Why General Naravane is lucky
Indian Army Chief, General M.M. Naravane, is really a lucky General. He has a very lenient boss in Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. Not only is his present job secure, he, if speculations are something to go by, is going to be India’s next Chief of Defence (CDS).
I doubt whether he would have been able to keep his present job in any other country after what he said on Siachen glacier on January 12. But before explaining the grave implications of what he said, let me cite the burning example of German Navy Chief, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach, who has been forced to step down over his remarks in Ukraine.
Ironically, these remarks were made by the German Admiral last week at Delhi of all places, and that too at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, the thinktank run by the Ministry of Defence. Delivering a talk on ‘Germany’s Indo-Pacific Strategy’, he said, “Is Russia really interested in having a small tiny strip of Ukraine soil and integrating with that country? No. This is nonsense. I think Putin is probably putting pressure on that because he can do it and he knows it splits the European Union. But (what) he really wants is respect,” he said.
“Giving some respect is low cost, even no cost,” he said, underlining that Putin, not just “demands but probably also deserves” respect. “Russia is an old country. Russia is an important country. Even we (India and Germany) need Russia. Because we need Russia against China,” he added.
As a foreign policy analyst, I find great merits in what Admiral Schönbach said. The crisis in Ukraine is a creation of the western world, not Russia. But then, it is also a fact that the Admiral was representing Germany, whose official position on Ukraine is different. And since in democracies it is the elected government whose voice is final on wars and peace, the military officials must act and talk in tune with the policies of the government of the day. They must be responsible or accountable to the political leadership, not otherwise.
By the time Admiral Schönbach realized his mistake, it was too late. He clarified that what he said was his “personal” opinion and did not reflect the position of the government. But his civilian bosses in the government were not impressed; he had to go.
If we keep the above in mind, there are no two opinions that the Modi government in general and defence minister Rajnath Singh in particular, have been very kind to General Naravane, despite his totally unwarranted assumption that India is now prepared to demilitarize the Siachen, the world’s highest and coldest battle field, and forgo its domination in the glacier since 1984.
On the eve of the Army Day on January 12, General Naravane, said India “is not averse” to the demilitarization of the Siachen Glacier, on the condition that Pakistan accepts the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) dividing the two countries’ positions.
What is really unfathomable here is that none other than the General himself had two years back termed Siachen as a point of “collusive threat” between Pakistan and China and so “we should keep control”. What has happened in the last two years for the change of heart?
It is a widely held perception that of all the contentious issues between India and Pakistan, two are said to be really easy to solve – demilitarization of Siachen and the e Sir-Creek maritime boundary issue. And still, if Siachen remains contentious, that is because of the principled unwillingness of the Indian Army.
In fact, it is an open secret former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was all set to leave Siachen in 2006 , but it did not happen because of the strong resistance from the then National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan and Army Chief, General J.J. Singh. They made it clear to the political leadership then that any withdrawal – scheme with Pakistan would not be accepted by the Indian armed forces who thought it would be a big blunder to withdraw from the heights and give Pakistan a chance to capture them. And if that happened then recapturing the heights, just as India it did in Kargil, would be almost an impossible task.
Incidentally, it is a myth that Pakistani soldiers are present in the Siachen glacier as such. The glacier is under total control of the Indian soldiers. Pakistanis are behind the Soltoro Ridge, much below the heights of the glacier.
A historical perspective will do well to understand the issue. It all started in 1984 when India launched “Operation Meghdoot” to drive away the “Pakistani incursions”. At the moment, India is in a commanding position in the glacier, which is a part of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.
It may be noted that in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh are separated by the so-called Line of Control (LoC), which clearly runs from Sabha in the South to “point NJ9842” in North. This LoC was demarcated under the 1972 Simla agreement. But disagreements remain over whether the line after the point NJ9842 travels northwards to include the entire Siachen region within India, or whether it travels northwestwards to give Pakistan access to the area.
