Story of Saltoro -- From Ababeel to Meghdoot
There has been considerable talk in Pakistan about the recent avalanche in Gyari west of the Saltoro Ridge and it is shown as having occurred in the Siachen area. Pakistan is nowhere near the Siachen Glacier. Please everybody, let us get the facts right. The glacier is at least two-three days march away from Gyari and is attainable after first climbing the heights of Saltoro. It lies to the East of the Saltoro Ridge which is manned by Indian troops at those heights and is lower than the Saltoro. It is therefore not visible from the forward most posts on the Pakistani side. Saltoro overlooks, in a manner of speaking, the land to the west that is the Skardu Astore regions of Gilgit and Baltistan which we assert is ours. Siachen’s northern tip is close to Shaksgam, a slice of J&K territory ceded by Pakistan to China, while its southern tip is the source of water to the Nubra.
It is well known that Chinese workers, some say as many as 10,000 are in Gilgit and Baltistan working on infrastructure projects. Given the nature of Pakistan-China relationship and given that Pakistan is in all sorts of domestic difficulties with its vital relationship with the US soured, China’s value to Pakistan increases further.
No Prime Minister, no General would want his troops to be there if it were not absolutely necessary. This is not an ego battle. It is a matter of preservation of our interests served best by ensuring that two countries hostile to us do not have another link up just north of Leh and Kargil. There is a famous Ladakhi saying which says that only the best of friends and the fiercest of enemies visit this barren land. Let it be known that the Indian Army makes the fiercest of enemies.
There are some other important issues about Siachen/Saltoro. One, there can be no piecemeal solutions with regard to Saltoro. Second, these are positions held by India justifiably even under the 1949 Karachi and 1972 Shimla Agreement, which says that from PT NJ9842 the line would run due north. Depictions on some maps including those in the West, that draw a straight line due east up to the Karakoram pass from PT NJ 9842 is deliberate cartographic misrepresentation. Third, let it never be forgotten that India holds an Instrument of Accession with the State of Jammu and Kashmir in the same manner in which Pakistan had with the princely states like Bahawalpur at the time of its independence. Therefore, Indian troops will be located wherever required for strategic and security reasons.
Some despatches have made out that India “after starting the war in 1984 occupies higher positions.” India did not start the war in 1984 but today occupies the heights. Pakistan started the war in 1947 and has continued that in different forms since then. Intelligence reports in 1983 had clearly warned that Pakistan had begun planning an assault on the Saltoro Ridge. A force called the Burzil Force would be launched from Skardu under ‘Operation Ababeel’. In a dramatic push, almost like the crossing of Zoji La in 1947, an Indian force under ‘Operation Meghdoot’ captured the heights of Saltoro barely 48 hours before the Pakistan operation got going. That is how it is and that is how it will be for the foreseeable future unless there is a dramatic shift in Pakistan’s attitude.
Pakistan has spent its entire existence seeking equality with, if not supremacy, over India. It invaded, and when unsuccessful sent in its jihadi foot soldiers described as its strategic assets. And now, exhausted, wants India to withdraw from its own territory, give up strategic heights, in the interests of peace. There is no logic in this. Logic will be had when Pakistan exhibits a desire to live in peace once it locks up its jihadis.
History has not been kind to our nations. Unfortunately, kindness in international relations is not bestowed by one nation to another by surrendering strategic advantage. Folly can achieve that. Let us not compound our folly by assuming that the other side is genuine when it masquerades magnanimity. Only verification and then trust will be proof of that and make for sound Indian statecraft.
The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)