The Siachen Glacier is located in the eastern Karakoram range in the Himalaya mountains in Ladhak. It is the longest glacier in the Karakoram and second longest in the world’s non polar areas.
However, but for its frequent mention in the context of conflict between India and Pakistan over the region, it would have largely remained ‘an inaccessible part of heaven on earth, Kashmir’.
The conflict, sometimes referred to as ‘The Siachen War’ is said to have begun in 1984 with India’s Operation Meghdoot. Named after the divine cloud messenger in a Sanskrit play, the operation was launched on 13 April 1984 when the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force went into the Glacier. Pakistan quickly responded with troop deployments. But the battle was lost by Pakistan by then.
The Indian Army now controls the heights; thereby holding on to the tactical advantage of high ground. The Pakistanis cannot get up to the glacier, while the Indians cannot come down. Presently India holds two-thirds of glacier and commands two of the three passes. Pakistan controls Gyong La pass that overlooks the Shyok and Nubra river Valley and India’s access to Leh district.
The Siachen Glacier had first become the bone of contention following a vague demarcation of territory as per the Simla Accord of 1972 which did not specifically mention who had authority over the Siachen Glacier.
As a result of this, both nations lay claim to the barren land. In the 1970s and early 80s, Pakistan permitted several mountaineering expeditions to climb the peaks on the Siachen. This served to reinforce their claim on the area as these expeditions arrived on the glacier with a permit obtained from the Government of Pakistan. Indian sources claim that in many cases a liaison officer from the Pakistan army accompanied the teams. Since 1978, the Indian Army began closely monitoring the situation on the glacier and concurrently, India too had allowed mountaineering expeditions to the glacier, from its side. The most notable one was the one launched by Colonel N. Kumar of the Indian Army, who mounted an Army expedition to Teram Kangri peaks as a counter-exercise.
When Pakistan gave permission to a Japanese expedition to scale an important peak (Rimo peak) in 1984, it prompted Indians to do something drastic in order to secure the glacier. The peak, located east of Siachen overlooks the eastern areas of the Aksai Chin. The Indian military believed that such an expedition would provide a link for the western and eastern routes — the trade route leading to Karakoram Pass and China — and eventually provide a strategic, if not tactical, advantage to Pakistan Military.
Pakistan had started showing the area as their own on their maps. To oppose this ‘Cartographic Aggression’, it had been decided to launch the HAWS expedition. The HAWS team that had gone to the Glacier was to be supplied with mail and fresh rations by the Indian Air Force.
For more than 22 blustery, shivering years, the Indian and Pakistani armies have been fighting a ‘ No-Win ‘ war on the 20,000-foot-high Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battleground. Both India and Pakistan have more than 10,000 soldiers each at the glacier.
For a soldier, this is where hell freezes over, a 46-mile river of slow-moving ice surrounded by stupendous towers of snow. This area is a desolate stretch of about 2,500 sq km situated immediately south of the Chinese border.
The United Nations-supervised cease fire line (CFL) of 1949 extended from the international border between India and Pakistan near Chhamb in Jammu and Kashmir in a rough arc that ran nearly 800 km north and then northeastwards to a point, N J 9842, nearly 20 km north of the Shyok river in the Chulung group of mountains of the Saltoro range.
The 1949 Karachi Agreement between the two countries contained a generalised statement which said that the CFL ‘ moved thence north to the glaciers ‘. India used this line to justify our claim that most of the Siachen glacier is unambiguously and lawfully part of our territory. Pakistan has always rejected this interpretation and claims the entire glacier and the adjoining mountain ranges upto the Karakorum Pass as theirs.
The Indian Army therefore launched Operation Meghdoot to secure the glacier and adjoining heights from Pakistani aggression. This operation has continued over the last 16 years with Pakistan making numerous failed attempts to dislodge the Indians from the Saltoro ridge along the western periphery of the glacier.
Soldiers now live in fibreglass reinforced plastic huts, a far cry from 1984 when they had first moved in here. Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs) and ‘inmarsets’ are being used for communication including soldiers’ direct contact with their near and dear ones.