Should India consider withdrawing from Siachen? The question has many dimensions.
Going by the arguments of the peaceniks, the glacier has no strategic value and that there are tremendous economic advantages of the withdrawal, both in terms of greenbacks and human costs. Where a loaf of bread to a soldier costs Rs. 2000, leave alone his special shoes and clothes, an American expert has said that both India and Pakistan are spending each as Rs. Two crore a day to maintain their military positions in the region.
And then there are the human casualties. Rising between 18,000 and 22,000 feet above sea level, temperatures in the region can drop to an alarming 60 degrees Celsius below freezing. Total Indian casualties on Siachen since 1984 are estimated to be about 2000, of which nearly all (97% to be precise) of the deaths have been due to a variance of weather-related illness, fatigue or injuries.
Diplomatically speaking, it is argued that withdrawal from Siachen will do both India and Pakistan a lot of good. It will earn tremendous international goodwill and go a long way in facilitating further the peace-process in Kashmir.
But then there are equally powerful counter-arguments.
As a military power of consequence, money should not be a limiting factor as maintenance of the troops elsewhere in the Himalayan range of comparable heights, which is vital for India’s military preparedness, will also cost the country more or less the same.
Late Manohar Parrikar had told Parliament, as defence minister, in 2016 that the average annual casualty figures have come down to 10 from 28, thanks to technical and infrastructural improvements.
As regards the strategic significance of Siachen, one may quote another former Indian Foreign Secretary MK Rasgotra as to why India went there in the first place. According to Rasgotra, India’s foreign secretary in 1984 and a party to the decision of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to send troops to Siachen, “in blatant violation of the Cease-Fire Line (CFL) Agreement of July 1949 ( same as the line of control in 1971) that had stipulated that from point NJ 9842 onwards the line would run ‘north to the glaciers’, leaving larger part of the Siachen glacier and the region east of it under Indian control, Pakistan was sending scientific expeditions to the area, claiming the whole area as its territory and Pakistan’s two allies – China and the US — had been publishing maps showing the entire glaciated region up to the Karakoram Pass as territory under Pakistan’s control”.
It was against this background that the Indian Army was “given the order” to move in and prevent the Pakistan army from occupying any part of the Saltoro Ridge. As Rasgotra argues, “Particularly vexing for us was the thought that our two difficult neighbours, already in illegal occupation of large chunks of J&K territory, would link up to surround Central Ladakh on three sides within our own territory. Such a juncture would give them dominance over the Shyok Valley and easy access to Khardung La Pass, and from that vantage point their forces would threaten Leh, a mere half days’ march from the Pass. The myth about Siachen, the adjoining glaciated areas and the Karakoram Pass being of no strategic importance is a recent invention: now that the region is secure, such myth making comes easy. Things looked very different to us when a clear danger loomed on the horizon”.
Besides, Siachen is a part of pre-1948 Jammu and Kashmir which India claims to be its integral territory. Thus, India’s dispute with Pakistan is territorial. In any eventual resolution of territorial disputes, possession of “disputed” territory under one’s control is a great “strategic advantage” during negotiations to strengthen one’s claims. Should India forgo this advantage in Siachen? Not likely.
India’s history with Pakistan has been such that surrendering advantages has not brought any desired results. India released 96000 Pakistani prisoners of war after the Shimla Agreement 1972 with the hope that Pakistan would eventually agree to convert the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir to international border. It did not happen.
India surrendered the Haji Pir Pass that it had brought under control in the 1965 war. Had it remained with India, terrorists from Pakistan would have found it very difficult to cross over and cause havoc in Kashmir valley.
Against this background, withdrawing from Siachen will be a monumental strategic blunder. All the more so when there is Chinese aggression in the sub sector north in eastern Ladakh. With the Siachen sector facing threats from both west and east, it is unimaginable that India will disengage from Siachen.
But it is mind boggling that the Indian Army Chief imagines so. After all, India is not Germany!
By Prakash Nanda