Saturday, May 5, 2012

‘Siachen does not have any strategic significance’

Lt Gen. M.L.Chibber

FORCE interview with Lt Gen. M.L. Chibber (retd) reproduced from December 2004

“Siachen does not have any strategic significance. The strategic importance being talked about is all invention,” says Lt Gen. M.L. Chibber (retd), the officer responsible for planning and mounting the Siachen operation (called Meghdoot) for India on 13 April 1984.
Then why did the Indian Army launch Operation Meghdoot? The former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Northern Army Command says that two issues precipitated the need for an occupation of Siachen. First, Pakistan had, in March 1963, ceded 5,000 sqkm of territory in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (claimed by India), north east of the Siachen glacier to China. These include the Hunza tract, Shaksam and Raksham valley. This illegal territorial exchange rankled India. And second, Pakistan’s northern sector commander sent a signal addressed to the Indian northern sector commander on 21 August 1983, which read: “Request instruct your troops to withdraw beyond Line of Control south of line joining point NJ 9842, Karakoram pass NE 7410 immediately. I have instructed my troops to show maximum restraint. But any delay in vacating our territory will create a serious situation.” According to Chibber, Army Headquarters approached Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for permission to deny the glacier (which they were claiming) to Pakistan. While giving the green signal, Mrs Gandhi made it clear that the army action should be done in a manner which will not escalate into an all-out war. With these political instructions, Chibber decided to occupy only three passes (Sia La, Bilafond La, and Gyong La) on the Saltoro ridge. This was in consonance with the 1949 Karachi agreement which delimited the Cease Fire Line till map point NJ 9842, thence north to the glaciers. Chibber and his 15 corps commander, Lt Gen. P.N. Hoon who took charge on 3 August 1983 started planning Operation Meghdoot. In December 1983, Hoon was shopping for tents, ski boots and other glacier-related equipment and clothing in Europe for the impending operation.
Chibber says that the plan was to occupy the three passes with platoon group strength (50 to 60 soldiers) each for summer months only. During this period, the troops were to be maintained totally by air. It was appreciated by the Indian military leadership that given the adverse climatic conditions during winter months neither side would want to occupy these passes. Asked why Pakistan would not occupy passes vacated by Indian troops, Chibber said, “In my experience as the deputy director military operations during the delimitation of the Line of Control (LoC) after the 1971 Indo-Pak war, Pakistanis were prone to transgressing the LoC. But once it was occupied by Indian troops, they usually went back to the original line. The basic issue was who reaches the passes first.”
Chibber and the Army Headquarters believed that Pakistan will cower to an Indian military presence and would abide by the spirit of the Karachi agreement sooner rather than later. Thereafter, there may be little need to even hold the passes in summer months. The Indian military leadership was jolted from slumber by an intelligence briefing on Pakistan’s extensive preparations for Siachen given to Chibber in May 1984, a month after the Indian troops were perched on the three Saltoro passes. It was at this stage that Chibber concluded that occupation of passes would need to be permanent. Reminiscent of the 1962 ‘forward policy’ against China which led to India’s humiliation in the Sino-India war, the Indian Army leadership had appreciated that a sporadic military presence would be enough to deter Pakistan from occupying the glacier.
Why did the Indian army’s appreciation go so wrong? Chibber gives two reasons for this: One, as always, intelligence agencies had failed the nation. “We did not have intelligence about what the Pakistanis were up to regarding Siachen,” he says. And two, Mrs Gandhi’s assassination in November 1984 precipitated matters and emboldened Pakistan President Gen. Zia-ul-Haq to not accept the Indian fait accompli.

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