The Siachen Glacier was discovered in 1907 and is the world’s largest glacier outside of the polar regions. It is 72 kilometres long and 3 kilometres wide. The glacier emanates near the Indra Koli Pass, on the Pak China border, 37 nautical miles southeast of K2. Then, it runs along the Saltoro Range in a south eastern direction until it joins river Nubra.
The Siachen Glacier can be accessed through five passes: Sia la (23960 feet), Bilafond la (20210 feet), Gyong la (18500 feet), Yarma la (20000 feet) and Chulung la 19000 feet. Its surrounding region was not demarcated in the 1949 Karachi Agreement which defined the ceasefire line (CFL). Beyond NJ 9842, the ceasefire line was identified as “thence north to the glacier”. NJ 9842 is located about 12 miles north of river Shyok in the Saltoro Mountains of the Karakoram Range. From this point, the north of the Chinese border area was left un-demarcated due to inaccessibility and extreme inhospitable terrain.
According to the Indian Line of Control (LOC), which extends northward beyond NJ 9842, along the Saltoro Range and up to Sia Kangri, the entire Siachen Glacier belongs to them. Pakistan stands with its boundary alignment beyond NJ 9842 eastward, up to the Karakoram Pass. Even in the 1972 Simla Agreement, there is no mention of the area beyond NJ 9842. Pakistan controlled and administered this region since 1947, as India, as well as the international community, acknowledged its de facto control in the area. Accordingly, several mountaineering, trekking and hiking expeditions to the Siachen Glacier were authorised by Pakistan. Foreign expeditions kept coming to scale the Karakoram Range.
Atlases reflecting Pakistan’s version of the Line of Control (LoC) were produced in the US and UK by National Geographic and Encyclopaedia Britannica (1979). It was also reflected in the maps produced by the prestigious American Alpine Journal and Hugh Swift’s Classic Trekkers Guide to the Himalaya and the Karakoram. Martin A Sugarman has mentioned in his book, War Above Clouds, that Sir Owen Dixon, the first UN representative in Pakistan and India, also mentioned that the Siachen Glacier falls within the Northern Areas (Gilgit-Baltistan) of Pakistan in his report to the Security Council. Former analyst Ravi Rikhye in his book, The Fourth Round, included a map putting the Siachen Glacier clearly inside Pakistani territory. The book, The Western Front, published in India in 1984 by Lt Gen K.P Candeth (R), includes several maps that support Pakistan’s claims as well.
The Siachen Glacier is important for the defence of Ladakh as it guards routes to Leh also overlooks the Shaksgam Valley. Control of the glacier by India, according to Happymon Jacob, is “mostly symbolic and political, not strategic or military”. India’s attention was caught only after mountaineering maps placed Siachen inside Pakistan after which it sent several expeditions to. The first mission was sent in 1978, followed by another in 1980 to Sia Kangri and Saltoro. In 1981, another mission was sent to Indra Col and Bilafond la as well.
Today India controls Sia la, Bilafond la and the Gyong la, the three passes of the Saltoro ridge located west of the glacier. In contrast, Pakistan controls the glacial valley west of the Saltoro ridge.
The tactical advantage gained by India in occupying two key northern passes was neutralized when Pakistan deployed forces to three southern passes along the Saltoro range. Pakistan’s army blocked Indian access to K2 by establishing one of the highest military posts, Conway Saddle (6032 meters), at the junction of the Karakoram and Saltoro Range. Pakistan controls the Baltoro glacier, the third longest glacier of world outside of the Polar Regions, which houses some of the world’s famous peaks. Four of the five peaks are located in Pakistan -K2, Broad Peak and Gasherbrums.
Pakistan also controls Sia Kangri, located adjacent to Conway Saddle, close to Gasherbrums. Sia Kangri overlooks the Baltoro Glacier to the west, Chinese territory to the north and Indira Col, Sia la, Siachen Glacier to its east and south east respectively. In 1987, the Pakistan army launched a successful operation to gain control of some heights of the Saltoro range and occupied an area called Quaid post at 21200 feet. India occupied this post after several unsuccessful attacks only when five SSG personnel ran out of ammunition and supply to the base was logistically impossible at the time. They fought to death, killing 54 Indian soldiers before embracing shahadat. In May 1989 another attempt was made in Chumik, when there were indications of Indian intentions to occupy some heights in the sector. In a daring operation, a key observation post at 21300 feet was occupied by Lt. Naveed and a Non-Commissioned Officer, suspended from a lama helicopter. They repulsed several Indian attacks.
With the recent success of the Chinese PLA in occupied Ladakh, where they have a 15-20-kilometre area in Galwan, Depsang and Pangong Tso, the glacier has been seriously threatened from a joint operation by the Chinese and Pakistan army. Talks to settle the issue were held from time to time. The issue was discussed during the 5th round of defence secretary level talks in 1989, where it was agreed to withdraw all troops. However, the next day, India backed out of the commitment. In 1992, another agreement was concluded during the visit of Rajiv Gandhi to Pakistan. However, once again, the Indian side came out with a plea of “authentication of the current position” which Pakistan refused to accept as it would amount to legalising Indian aggression. In 2004, again India insisted on the authentication of their current position while Pakistan stressed on the implementation of the understanding reached in 1989. In 2006 it was agreed to establish a zone of disengagement in the area.
According to Khursheed Kasuri’s book, ‘Neither a Hawk nor a Dove’, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, while visiting that, “Siachen should be turned into a mountain of peace”. However due to opposition from the defence minister of the time, Antony, nothing progressed. Let us salute the sacrifices, valour and spirit of the soldiers of the Pakistan Army who are defending the motherland despite extremely difficult odds in the world highest battlefield.