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Kumar’s line vs Hodgson’s line: The ‘Lakshman rekha’ that started an India-Pakistan fight

US geographer’s tiny mistake pushed India and Pakistan to fight on the world’s highest battlefield. Thanks to Col Narinder Kumar, it was rectified.

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On 31 December, Indians will commemorate the first death anniversary of legendary soldier and mountaineer Colonel Narinder ‘Bull’ Kumar. Everyone knows him as the man who set in motion the chain of events that ultimately led to India moving into the Siachen Glacier in 1984, thereby pre-empting Pakistan’s plans of illegally occupying it. However, not many know that Kumar was also the first person to propose that the line separating India and Pakistan beyond NJ9842 should run along the crest of the Saltoro ridge right up to Sia Kangri. Indeed, the current AGPL or the Actual Ground Position Line, which India holds right up to Indira Col in the Siachen region, is actually Kumar’s line.

Kumar was born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and was commissioned in 3 KUMAON Rifles in 1954. His mountaineering career started in 1958 when he summited the Trishul. He was also the deputy leader of the record-breaking Indian Everest expedition of 1965. It is no coincidence that out of the 13 highest Indian peaks in the Himalayas above 24,000 feet, nine were climbed under his leadership, including the Nanda Devi.

Also Read: How India realised it was at risk of losing the Siachen glacier to Pakistan

The Siachen journey

The Siachen story started in 1978 when two German explorers, Dr Volker Stallbohm and Dr Jaroslav Poncar, walked into Kumar’s office. At that time he was the Commandant of the High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) at Gulmarg. Both these explorers had tamed the Indus in a rafting expedition with Kumar in 1975 and were now proposing an expedition to raft down the Nubra River.

What caught Kumar’s eye was a map published in the United States, which they had placed on his table while explaining their plan. While the rest of the map had the usual crooked line meandering gently between India and Pakistan, from one particular point it became perfectly straight as if it had been drawn by someone using a ruler. This was very unusual and Kumar did not recall seeing any such line demarcating the border between India and Pakistan on any map before. This was the line joining grid reference NJ9842, the last demarcated point between India and Pakistan, with the Karakoram Pass.

Kumar purchased the map from his friends for a princely sum of Rs 500 and started his research. After examining all the historical records and treaties, including the Karachi Ceasefire Agreement of 27 July 1949, Kumar was convinced that there was a deliberate misrepresentation on the map and the area beyond NJ9842 had been mischievously shown as a part of Pakistan without any legal or historical justification. He brought all these facts to the knowledge of Maj Gen M.L. Chibber, then-Director General of Military Operations, and Brigadier Mehta, then-Deputy Director General (Operations Directorate), and it was decided to send a reconnaissance mission to this region.

A 50-member expedition team under the leadership of Kumar reached Khalsar, Ladakh, on 2 September 1978. Taking the Khalsar-Tegar-Sasoma-Tongstead-Warshi route, they reached the snout of the Siachen Glacier and began their climb of the Saltoro mountains from the base camp at Pra.

Kumar finally stood atop the Teram Kangri II at 24,300 feet on 13 October 1978. It was a historic moment because it was the first time Indian soldier-mountaineers had crossed the ‘lakshman rekha’ drawn by the Americans joining NJ9842 with the Karakoram Pass and actually stood overlooking the Shaksgam Valley, one of the most inaccessible regions in the world that Pakistan had illegally ceded to China in 1963.

Kumar and his team spent almost three months in the region. They explored the entire area, mapped all the routes, and came back after collecting enough evidence of expeditions from the Pakistani side. It was Kumar who then proposed to Chibber that, to counter the Pakistani line, India should draw a line joining NJ9842 with Indira Col as the Saltoro ridge formed the most practical and natural boundary between the two countries. He was also of the firm view that if India wants to dominate this region for times to come then it has to move beyond the glacier itself and occupy the Saltoro Heights, thereby controlling the access to the glacier from Bilafond La and Sia La. The rest, as they say, is history. On 13 April 1984, the Indian armed forces launched Operation Meghdoot and established firm control over this entire region.

Also Read: In 1990, there was another daring rescue of an IAF helicopter from Siachen Glacier

A geographer’s error

The bulwark of the Pakistani claim for areas north of the line joining NJ9842 with the Karakoram Pass was that, at some point, many international cartographers had shown this region on their side. However, this claim and all arguments meant to justify it have completely crumbled over time. Declassified documents have revealed that the genesis of this cartographic error was the office of US State Department geographer Robert D. Hodgson. Indeed, the line, on the basis of which Pakistan claimed the entire Siachen area as its own, had neither been conceived nor drawn by it in the first place.

On 27 June 1968, a query was sent to the State Department by William Weathersby, Charge’d’Affaires in the US Embassy in Delhi, seeking some clarification on the depiction of the borders of the State of Jammu and Kashmir in maps published by the United States. On 17 September 1968, a meeting was held in Hodgson’s office on this subject. Hodgson observed that the ceasefire line established between India and Pakistan in 1949, under the auspices of the United Nations, abruptly ended at grid reference NJ980420, about 40 miles short of the Chinese border. The area beyond this point had not been completely demarcated on the ground by the field commanders due to the hostile terrain and perceived impossibility of any war ever taking place there.

Nevertheless, finding the border ‘open’, Hodgson closed it on the map by drawing a straight line in the eastwardly direction joining NJ9842 with the Karakoram Pass. This line, which closed the border between India and Pakistan in 1968, was neither an agreed international boundary nor a ceasefire line delineated by India and Pakistan in 1949. Since it was conceived and drawn by Hodgson, it came to be referred to as the Hodgson’s Line. No doubt, this closure of the borders could have been a practical requirement of the US Defence Mapping Agency to enable it to print its Air Defence Info Zone (ADIZ) maps for the region to give zoning boundaries to its Air Traffic Controllers. But this cartographic benevolence and the consequent gift of territory could also have been due to the fact that at that time, Pakistan was a signatory to the Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement with the US and also a member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and the Central Treaty Organization.

Also Read: India’s first pilot to land on Siachen recounts how his life was saved by Army comrades

Sunset on Hodgson’s Line

Geographer Hodgson’s tiny change to the map pushed India and Pakistan to fight on the world’s highest battlefield when Pakistan laid claim to all areas north of the line that had been made by him. In 1985, India sent an official inquiry to the US regarding the incorrect depiction of the LoC between India and Pakistan beyond NJ9842 by this line. In 1986, George Demko, the State Department geographer, clarified by issuing an update which stated:

“The Office of the Geographer has reviewed the depiction of the India-Pakistan border on the US Maps and found an inconsistency in the depiction and categorization of the boundary by the various map producing agencies. Henceforth, the Ceasefire Line between India and Pakistan will not be extended to the Karakoram pass as has been the previous cartographic practice. This line is therefore being erased from all US Maps.”

No explanation was given as to why Hodgson’s line, which was the raison d’etre of Pakistan’s entire Siachen case, and which had been picked up by all international map makers, appeared in the first place.

No wonder then that Kumar’s line, shown in all the maps as the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) continues to hold firm even today because its genesis is based on a solid foundation of history, geography, and law, while Hodgson’s Line, which was ill-conceived and shrouded in mystery, has disappeared from all records.

The author is a lawyer based in Gurugram and can be reached at amitkrishankantpaul@gmail.com. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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