India and Pakistan’s Ice-Bound Standoff

It seems the most pointless military exercise in the world. Yet in the days since Feb. 3 when 10 Indian soldiers were hit by an avalanche and killed on the Siachen glacier some 20,000 feet up in the Himalayas, it is clear there is no prospect of the 32-year old stand-off in the area between India and Pakistan ending in the foreseeable future.

Five days after the avalanche, one of the soldiers was discovered still alive under 35ft of snow. He died in hospital yesterday, after a national outpouring of grief and a visit to his bedside by Narendra Modi, the prime minister.

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Along with the grief and extensive media coverage saluting India’s “brave hearts”, military voices have emerged arguing that the emotion should not lead to calls for India’s troops to be withdrawn – basically because Pakistan has not agreed a line for the border, and because relations with China are making the area increasingly sensitive. Pakistan reacted to the deaths by saying yesterday that a settlement should be reached quickly, but Manohar Parrikar, India’s defence minister, said today that “holding our presence in Siachen is very important.”

No shots have been fired since a ceasefire was agreed between India and Pakistan in 2003, but soldiers continue to die because of the conditions. With temperatures averaging minus 24C and dropping sometimes to minus 50, they suffer from hypothermia and frostbite and, till relatively recently, the Indian troops were ill equipped to cope. India has lost 33 soldiers since August 2012 when parliament was told that the death toll was 846 since action began in 1984. In 2012, 129 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians were buried in an avalanche at a camp near the glacier.

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The financial price is also high – about the equivalent of US$ 1 million a day for India, according to reports, because of the high costs of air-lifting supplies by helicopter.

Indian politicians have often talked about ending the impasse. Manmohan Singh, the former prime minister, visited the glacier in 2005 and suggested – unrealistically – making it a “mountain of peace.”

Proposals have emerged at various times from “track two” behind-the-scenes consultations for a settlement as a “confidence building measure” between the two countries, which would also include resolving a disputed section of coastline know as Sir Creek between India’s state of Gujarat and Pakistan’s province of Sind. There were formal talks on Siachen in 2012 after the Pakistan avalanche, but the defense establishments objected – in India saying, as they still do, that the cause which led to such sacrifices cannot be thrown away.

“Siachen has become embedded in the Indian public consciousness as a symbol of national will and determination to succeed against all odds,” a retired Indian general said this week. “Siachen has acquired a sanctity of its own, which is part folklore, part military legend, part mythology, and a substantial measure of national pride.”

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This is the only un-demarcated area between the two countries (along with Sir Creek). There is a defined but disputed 776 km Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir. This is administered as a long-term though temporary arrangement, and there is regular firing between the two countries and loss of life. South of that is an undisputed 2,308 km formal international border running down to the Arabian Sea.

The LoC was drawn on the basis of land occupied by both countries, but neither side had any presence in the uninhabited area further north up to Siachen, so this was not demarcated. Pakistan (and apparently the US) thought the line would continue eastwards to the Karakoram Pass with China (not to be confused with the quite separate Karakoram Highway to the west that links Pakistan with China across the Khunjerab Pass). That would have taken Siachen away from India, which, along with the joint Indo-Pak LoC demarcation process, thought the line should go northwards, thus officially giving it the glacier.

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The trouble started in 1984 when Pakistan was dispatching groups of Japanese and other mountaineers to the area. India suspected Pakistan’s motives and mobilized its army, as did Pakistan – I was on holiday in the area during the summer of 1984 and saw helicopters flying off to the glacier from Skardu in Pakistan’s Northern Areas.

India is holding the dominant Saltoro Range to the west of Siachen, which gives it control of the glacier. Understandably, from a military point of view, it does not want to abandon that position without Pakistan agreeing to a demarcated line, which Pakistan, presumably encouraged by China, refuses to do.

To a bystander, it seems a pointless confrontation on the world’s highest so-called battlefield. And so it would be if China was not increasingly showing interest in the area, including the disputed territory of Aksai Chin that was part of the two countries’ brief 1962 border war, when India was defeated.

India and Pakistan have been at loggerheads ever since partition in 1947, when they became independent of Britain. They have fought three wars and one near-war (at Kargil in Kashmir in 1999). Successive prime ministers have dreamed of settling the differences, but have failed. Modi’s recent attempts with Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani Prime Minister, have floundered following last month’s terrorist attack on India’s Pathankot air base.

Pakistan’s army does not seem to want a settlement of the issues and the Islamic terrorist organisations based there certainly do not. Neither does China, which has a considerable hold over what Pakistan does. The Siachen glacier stand-off is a significant part of that puzzle, so there is no chance that the Indian troops can leave any time soon.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, appears on Asia Sentinel’s homepage