Why doesn’t India vacate Siachen? This question has been raised after every human tragedy on the glacier, and now it is being asked again when 10 soldiers lost their lives in an ice avalanche at the Sonam post.
The most obvious reason for India’s continuing presence at Siachen is its strategic importance. Military experts believe that it drives a wedge between Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and China, and is the only tenuous link India has with Central Asia. Pakistan, contrary to popular belief there, is nowhere on the Siachen glacier or even on the Saltoro ridge.
This argument presumes that were India to vacate the glacier, the Pakistan army would occupy it. But what if Pakistan and India agree to a glacier of peace with neither side occupying it? Then there would be no strategic reason for Indian soldiers to serve in such inhospitable terrain.
This sounds simple in theory but there are problems in practice. The Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir ends at a point called NJ9842 and the boundary northwards was never demarcated after that point. The two armies are now deployed along an Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) which Pakistan refuses to accept. Even though various mechanisms have been suggested by which India and Pakistan can agree to validate a vacant glacier, the two sides have not been able to agree on anything.
It all comes down to trust, or rather the lack of it. That is the nub of the problem. India can’t trust Pakistan enough on the LoC to retreat from there. The terrain in Dras, Kargil and Batalik is equally inhospitable but after the 1999 Kargil conflict, Indian soldiers stay there throughout the year. If India could trust Pakistan to pull out its forces from the Siachen areas, it would be able to pull out troops from Dras, Kargil, Batalik and other areas along the LoC.
That leads us to another big question about the loss of lives due to deployment at the glacier. Prohibitive costs are incurred by staying at the glacier but they are nothing compared to the costs if India were to vacate Siachen and then were forced to occupy it again.
A lot of people mistake Siachen for an ego issue for the Indian army. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Staying at the glacier sends out a definite signal to Pakistan: the Indian army can stay there, come what may.
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