The Siachen Conflict, sometimes referred to as the Siachen War, is a military conflict between India and Pakistan over the disputed Siachen Glacier region in Kashmir. A cease-fire went into effect in 2003. The conflict began in 1984 with India’s successful Operation Meghdoot during which it wrested control of the Siachen Glacier from Pakistan and forced the Pakistanis to retreat west of the Saltoro Ridge. India has established control over all of the 70 kilometres (43 mi) long Siachen Glacier and all of its tributary glaciers, as well as the three main passes of the Saltoro Ridge immediately west of the glacier—Sia La, Bilafond La, and Gyong La. Pakistan controls the glacial valleys immediately west of the Saltoro Ridge. According to TIME magazine, India gained more than 1,000 square miles (3,000 km2) of territory because of its military operations in Siachen.
The Siachen glacier is the highest battleground on earth, where India and Pakistan have fought intermittently since April 13, 1984. Both countries maintain permanent military presence in the region at a height of over 6,000 metres (20,000 ft). More than 2000 people have died in this inhospitable terrain, mostly due to weather extremes and the natural hazards of mountain warfare.
The conflict in Siachen stems from the incompletely demarcated territory on the map beyond the map coordinate known as NJ9842. The 1972 Simla Agreement did not clearly mention who controlled the glacier, merely stating that from the NJ9842 location the boundary would proceed “thence north to the glaciers.” UN officials presumed there would be no dispute between India and Pakistan over such a cold and barren region.
In 1957 Pakistan permitted a British expedition under Eric Shipton to approach the Siachen through the Bilafond La, and recce Saltoro Kangri. Five years later a Japanese-Pakistani expedition put two Japanese and a Pakistani Army climber on top of Saltoro Kangri. These were early moves in this particular game of oropolitics.
The United States Defense Mapping Agency (now National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) began in about 1967 to show, with no legal or historical justification or any boundary documentation, an international boundary on their Tactical Pilotage Charts available to the public and pilots as proceeding from NJ9842 east-northeast to the Karakoram Pass at 5,534 m (18,136 ft) on the China border. Numerous governmental and private cartographers and atlas producers followed suit. This resulted in the US cartographically “awarding” the entire 5,000 square kilometers (1,900 sq mi) of the Siachen-Saltoro area to Pakistan.
In the 1970s and early 1980s several mountaineering expeditions applied to Pakistan to climb high peaks in the Siachen area due in part to U.S Defense Mapping Agency and most other maps and atlases showing it on the Pakistani side of the line. Pakistan granted a number of permits. This in turn reinforced the Pakistani claim on the area, as these expeditions arrived on the glacier with a permit obtained from the Government of Pakistan. Teram Kangri I (7,465 m/24,491 ft) and Teram Kangri II (7,406 m/24,298 ft) were climbed in 1975 by a Japanese expedition led by H. Katayama, which approached through Pakistan via the Bilafond La.
The Indian government and military took notice, and protested the cartography. Prior to 1984 neither India nor Pakistan had any permanent presence in the area. Having become aware of the errant US military maps and the permit incidents, Colonel Narendra “Bull” Kumar, then commanding officer of the Indian Army’s High-Altitude Warfare School, mounted an Army expedition to the Siachen area as a counter-exercise. In 1978 this expedition climbed Teram Kangri II, claiming it as a first ascent in a typical ‘oropolitical’ riposte. Unusually for the normally secretive Indian Army, the news and photographs of this expedition were published in ‘The Illustrated Weekly of India’, a widely-circulated popular magazine.
The first public acknowledgment of the maneuvers and the developing conflict situation in the Siachen was an abbreviated article titled “High Politics in the Karakoram” by Joydeep Sircar in The Telegraph newspaper of Calcutta in 1982. The full text was re-printed as “Oropolitics” in the Alpine Journal, London, in 1984.
At army headquarters in Rawalpindi, Pakistani generals decided they had better stake a claim to Siachen before India did. Islamabad then committed an intelligence blunder, according to a now retired Pakistani army colonel. “They ordered Arctic-weather gear from a London outfitters who also supplied the Indians,” says the colonel. “Once the Indians got wind of it, they ordered 300 outfits—twice as many as we had—and rushed their men up to Siachen.”
