Photo Credit: BBC



February 16, 2015

On February 3, 2016 the world’s highest battlefield, Siachen glacier, was in the news again when an avalanche trapped 10 soldiers of the Indian Army. One soldier, Lance Naik Hanumanthappa was found alive during the rescue operation and was immediately airlifted to New Delhi for treatment. Prime Minister Narendra Modi,accompanied by Army Chief General Suhag visited the Army Hospital to inquire about his condition. Unfortunately, he passed away on 11th February. His cremation witnessed thousands of fellow villagers thronging to see his last glimpse and pay their respects to this bravehart.

This is not the first incidence of a mishap. According to a recent disclosure by the Government of India, 869 Soldiers have died since the Indian Army first occupied these icy heights in 1984 under Operation Meghdoot.  The recent tragedy puts this figure at 879. In 2012, an even more horrific tragedy befell Pakistan when an avalanche on the Pakistani military base (Gyari sector, near Siachen) in this region killed 140 people, majority of whom were soldiers. In total, more than 2000 soldiers  have died on both Indian and Pakistani sides.

The importance that India accords to Siachen is evidenced with the fact that within a few months of being elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi visited the Siachen Base camp and praised the valour and courage of the soldiers who are posted there.

Siachen glacier has been an arena of on and off conflict (armed as well as diplomatic) since 1984. The uninhabitable terrain of Siachen and the exorbitant costs incurred by both Indian and Pakistani Armies to maintain troops in this region have time and again raised voices ranging from demilitarization of the region to setting up a Peace Park as a symbol of Indo-Pak solidarity. Nevertheless, Siachen remains a simmering issue between both the sides.  Knowing that the  standoff has claimed more lives due to climatic freeze than from actual fighting: what explains the unending nature of this conflict? Most importantly, what is the rationale for a dispute over a no man’s land?

Therefore, the events leading to Operation Meghdoot demand a closer analysis, which will also reveal the colonial legacy of this dispute.  Operation Meghdoot reveals that it was not unrelated to the colonial politics of dealing with the northern borders of Kashmir. The British obsession with defining  India’s northern borders  directly affected the post-colonial Indian psyche as it inherited the same insecurities. It actually turns out that India’s policy on Siachen has been a defensive one, but in a sense resembles old colonial fears.


Operation Meghdoot

On April 13, 1984, the Indian Army launched Operation Meghdoot and captured the inhospitable heights of the Siachen glacier, thereby bringing the glacial landmass under its control. The operation was launched a few hours before the Pakistani  Army was set to launch Operation Ababeel to capture the glacier. Following Meghdoot, several attempts were made by the Pakistan Army to dislodge the Indian Army from Siachen, all of which were successfully thwarted. This glacial region, which is strategically located between India, Pakistan and China, is also the world’s highest battlefield with the Indian Army occupying posts close to 20,000 feet altitude. The North of Siachen Glacier bordering China and its west with Pakistan makes Siachen world’s only Trilateral border junction of nuclear powers. A ceasefire was finally agreed between India and Pakistan in 2003, but, this has not ended the militarization of this region.


The Ceasefire Line: Karachi Agreement and Point NJ 9842

The roots of the Siachen conflict can be traced back to the days of Independence when dispute arose between India and Pakistan over the status of Jammu and Kashmir. Jammu and Kashmir was a Muslim-majority territory ruled by a Hindu King, Maharaja Hari Singh. Hari Singh, owing to this complex situation, requested for a ‘Standstill Agreement’ with Pakistan rather than accede to either  nation. Meanwhile, a covert offensive took place by Pashtun tribesmen to occupy the Kashmiri territory following which the Maharaja appealed to India for assistance. He signed the ’Instrument of Accession’ with India on 26th October 1947 and the Indian army was immediately dispatched to defend Kashmir from being completely occupied. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru took this act of aggression to the United Nations and negotiated a ceasefire under its aegis.

