The recent incident of 124 Pakistani soldiers buried under an avalanche over their post near Siachen glacier reignited the old debate on the futility or otherwise of two nations fighting a battle for control of an inhospitable glacier about 80 km in length that is at a height of over 6000 meters.

There are strong arguments for demilitarization of Siachen glacier, among what has been suggested, firstly it’s barren and inhospitable where survival itself, even for a soldier is tough, over 2000 soldiers have lost their lives since it was occupied in 1984, most of them due to extreme weather conditions than the actual conflict. The cost of occupying the area in terms of human lives lost and maintenance of troops in that terrain is immense, and lastly resolution of Siachen can set a precedence for resolution of other contentious issues between India and Pakistan.

It looks like a simple solution to a problem that is not so hard to comprehend given it’s coverage in various national and international media. But the issue is more complex than that.

Firstly control of Siachen gives not just a control over the 80 odd km long glacier but about 3000 sq kms of area situated in a crucial region with Shaksam valley controlled by China on it’s North, Karakoram Pass and Aksai Chin controlled by China on it’s East and Northern Areas of POK on it’s west in addition to control over at least three mountain passes. (Map for Reference)

Control of Siachen Glacier might also be of such strategic advantage to whoever controls the area that may not be in public domain. Significantly, Pakistan carried out attacks on multiple occasions losing about 1300 soldiers in the process till a cease fire was brought about in 2003.

Kargil war is proof enough that Pakistan can not be trusted on contentious issues of strategic importance. It need not be reiterated that Pakistan occupied Indian areas vacated during winters in the heights of Kargil and Drass, and blamed it on insurgents that led to Kargil War. Even US got the taste of it on the issue of protecting Osama Bin Laden, Taliban & Al Qaida. That makes it even more difficult for India to accept any agreement involving removal of troops from a strategically important area.

And lastly it could be a mistake to consider Siachen as a bilateral issue between India & Pakistan. China may be an elephant in the room that few are talking about in the context of Siachen, despite the fact that the Shaksam valley area immediately to it’s north is controlled by China, and China’s attitude towards territorial issues in Tibet, Arunachal, Taiwan, South China Sea, Aksai Chin etc are well known.

To conclude, the issue of Siachen is complex and involves many dimentions, and the basis of India’s decisions should be it’s own assessment & not of agenda driven global peaceniks, on how it wants to take care of it’s territory, by leaving it unattended or by physically occupying it.

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Sanjay Chetia

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