The Tribune - Spectrum


, September 29, 2002

A General's scholarly viewpoint
J. N. Dixit

Siachen—Conflict Without End.
by Lt-Gen. V. R. Raghavan (retd). Viking Penguin Books. Pages 240. Rs 395.

Siachen -- Conflict Without End.THE Indo-Pakistan conflict in the Siachen area on the northern edge of Jammu and Kashmir has been a point of attention since 1983. The confrontation has also been the subject matter of negotiations between Pakistan and India between 1986 and 1992. The negotiations were for mutual re-deployment of forces from their present adversarial locations. The military standoff at Siachen has also been the subject matter of comment and analysis over the years. It constituted one of the important and separate items on the agenda of Foreign Secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan, particularly between 1988 and 1997. Despite the official and non-official attention the analyses and writings on the subject have been episodic and fragmented.

Lieut-General Raghavan has at last remedied this shortcoming by writing this book on all facets of the Siachen conflict since its inception. General Raghavan has unquestionable credentials to write on the subject. He has served as the commander of the Indian armed forces in the Siachen sector and has dealt with high-level strategic and military negotiations on the Siachen issue in the early 1990s as Director-General, Military Operations.


The book, which has been divided into three parts, fills a much-regretted gap in India’s recent military history in the study of Indo-Pakistan relations in recent years and Indian security studies. While the first part dealing with the history and genesis of the conflict contains four chapters, the second part dealing with military conflict consists of seven chapters. The third part contains six chapters, which deal with attempts at the resolution of this conflict.

The first 44 pages of the book contain a succinct description of the geography of the region and historical explorations therein, beginning from the early 19th century. More relevantly, this chapter contains the history of explorations in the area in the pre-Partition times up to the drawing of the Line of Control in 1972-73. The remaining three chapters in the section, analysing the geo-politics of the Karakoram in terms of Indian, Pakistani and Chinese interests, in terms of the political and geo-political compulsions impelling Indian and Pakistani policies towards the Siachen area and the factual narrative about the beginning of the dispute, provide perhaps the most comprehensive contextual background of the conflict in the public domain so far, ensuring an objective understanding of the reasons for the dispute. I use the word "objective" because Raghavan’s presentation scrupulously avoids any jingoistic overtones.

The second part dealing with operational details of the conflict is again compelling in focussing the reader’s attention because these chapters are not merely a description of the battles and the operational moves made by Pakistan and India to gain control over the Saltoro ranges and adjacent glaciers. The author analyses the problems related to soldiers adapting to high altitudes, the enormous difficulties in providing logistical support for maintaining military posts and in engaging in battles and the general problems faced by both the Indian and Pakistani forces involved.

Two chapters in part two of the book titled "Two Different Battles" and "The Logistical Battle" add to the chemistry of courage, reasoned operational planning and profound commitment to the tasks assigned to the Indian Army, which has underpinned India’s success in holding on to the difficult heights at Siachen and Saltoro. Whether holding on to the area is necessary in terms of our substantive and strategic interests is a different question, for which there is no clear answer given the unexplainable aspects of Indo-Pakistan tensions and adversarial attitudes. Raghavan’s description of the battle for the Bana Post and the personal bravery of Naib Subedar Bana Singh is a story that is not much known. One is glad that he has spared space and time to recall the qualities of courage, drive, dedication and commitment which characterised this operation and which are more important in some respects than the material inputs which go into a successful operation.

The author raises a pertinent question in the book. He says, "Soldiers keep faith amongst themselves but they some time wonder if those who rule the nation will keep faith with them." Men and mountains, soldiers and the Saltoro work a chemistry that shows up the best facets of human character.

The third part of the book, which deals with Indo-Pakistan negotiations to resolve the Siachen conflict, is valuable in its descriptive content. Raghavan does not make any value judgement whether both India and Pakistan should have implemented the compromises, which they very nearly reached at the end of the sixth round of Indo-Pakistan talks on Siachen in early November 1992.

Two interesting points brought out by General Raghavan merit being noted. First, he has brought out the geographical distinction between the Siachen glacier and the Saltoro range. The two territorial phenomenon are often confused by the general public. Secondly, he has given information and analysis leading to the conclusion that the origins of the Kargil War in the summer of 1999 lay in the failure of Pakistan to capture the Saltoro heights, despite repeated attempts between 1986 and 1988.

The General has enhanced the value of the book as an important work of archival reference by using maps of the Saltoro region, which he drew up himself. The photographs give the reader some idea of the difficult and forbidding terrain. Bibliographical and reference notes classified subject wise indicate that he has written the book not only on the basis of memory and his personal experience but also on the basis of detailed research. The contents of the book, apart from reflecting his personal knowledge and experience, also reflect the scholarly precision with which he authored this important work. This is the first lucid, comprehensive and fairly clinical account of the Indo-Pakistan confrontation at Siachen. In some respects contents of the book and its sub-title embryonically reflect the larger intransigencies between India and Pakistan. Given the present political standoff between them, and its implication for the regional security environment, this book is a timely and thoughtful addition to the reference material on Indo-Pakistan relations.