Manmohan's visit offers a chance
The key is for India to recognise that a speedy solution to Siachen is in its national interest and in the interest of the Army and is essential for the process of normalisation.
WHEN MANMOHAN Singh touches down in Siachen on Sunday, his aim will be not so much to lay claim to the icy wasteland which has taken the lives of hundreds of soldiers since 1984 as to help make up his mind about the best way for India and Pakistan to reach an agreement which can brings the troops back home.
Given the complex interplay of politics, bravado and symbolism that the high-altitude conflict has involved, say officials, this very public acknowledgement of the sacrifices which continue to sustain India's military presence on the glacier is precisely what the Army needs in order to come to terms with the futility of the Siachen conflict.
The former Defence Minister, George Fernandes, a frequent visitor to Siachen, reversed 11 years of official Indian policy soon after taking charge in 1998 by saying there was no need to pull back. There is a school of thought which says this U-turn helped the Pakistani military make up its mind to go ahead with its Kargil plan. Today, however, the Indian establishment is clear that it is in the country's interest for the troops to be withdrawn. "The principle of disengagement is conceded by everyone from the Ministry of External Affairs to the Ministry of Defence and the Army," a senior official told The Hindu . "The only issue is one of putting safeguards in place."
Human and emotional capital
More than any other arm of the Indian state, it is the Army that has expended the greatest human and emotional capital in the mountainous wastes of the Saltoro range beyond NJ 9842, the last demarcated point on the Line of Control in Kashmir. When the pullback from Siachen eventually takes place, the Army brass will want political assurances that it will not be asked to return at some later date.
It is not a coincidence that on the very day Indian and Pakistani officials were discussing Siachen in Rawalpindi, it was the Indian Army rather than the Ministry of External Affairs which sought to brief the public about India's position. "Before any disengagement and withdrawal of the troops can take place, there has to be a authentication of the Agreed Ground Position Line (AGPL) in some way or the other," General J.J. Singh told reporters.
The official dialogue faltered last month — as it has in the past — precisely on the issue of authentication, because Pakistan believes this would legitimate in some way the Indian military presence in a region where the LoC is undefined.
Announced within days of the latest round of talks between the defence secretaries of India and Pakistan on Siachen, Dr. Singh's visit will mark the first time an Indian Prime Minister sets foot on the glacier. Beyond the obvious symbolism, however, there is an important political point that is at stake, say officials familiar with the Prime Minister's thinking. In their April 18 statement Dr. Singh and President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan committed themselves to instructing their "existing institutional mechanisms [to] convene discussions immediately with a view to finding mutually acceptable solutions to [Sir Creek and Siachen] expeditiously." Though the recently concluded round of talks on Siachen saw both sides exchanging some new proposals such as the possibility of recording current positions using satellite imagery, the lack of forward movement was palpable. The Prime Minister, who has a promise to keep, knows this better than anyone else.
Under pressure at home for resiling from Pakistan's earlier stand that progress on normalisation would be predicated on progress towards a solution of the "core issue" of Kashmir, Gen. Musharraf is looking for some deliverables that he can present to his public as proof that he has not "sold out". Precisely because the Indian troop movement into Siachen was seen as an act of great treachery in Pakistan, an agreement on the withdrawal of troops would stand him in good stead and help protect the current momentum of the peace process from the large number of detractors on the Pakistani side.
To India, the issue of authentication is important for both military and political reasons. In military terms, re-occupying positions currently held in the event of Pakistan moving in might not be possible given the differing ease of access on both sides. Politically too, the ghost of Kargil haunts Indian decision-makers. "Given the experience of Kargil, it is very important that both sides fix or verify where they are moving back from in Siachen," said a senior official. "In Kargil, we could mobilise international support on the basis of Pakistan's clear-cut violation of the LoC. There was no ambiguity, no gaps. We were able to show detailed maps with grid references that had been signed by the Directors-General of Military Operations on both sides." "In Siachen too," he added, "we need to avoid a similar situation." Ironically, Pakistan in November 1992 had offered to include the authentication of actual ground positions in an appendix to the main agreement but India chose not to be receptive at the time. That offer has never been repeated since then.
For the Prime Minister, the challenge is to come up with a formula for withdrawal that would address both the Indian Army's concerns and Pakistan's misgivings about undermining its legal position on the undemarcated area north of NJ9842.
On other issues — such as the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, the use of travel permits on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus and even the recent travel to Pakistan by the Hurriyat leadership — Dr. Singh has demonstrated an unerring ability to transcend the conservatism of his advisers. In Siachen, Pakistan does not want to mark current positions on the ground. And India fears the absence of a signed map might allow Pakistan to occupy positions beyond where its troops are currently deployed. One way around this would be to define clear zones of disengagement on a map where the presence of troops from either side would be considered a violation. There could be other solutions too, given modern technological systems of monitoring. By visiting Siachen, the Prime Minister will be in a better position to redefine the limits of what is politically feasible.
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