Siachen: Cartographic contention

The glacier needs to be mapped carefully and a surveillance system put in place

Rajiv Williams, Delhi

The Tenth Round on Siachen is due. Despite the need to encourage the process of dialogue on Siachen and to move forward in bringing about peace in the subcontinent, it must not be a matter of convenience to understate that the situation in Siachen was thrust upon us by Pakistan’s cartographic aggression in that region and it was the promptitude displayed by the Indian Army which ensured that the aggressors were kept at bay.

While demilitarisation has led to debate, the Army’s view on delineation of the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) has been quite clear. The Army has also made it clear that any misadventure on the part of Pakistan to once again try and occupy those heights, in case of a withdrawal of troops, will certainly make it difficult and it will be a rather costly exercise to regain lost ground, especially when it means loss of lives. However, there are harsh realities in terms of regional geopolitics and assuredly, the uniformed fraternity understands the nuances relatively well, but these harsh realities have to be measured with very sensible and sensitive scales of balance. There should never be a repeat of the cartographic follies of the past and delineation of the boundary should not be mere semantics of lines joining Points 1234, 1235 and thereafter the line goes along the ridge line and so on. There have been enough of such goof ups in the past and there are instances of the two sides still not quite agreeing on the exact curvature of the lines joining points with a host of important features lying in between not clearly defined as to which side of the boundary they lie on.

Map references and relevant interpretations in case of change in scaling of maps at a later stage need to be considered during delineation. It has been observed in the past when the agreements were made on inch maps that on re-mapping the boundaries on the metre maps, differences surfaced and the features on the boundaries disputed, because of each side’s own interpretations of the line and laying claims of the inches or centimeters to suit their conveniences.

Mapping of Siachen is not easy and must be carried out with a great deal of forethought. There are unmarked features which will have to be plotted with accuracy.

A surveillance system with requisite checks and balances in place must be ensured and a trained force on the lines of the erstwhile Himalayan Brigade, which was raised for carrying out counters for any such like misadventures, needs to be created, which is capable of launching a strike at short notice. Such a highly trained and motivated force could be pre-positioned at an appropriate place and the select brigade sized force with a five years field-peace-field profile could have six battalions on its order of battle. Such a combine would cater for turnover of the battalions and continuity of the special force would do a lot good in case of combat. It is a tested concept, which most unfortunately due to a change of guard, underwent a change and the Himalayan Brigade or the Alpine Brigade, as it came to be known was disbanded. Such a re-initiation appears to be a viable alternative to ensure real time action and mobility of troops in high altitude areas.

Whatever, be the final outcome of the talks and the debate to hold the AGPL or otherwise, one point needs to be understood by all the stakeholders that a continuous internal dialogue on the issue is not healthy for the troops actually manning the glacier, as a prolonged process does affect the psyche of a soldier when he starts questioning the wisdom of such responsibilities. I would think that it would be best for the political pundits to continue discussions on the strengths and weaknesses of such dialogues without the media hyping the issue beyond limits. The peace process should be based on trust.

(The author is a retired brigadier-general of the Indian Army)