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Army said no to Gujral’s order to vacate Siachen
VISHAL THAPAR  New Delhi | 12th Apr 2014

nder Kumar Gujral, the peacenik Prime Minister of a Congress-propped United Front Government, asked the Indian Army to withdraw from Siachen Glacier in 1997 to accommodate Pakistan.

The then Indian Army chief, General V.P. Malik vetoed the move, demanding iron-clad guarantees as a precondition, which Pakistan has refused to concede till date. The collapse of the Gujral government in March 1998 stalled further movement toward what many strategists reckon would have been a monumental blunder.

This disclosure was made by General Malik at a book release timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the undeclared war on the world's highest and coldest battlefield. It was on 13 April 1984, that India launched Operation Meghdoot to pre-empt a Pakistani takeover of the strategically-located Siachen Glacier. Thirty years on, it is an ongoing operation, with no end in sight.

Gujral's position was in complete contrast to that of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, attests former Indian envoy to Pakistan, G. Parthasarathy. "Rajiv told me that he would not vacate the area where Indian troops have shed blood," recalled Parthasarathy, speaking after General Malik at a function to mark the release of journalist Nitin Gokhale's book, Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga, here on Friday. Rajiv too was under pressure from the peacenik lobby in 1987-88 to take advantage of his equation with his counterpart Benazir Bhutto and pluck the "low-hanging fruit" of Siachen.

Gujral is best known for a dubious contribution to India's strategic history in ceasing during his tenure the activities of India's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analyses Wing (R&AW), in Pakistan. This is assessed by analysts as a huge strategic setback to India. Capabilities which took decades to build were swept away in one stroke.

The precondition General Malik insisted upon was the authentication and demarcation of respective troop positions along the 110-km-long Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). The Indian Army is in physical occupation of the Saltoro Ridge west of Siachen Glacier, which puts India in a dominating position.

Warning that it would be a folly to ignore the strategic significance of Siachen, General Malik said, "The strategic consequences of a deal without formal authentication are obvious. It'll give Pakistan easier access to Saltoro and to the glacier, ensure security of Shaksgam (ceded by Pakistan to China).... and put a final stamp of China on its political control (of Shaksgam)."

The Indian Army has since stuck to this "veto line" to resist an on-off politico-diplomatic push to vacate Siachen, first by the Gujral regime, and more recently, by Manmohan Singh, who wanted Siachen to be a "Mountain of Peace". The Indian Army believes Pakistan will sneak into Siachen if the commanding heights of the Saltoro Ridge are vacated.

While the Army's insistence on demarcation of troop positions with Pakistan is well known, for the first time, it has come out in the open that the real military red line on Siachen is China, and its nexus with Pakistan. In his foreword to the book, General Malik says India must deny China and Pakistan an opportunity to link up via Siachen, and that their anti-India intent is transparent for the following reasons:

* Pakistan illegally ceded the Shaksgam Valley in PoK, flanking Siachen, to China in 1963 under a Sino-Pak border agreement, in violation of the 1949 Karachi Agreement on the Ceasefire Line with India, and claiming a border link with China running through Siachen and terminating at the Karakoram Pass, east of Siachen. India's position is that the Karachi Agreement puts the boundary beyond the last demarcated Point NJ 9842 as running west of Siachen Glacier.

* While China did a boundary deal with Pakistan on the PoK area west of Karakoram, it has refused to discuss the J&K boundary with India on the ground that it's "disputed".

* Pakistan claims all of J&K but recognises Chinese sovereignty over Aksai Chin, which has been annexed by China.

* In 1997, China went back on an agreement to send its military commander opposite Ladakh to meet his counterpart in Leh. This was an indication that they were unwilling to endorse Indian sovereignty over Ladakh.

* China declined India's invitation to all military attaches in New Delhi (except Pakistan's) for a conducted tour of the battle zone post the Kargil War.

* Four years ago, China started issuing stapled visas to visitors from J&K, thus questioning its status as part of India, refused visa to the highest ranking Army officer in J&K.

* Increased Chinese presence in the northern areas of PoK, purportedly to improve infrastructure, repair the Karakoram Highway, and build oil pipelines and rail lines linking western China to the Arabian Sea.

Ambassador Parthasarathy strongly argued that any deal on Siachen must be linked to an overall resolution of J&K. He endorsed the view of Brig V.N. Channa, the first commander of the Indian forces in Siachen, that by restricting itself to the Saltoro Ridge (west of Siachen), India lost an opportunity to take over the position now occupied by the Pakistanis beyond this ridgeline. "We should have gone beyond the Saltoro Ridge and taken over Gyari (now occupied by Pakistan). Had we done so, there would be no need to occupy the glacier (which is done at great cost)," rued Parthasarathy. Sadly, the story of missed opportunities for India does not end with Siachen.

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