s, Pakistan, by issuing scores of permits for Siachen, was also winning the PR war.
"I managed to get a couple of detailed US military maps from expeditions that clearly showed Siachen in Pakistan. There was a straight line from NJ 9842 cutting off the glacier from us. It was a shock. It turned up in a few atlases too. I took up the issue and kept pushing my army bosses for an Indian expedition. They finally sanctioned one in 1978. "
By then, over a dozen major international expeditions had ventured into the area from Pakistan. Yet, by the watershed principle - Kumar insists it's common sense, "all geographers follow it, " - Siachen is on the Indian side of the border. This is because the Nubra River that rises out of the glacier loops into Ladakh before ultimately joining the Indus. The Pakistanis beg to differ, and insist that a straight line be drawn from NJ 9842 to the Karakoram Pass - an old caravan route that leads into Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin.
The Karakoram Pass was the scene of fierce clashes in the 1962 India-China War, the lingering scars of which conflict may perhaps have helped trigger this new one between India and Pakistan.
SHADOW OF THE DRAGON
Kumar is firmly of the opinion that Indian presence in the Siachen area provides a 'strategic wedge' that prevents any China-Pakistan linkups in the region. It also affords India an important presence as China looks to further connect its Xinjiang region with Tibet through chunks of territory that India still claims in Aksai Chin and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK).
"I can list several reasons, " he huffs, when queried about Siachen's value. "Threats to the Ladakh region are very substantial, not just from Pakistan. The China angle is real. We have already lost the strategic Shaksgam Valley by compromise. It was a part of PoK illegally ceded to China by Pakistan in 1963. "
This valley, now called the 'Trans-Karakoram Tract' by Pakistan and China, has in fact helped the two countries build the vital Karakoram Highway, which both now have rather big plans for. Dubbed the 'Friendship Highway' by them, and nearly three decades in the making, the road was nearing completion when India marched troops into Siachen in 1984. A miffed Chinese leadership is even said to have taken Pakistani strongman Gen Zia-ul-Haq to task over the event.
But India's Siachen adventure had begun six years earlier, when Kumar led his first army expedition in 1978 - to the glacier, and to the vital Saltoro Ridge on its southwest flank. He mounted another one in 1981, leaving behind small army squads at key passes this time around. Kumar and his teams scaled a clutch of high peaks in the region and have also since been acknowledged as the first to reach 'Indira Col', a key feature on the northernmost tip of the Saltoro ridgeline.
Armed with ample evidence of 'unwarranted presence' in these parts, Kumar then set out to convince the army brass of the need to claim the glacier. "They would give me time, but some would say, ah, here comes more Bull-shit, " he chuckles. "But it was a strategic blunder on our part to have ignored this until then. In fact when we first reached the Khardung La Pass, a key point, there were only three unarmed supply men there, counting mules. "
Army chief Gen K V Krishna Rao was among those eventually convinced by the case Kumar was making in the early 80s. Rao undertook a helicopter sortie to Siachen, and from all accounts, with a hatful of senior officers in the loop, set the ball rolling for eventual military action.
Since this was now an army affair the spooked Pakistanis pressed the panic button. By late 1982 both countries were sending armed patrols to reconnoitre the area and protesting to each other with diplomatic demarches when such efforts were detected. In September 1983, Indian military intelligence discovered a Pakistani special forces unit taking a stab at occupying the glacier via the Bilafond La Pass. But harsh weather put paid to the attempt.
So in early 1984, as the winter waned, both countries scrambled to grab Siachen. Warned of another Pakistani attempt by R&AW - which is said to have learnt of a very large order for extreme weather equipment from the same London suppliers who, ironically, kitted out Indian forces too - the Indian Army, with prime minister Indira Gandhi's go-ahead, launched Operation Meghdoot on April 13. Now mythologised as one of its most famous initiatives, Meghdoot saw the army rapidly land specially trained troops on the glacier, even as the Pakistani army rushed in, only to find that it had arrived four days too late.