The Karachi agreement was subsequently signed by India and Pakistan in 1949. Its demarcation of the Ceasefire Line through the territory of Jammu and Kashmir set the stage for the Siachen conflict. The agreement distinguished the line as a temporary border in Kashmir up to Point NJ 9842. The agreement stated that the border will run ‘thence north to the glaciers’. While Pakistan interprets ‘thence north’ as a northeastern extension of border from NJ 9842 to the Karakoram Pass, India interprets it as a northwestern extension along the Saltoro Ridge towards the Indira Col, which is the head of Siachen glacier. It is precisely near the Indira Col where India’s border meets Pakistani and Chinese territory that makes Siachen such a coveted region. Had the Pakistani version been accepted, the trijunction of borders would have shifted eastwards in the vicinity of Karakoram Pass, near the tense Line of Actual Control (between India and China).

Even the Simla Agreement of 1972, signed between India and Pakistan after the 1971 Indo-Pak war, left this ambiguity of borders beyond NJ 9842 unresolved. The Ceasefire Line was renamed the ‘Line of Control’ (LoC), but, its terminal point remained Point NJ9842. In the 1970s the Pakistani Army promoted foreign mountaineering expeditions to legitimize its claim on Siachen. The official maps in U.S. and Europe also began to show Siachen glacier in Pakistani territory. A discovery of a similar map by an Indian Army officer, Colonel Narinder ‘Bull’ Kumar alarmed the forces and in late 1970s sought permission to carry out expeditions to the glacier. This was perceived by the Indian establishment as a ‘cartographic aggression’ by Pakistan. The Indian army increased its presence in this region through several follow up expeditions and aerial patrols. Finally, Operation Meghdoot was executed and troops were airdropped on to the strategic passes; Bilafond La and Sia La located on the Saltoro ridge, to the west of Siachen.

However, the question still remains of what it is that has extended this dispute on? Despite India’s occupation being contested on rational/financial/geopolitical grounds, there must be factors that explain such a stance. It is here that the role of  map comes into light as mapping Kashmir’s borders was one of the key concerns of the British administration.

Nature of warfare in Siachen : Domination of Heights

After Meghdoot, several attempts took place by the Pakistani army to dislodge the Indian army from these positions. One of this was the Pakistani occupation of a cliff overlooking Bilafond la which brought Indian army posts under direct surveillance. The Pakistanis named it Quaid Post, after their founding father Quaid-e-Azam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The Indian army launched Operation Rajiv in June 1987 and the assault resulted in Pakistani army being outflanked and the captured post was renamed as ‘Bana Top’ after Naib Subedar Bana Singh (later promoted to Honorary Captain), the brave soldier whose team led the Operation from front and captured the post.

Another face off took place at Chumik glacier, which witnessed a heli-dropping of Pakistani soldiers to capture a strategic point. In 1989, the region was demilitarized after a mutual agreement

A Legacy of Colonial Cartography

The mapping of India’s northwest and northern frontiers was carried out in the heydays of the Great Game, a 19th century scramble between Russia and the British Empire over the unexplored terrain of Central Asia. Historically,  since all invasions of the Indian subcontinent took place from its northwest frontiers, the threat of an expansionist Russia alarmed the British of a possible invasion. This was a prominent reason behind the demarcation of the Durand Line (present day Pakistan-Afghanistan border) in 1893, which ran from Balochistan in the South to the Wakhan region in the north with Indo-Afghan border securing India’s frontiers on its north-western fringes. Once 3000 miles apart, the distance between Russian and British territories got reduced to Wakhan corridor (Afghanistan). The Wakhan corridor is a narrow strip of mountainous territory, which once separated India from Russian territory (between present day Gilgit - NWFP region and Tajikistan). Russian invasion of Central Asian Khanates brought them to the Pamir Mountains (present day Afghan-Tajikistan border). Additionally, Russia’s commercial ties with Xinjiang posed a threat of an invasion from the Ladakh region. It must also be noted that by 1880s, the Russians had been foraying in northern Kashmir, which led the British to suspect possible Russian ties with the ruler of Hunza, which was a princely state in Northern Gilgit. Therefore, the mapping and surveying of the Karakoram/Pamir mountains were carried out to secure India’s northernmost frontiers by bringing under its fold several strategic ridges and passes. Several cartographic missions were dispatched by the Survey of India to reconnoiter and map all the passes that could potentially provide an easy access to Russian army from Kashmir’s northern border.

