|20 June 2005|
Opinion - News Analysis
IN DECLARING that it was time to convert the world's highest battleground in Siachen into a "mountain of peace," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has sent a clear signal that demilitarisation of the glacier is a political objective he is personally committed to achieving.
But sending a signal down the line is one thing. Getting the civil and military establishments to develop creative approaches to a problem that has defied resolution for more than two decades is another. Defence Secretary-led negotiating teams will never produce an outcome that will satisfy the concerns of all stakeholders in Siachen. The core challenge is to ensure the glacier remains demilitarised once India and Pakistan withdraw. This guarantee must necessarily be political rather than military. And this can only be achieved by the Prime Minister directly discussing the terms of a settlement with General Pervez Musharraf.
Whatever the arguments put forward in the wake of Operation Meghdoot, there is a broad consensus amongst military men that Siachen qua glacier has little or no strategic value. "Siachen does not have any strategic significance," Lt. Gen. M.L. Chibber (retd.) told Force magazine last December. "The strategic significance being talked about is all invention." As GOC-in-C of the Northern Army Command, he had planned and launched the 1984 operation. But if Siachen lacks strategic significance, this does not mean withdrawing from the glacier is free of collateral costs: The Army fears any pullback from Siachen, even if part of a bilateral agreement to redeploy forces, would be presented in Pakistan as a "victory" over an Indian side that did not have the "stomach" to stick it out.
There is also the problem of trust. Historians will always argue over the evidence but the Army is convinced it moved into Siachen to pre-empt Pakistan's entry into the undemarcated Saltoro range north of NJ 9842, the northernmost mutually agreed map coordinate on the ceasefire line/Line of Control in Kashmir. Though the ceasefire agreement spoke of the ceasefire line going "North" to the glaciers from NJ 9842, Pakistani maps drew a straight line in a north-easterly direction up to the Karakoram Pass. So long as Islamabad sticks to that claim line, senior Indian officers say, there will always be the danger that Pakistani forces might eventually move up the Saltoro range to posts vacated by India.
By insisting on "authentication" of the location of present posts held by both sides, the Army leadership wants to provide a grid-by-grid answer to Pakistan's "cartographic aggression." It also feels authentication will help India build an international case for support if ever Pakistan reneges on the terms of a withdrawal agreement.
The way out
If the Prime Minister is to realise his dream of demilitarising Siachen, he will have to come up with convincing answers to all these reservations.
First, Dr. Singh has to make it clear that he is not looking at Siachen as a standalone problem. If Siachen were the only outstanding issue between India and Pakistan, the Army's arguments would have considerable traction. But the reality is that Siachen is only one component of a larger problem. Maintaining a military presence on the glacier is not a core interest in the way that the Prime Minister has said India's borders with Pakistan are. Short of redrawing those borders or partitioning any territory on a religious basis, he has said, the sky is the limit. Compromising on Siachen in order to allow its demilitarisation will, in fact, help India push along the peace process in the current beneficial direction.
Secondly, on the question of authentication, the Prime Minister needs to stress that there is more than one way of securing a cartographic commitment from Pakistan. The purpose of authentication is to ensure that after a withdrawal has been effected, Pakistan will not move back to its old positions or up Gyong La, Bilafond La and Sia La — the three passes along the Saltoro range — to positions currently held by India. But the same purpose can be served by marking out a zone of disengagement within which, after a pre-determined date, any Pakistani or Indian military presence would be considered illegitimate. This would be regardless of where India and Pakistan had their posts (or claimed to have their posts) prior to the pre-determined date, and without prejudice to the claims either side has to the region as a whole. Such a plan could be launched in stages, around smaller zones, and verified by joint helicopter patrols. Eventually, the entire glacier would be covered.
Indeed, in 1992, Indian and Pakistani negotiators virtually drew up such a zone, a mis-shaped rectangle with the Saltoro range in the middle, with India agreeing to remain well east of there and Pakistan well west. Such a formula would produce a grid-referenced map that would be as effective as a map authenticating the AGPL in mobilising international support in the event of any Pakistani transgression. Slightly less effective than a bilateral agreement would be the suggestion unilaterally to pull out after taking the military attaches of key countries based in New Delhi up to see for themselves the principal posts occupied by India.
Thirdly, the issue of trust is absolutely fundamental to the continuation of the peace process. If Pakistan cannot be trusted to keep an agreement on the demilitarisation of Siachen, then authenticating the AGPL will serve no purpose other than lulling the Indian Army into a false sense of security. But trust is the only basis for any headway to be made. Trust not so much in any "change of heart" on Gen. Musharraf's part but in the rationality of Pakistan's decision-makers.
If Islamabad reneges on any Siachen deal, it will end up pushing bilateral relations into a deep, deep freeze. Given the regional and international realities of our time, Pakistan is unlikely to believe its core interests will be served by such an outcome. In diplomacy as in war, countries must choose their battles wisely. Siachen is not a winnable proposition for either side but a withdrawal will provide benefits to both. Since he inherited the peace process from the previous government, Dr. Singh has led from the front. He owes it to the people of India and Pakistan to find a way down from Siachen.
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