Fierce fighting over the next six years would leave the Indian army with the tactical advantage of holding all the 'commanding' heights on the Saltoro Ridge. This continues to help it keep Pakistan off the glacier - and also well away from the Karakoram Pass. A roughly 110-km long AGPL (Actual Ground Position Line) on this ridge is what India now maintains is the border. Pakistan, with its army stuck at lower elevations on the western slopes of the spurs emanating from the Saltoro ridgeline, refuses to accept the AGPL.
THEY LINK UP, WE OPEN UP
With an informal ceasefire in place since 2003, proposals to demilitarise the region have been flying thick and fast. But Kumar, with fierce clarity and a touch of the theatrical, lists several ways in which China and Pakistan could use Siachen to threaten India if our troops pulled back.
"Besides the China-Pakistan Karakoram Highway, at two to three points in the region it is possible, as we've seen, to ski down (from China) to Siachen in just a day, from Turkestan La Pass and on to PoK. And access to Ladakh's Nubra Valley from the Shyok side is not difficult for Pakistan currently. Besides, Siachen offers other access routes to China, like with the North 'pollu' (stage) of the Karakoram Pass. This can help them (China, Pakistan) connect from the North Teram Shehr Glacier. A whole battalion of ski troopers could come down in a very short time - just 24 hours. Brigades can then link up. Then there is also Tarong Col, where a route goes down and can be used to cut off all our Ladakh supply points. Just a handful can do this. Our reach to the Karakoram Pass will be totally gone. "
There's also the old issue of 'zero trust' and perceived Pakistani perfidy.
"The strategic advantage is now known to the Pakistanis. This is what they attempted to do in Kargil too, cut us off, " Kumar reasons, even as he lists yet more ways in which that could happen.
"With Siachen in hand they can easily bring a battalion overnight from Bilafond La Pass and head to Nubra and cut us off in two days. Khardung La, the world's highest motorable pass, will be taken. Moreover, if only one brigade from the other side ends up occupying those areas now, we won't be able to take it back even with an entire army corps. This is why Gen Zia-ul-Haq launched a jihad of sorts to get Siachen in the 80s. It didn't succeed. "
In addition to tactical scenario building, Kumar, an old infantryman, is also rather adept at dealing with questions about 'big losses' in Siachen. He shoots them down with practised ease, rapidly, like a crack shot popping clay pigeons. The army, which sends its men to posts located as high as 22, 000 ft, admits to over 850 Indian casualties. A majority have perished to the elements rather than to enemy fire.
"Look, anything to do with the mountains entails huge risks. Hundreds of military expeditions scale peaks;they know the risks. Also, morale is a huge factor, you must understand. Serving in Siachen is like wearing a very distinguished medal. Army morale lives on medals and such honours. The risk is part of the deal. "
The peaceniks, however, are provided one sliver of hope. Kumar does outline a proposal that may improve things a bit. He says he's been urging the government to allow civilian mountaineers to scale peaks and trek across some parts of the glacier. And make it clear, he appears to leave unsaid, that Siachen is Indian.
"This is some of the most magnificent terrain in the world, with dozens of peaks waiting to be climbed. We should encourage tourism. This is one way to dissuade further hostilities. I say let expeditions go up to Indira Col. But we say no. I organised a successful Indo-American one, that did a traverse of Siachen, as a civilian in 1986, but with great difficulty. "
But what about nervous trigger fingers on either side?
"Well, " says the veteran mountaineer who still relishes the great risks he's taken over a long career, "this is real adventure. " He holds up his 1986 expedition as an example. "Their State Department told them (the American climbers) not to go. The Pakistani Embassy called them and said, don't go. I told them that on the route they were taking in such a large area, there was a one in a million chance of being hit by an artillery shell. There's no shooting now, so why not open it up?"
"We can make this one of the world's greatest destinations, " says Kumar, while urging me to bite into another slice of walnut cake. "What are we afraid of?"
THE THIN WHITE LINE
By occupying the Saltoro Ridge (the Actual Ground Position Line, or AGPL) the Indian army keeps Pakistan off the glacier. Experts say this makes for a 'strategic wedge' that prevents China and Pakistan from linking up to cut off Ladakh.
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