By late 19th century, the British administration had mapped almost the whole Himalayan region. In Kashmir, the strategic passes of Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh were also mapped. However, Siachen glacier remained unexplored and had been vaguely mentioned by earlier explorers. Neither its length, nor the direction of its slope was known. Even the legendary imperial explorer Sir Francis Younghusband gave it a miss while exploring the high Karakorams in 1889.

It was Tom George Longstaff, an officer in the British Indian Army who gave a precise account of Siachen’s topography in 1909. He discovered that Siachen glacier gives rise to the Nubra river, which later merges with the Shyok River and finally the Indus river. It makes the glacier a part of the Indus river basin. To the north of Indira Col (Siachen Glacier’s head) is the Urdok Glacier, which flows into the Shaksgam river (which merges into the Yarkand river), making it a part of the Tarim basin in the Chinese territory.  In 1911, an American couple, Fanny Workman and William Workman, spent two months mountaineering at the glacier and mapped it thoroughly and named several mountain peaks surrounding the glacier. The head of Siachen was named by the Workman’s as ‘Indira Col’. In this way, Siachen was cartographically represented on the Indian side whereas the Urdok glacier to its north a part of Chinese territory. Being a 76 Kilometres long glacier, it could also mean that once at Indira Col, the glacier would automatically lead one smoothly into the Indian territory. Already a natural border as the glacier fed into Indus system, the strategic reasons had their share as well in its demarcation.

British mapping and border demarcation also came into conflict with  Chinese authorities that had never accepted the British demarcation of India’s northern frontiers with China’s Xinjiang. Later, Pakistan was repeatedly asked by China to adjust the borders as Pakistan was in possession of the Northern Areas (Gilgit Baltistan), which border China. As a result, the region to the north of Siachen ‘Trans-Karakoram Tract’ was ceded by Pakistan to China under the 1963 boundary agreement, hence bringing the Chinese directly to the north of Siachen.

In the bigger picture, India not only inherited the borders demarcated out of colonial calculations but also the colonial fears, which led to such mapping. The presence of a hostile Pakistan has reproduced the same fear of invasion; one which had bothered the British during the era of Great Game.  The fear of Russian invasion had prompted the British to secure India’s northwest frontiers through the Durand Line and later the northern borders of Kashmir (Karakoram Range). It has transcended into the present, post-colonial era with the Indo-Pak conflict, courtesy the cartographic ambiguity of the area beyond NJ 9842. The rationale which prompted the British to map Kashmir’s borders was to bring into their ambit those access routes, which the Russians could possibly have used. It is precisely this fear that led the Indian establishment to occupy Gyong la, the Bilafond La and the Sia La, which are entry points into Siachen from its Western Side(Saltoro Ridge).  

In her book Heights of Madness, veteran journalist Myra Macdonald referred to the events leading to Operation Meghdoot as a reproduction of the fears, which characterized the Great Game. Indian Army’s expeditions in Siachen preceding Meghdoot resembled the colonial era British missions that focused on locating  infiltration routes.

After the unfortunate mishap, debates on demilitarization have got revived. Time and again, analysts and even retired senior military officers talk of demilitarizing this no-man’s land citing human costs, strategic irrelevance as well as  financial burden to the state.  However, what is missed amidst such  debates is that the colonial legacy has prompted the Indian establishment to make similar calculations, which the British did out of insecurity. The spirit of Great Game is still alive, only its canvas has been reduced to Siachen Glacier.