Reportedly with specific intelligence of a possible Pakistani operation, India launched Operation Meghdoot (named after the divine cloud messenger in a Sanskrit play by Kalidasa) on 13 April 1984 when the Kumaon Regiment of the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force went into the glacier region. India was soon in control of the area, beating Pakistan to the Saltoro Ridge high ground by about a week. The two northern passes – Sia La and Bilafond La – were quickly secured by India. When the Pakistanis arrived at the region in 1984, they found a 300-man Indian battalion dug into the highest mountaintops. The contentious area is about 900 square miles (2,300 km2) to nearly 1,000 square miles (2,600 km2) of territory. After 1984 Pakistan launched several attempts to displace the Indian forces, but with little success. The most well known was in 1987, when an attempt was made by Pakistan to dislodge India from the area. The attack was masterminded by Pervez Musharraf (later President of Pakistan) heading a newly raised elite SSG commando unit raised with United States Special Operations Forces help in the area. A special garrison with eight thousand troops was built at Khapalu. The immediate aim was to capture Bilafond La but after bitter fighting that included hand to hand combat, the Pakistanis were thrown back and the positions remained the same. The only Param Vir Chakra – India’s highest gallantry award – to be awarded for combat in the Siachen area went to Naib Subedar Bana Singh (retired as Subedar Major/Honorary Captain), who in a daring daylight raid assaulted and captured a Pakistani post atop a 22,000 foot (6,700 m) peak, now named Bana Post, after climbing a 457 m (1500 feet) ice cliff face.
In his memoirs, former Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf states that Pakistan lost almost 900 square miles (2,300 km2) of territory that it claimed. TIME states that the Indian advance captured nearly 1,000 square miles (2,600 km2) of territory claimed by Pakistan.
Further attempts to reclaim positions were launched by Pakistan in 1990, 1995, 1996 and even in early 1999, just prior to the Lahore Summit. The 1995 attack by Pakistan SSG was significant as it resulted in 40 casualties for Pakistan troops without any changes in the positions. An Indian IAF MI-17 helicopter was shot down in 1996.
The Indian army controls all of the 70 kilometres (43 mi) long Siachen Glacier and all of its tributary glaciers, as well as the three main passes of the Saltoro Ridge immediately west of the glacier—Sia La, Bilafond La, and Gyong La—thus.
The Pakistanis control the glacial valley just five kilometers southwest of Gyong La. The Pakistanis have been unable get up to the crest of the Saltoro Ridge, while the Indians cannot come down and abandon their strategic high posts.
The line between where Indian and Pakistani troops are presently holding onto their respective posts is being increasingly referred to as the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL).
A cease-fire went into effect in 2003. Even before then, every year more soldiers were killed because of severe weather than enemy firing. The two sides by 2003 had lost an estimated 2,000 personnel primarily due to frostbite, avalanches and other complications. Together, the nations have about 150 manned outposts along the glacier, with some 3,000 troops each. Official figures for maintaining these outposts are put at ~$300 and ~$200 million for India and Pakistan respectively. India built the world’s highest helipad on the glacier at Point Sonam, 21,000 feet (6,400 m) above the sea level, to supply its troops. The problems of reinforcing or evacuating the high-altitude ridgeline have led to India’s development of the Dhruv Mk III helicopter, powered by the Shakti engine, which was flight-tested to lift and land personnel and stores from the Sonam post, the highest permanently manned post in the world. India also installed the world’s highest telephone booth on the glacier.
During her tenure as Prime Minister of Pakistan, Ms Benazir Bhutto, visited the area west of Gyong La, making her the first premier from either side to get to the Siachen region. On June 12, 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the area, calling for a peaceful resolution of the problem. In 2007, the President of India, Abdul Kalam became the first head of state to visit the area.
The Chief of Staff of the US Army, General George Casey on October 17, 2008 visited the Siachen Glacier along with Indian Army Chief, General Deepak Kapoor. The US General visited for the purpose of “developing concepts and medical aspects of fighting in severe cold conditions and high altitude”.
Since September 2007, India has welcomed mountaineering and trekking expeditions to the forbidding glacial heights. The expeditions have been meant to show the international audience that Indian troops hold “almost all dominating heights” on the important Saltoro Ridge west of Siachen Glacier, and to show that Pakistani troops are not within 15 miles (24 km) of the 43.5-mile (70 km) Siachen Glacier. An October 2008 trek was “being undertaken to send a message that every civilian with the help of military can visit this part of the country,” a senior Indian army officer explained. The civilian treks to Siachen started despite vehement protests from Pakistan which termed it India’s “tourism” in “disputed territory”. Pakistan conducts similar expeditions in nearby areas under its control with no requirement of a military liaison officer to accompany trekkers; their permit formalities are simpler, often taking just two weeks. Pakistan in 2008 did not lodge a formal protest against the treks and India too has also kept it a low key affair, with Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony skipping the flagging off ceremony.
In the early morning of 7 April 2012, an avalanche hit a Pakistani military headquarters in the area, burying over 120 Pakistani soldiers and civilian contractors.
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