14 September 2005

It's time for boldness on the Siachen issue

The India-Pakistan peace process will get the credibility and longevity it needs if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pervez Musharraf find a way to bring their soldiers down from the world's highest battlefield.

14 September 2005
The Hindu

It's time for boldness on the Siachen issue

Siddharth Varadarajan

WHEN PRIME Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pervez Musharraf meet for dinner in New York on Wednesday to review what has been achieved on the bilateral front since their first meeting in September 2004, they should begin by accepting that there are really two peace processes under way, not one, and that some way has to be found of harmonising them.

The first process is the `composite dialogue,' which has completed two rounds and will enter a third in January 2006. Without in any way belittling the amount of official labour that has gone into each of this process' eight components, the results so far have been rather meagre. Indeed, the two concrete outcomes are the draft agreement on the pre-notification of missile tests and the exchange — on the very eve of this year's New York summit — of some 500 Indian and Pakistani prisoners.

On the other hand, the second process — the political dialogue that the two principals have been having with each other — has been highly productive. On the two occasions Dr. Singh and General Musharraf have met and had substantive discussions, they have managed to introduce new and dynamic elements into the relationship. In independently speaking of `soft borders' and of making borders irrelevant, the two men have produced something resembling a common political vocabulary that people on both sides seem quite comfortable with. Thanks to their leadership, we also have the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, the very real prospect of a gas pipeline linking Iran, Pakistan, and India, and much more. Compared to what they have achieved in just two meetings, the composite dialogue, then, seems like so much nitpicking.

This time last year, the Pakistani side was still looking for reassurances that the policy of engagement set in motion by the Vajpayee Government in January 2004 had the full backing of the new coalition that had come to power in India. Not only was Dr. Singh able to provide those assurances in ample measure, he also demonstrated a welcome willingness to go beyond the artificial limits imposed by his predecessor.

Previous breakthroughs

The joint statement issued by the two leaders on September 24, 2004, established three important points. First, that the implementation of confidence building measures (CBMs) of all kinds would "contribute to generating an atmosphere of trust and mutual understanding" between the two countries. Secondly, "that possible options for a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the [Kashmir] issue should be explored in a sincere spirit and purposeful manner." Thirdly, that a gas pipeline via Pakistan to India "could contribute to the welfare and prosperity of the people of both countries and should be considered in the larger context of expanding trade and economic relations between India and Pakistan."

The reference to the "larger context" in the formulation on gas reflected the South Block bureaucracy's reticence at the time to look at the pipeline as a stand-alone issue. By January, however, the economist and strategist in Dr. Singh had managed to prevail over the conservatism of his advisers and the Union Cabinet authorised the Energy Minister to begin exploring the project in earnest. The Prime Minister's intervention was also crucial in getting the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus on the road after months of inconclusive, pedantic wrangling over what documents the passengers would be required to carry.

When the two leaders met again in April this year, it was General Musharraf's turn to overrule his advisers, who were opposed to more people-to-people contact across the Line of Control and dragging their feet over the proposed Sindh-Rajasthan train link and the opening of consulates in Mumbai and Karachi. The joint statement issued in New Delhi on April 18 not only set a deadline for these initiatives but, more importantly, introduced three important concepts that were vital to the peace process. First, the process was declared irreversible; secondly, it was declared that neither side would allow acts of terrorism to disrupt the relationship; and thirdly, that cross-Line of Control interaction would be extended to include trade via trucks.
Prime Minister Singh, on his part, made two commitments in an effort to reassure General Musharraf — and his domestic constituency in Pakistan — that India saw CBMs not as an end in themselves but as a via media for the resolution of disputes. Thus the April 18 joint statement spoke of continuing the discussion on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir "in a sincere and purposeful and forward looking manner for a final settlement" and also of the need "expeditiously" to find a solution to both the Sir Creek and Siachen issues. The reference to a "final settlement" of Kashmir was not new in the bilateral context. The phrase figured in the 1972 Shimla Declaration but had subsequently fallen out of favour in New Delhi. Its revival, in the context of the reference to "possible options" and the talk of soft borders, was a clear political signal that India was willing to move away from the administrative status quo in Kashmir even as it insisted the territorial status quo could not be altered.

If the Foreign Secretary-level talks on Kashmir have not so far managed even to scratch the surface of any "options," this is mainly because the level of confidence this requires is still not adequate. Infiltration and terrorism remain a problem, and the process of people-to-people interaction across the LoC is at a very early stage. The more this interaction takes place — of buses, trucks, tourists, journalists, scholars, cultural workers, and even politicians — in every divided region of the former princely state including Jammu-Doda-Rajouri and Kargil-Skardu, the better the prospects of the official dialogue on Kashmir will be. At some point, a demi-official commission consisting of academics and experts from both sides could be set up to examine the necessity and feasibility of cross-LoC administrative initiatives such as water resource management.

Siachen as factor

As new facts get created on the ground, India and Pakistan will find it easier to conceptualise the politico-administrative aspects of a mutually acceptable "final settlement." With the best of intentions, however, this is not a process that can or should be rushed. What is important, however, is that conditions be quickly created that will allow the people of the State to lead a better, more secure life — free from the violence that insurgency and counter-insurgency inevitably bring. And the way to do that is to push ahead with the logic of CBMs. The only fly in the ointment is the residual suspicion in Pakistan that CBMs are simply India's way of avoiding the `core issue'. Is there any way India can allay those fears? There is, by demonstrating its willingness to find a solution to Siachen, a dispute that weighs heavily on the Pakistani national psyche.

Left to themselves, the two Defence Secretaries — who are responsible for conducting the Siachen part of the composite dialogue — will never be able to produce a solution. In April, Dr. Singh and General Musharraf said their "existing institutional mechanisms" should meet immediately to find an expeditious solution to Siachen and Sir Creek. In June, the Prime Minister himself travelled to the glacial battlefield — which has claimed the lives of hundreds of Indian and Pakistani soldiers for no strategic or military purpose — and spoke of turning the area into a "mountain of peace". Yet, at the official-level dialogue, there has been no forward movement.

Since demilitarisation of the glacier will mean Indian troops pulling back from Gyong La, Bilafond La, and Sia La — the three key passes along the Saltoro range — the Indian Army and Ministry of Defence want assurances that Pakistan will not move up and occupy posts India vacates. Getting Pakistan to authenticate its existing ground positions has been seen by Indian negotiators as the best way to ensure it does not eventually occupy posts higher and further afield. The bottom line, however, is whether General Musharraf and the Pakistani establishment and army can be trusted to keep its word. This is a political assessment that the Prime Minister has to make. Dr. Singh has already once invoked that old Reagan phrase — "trust, but verify" — in the context of Pakistani assurances on ending cross-border crossings by militants. The same principle can be applied to Siachen.

The way forward

Verification of any Siachen withdrawal is better accomplished not by authenticating ground positions but by demarcating the triangular region bounded by NJ9842 in the south (where the LoC ends), Indira Col in the north, and the Karakoram Pass in the east as a demilitarised zone that neither Indian nor Pakistani armed forces troops will enter except jointly, for purposes of regular inspection. Such an agreement — with a signed map of the zone appended — would provide at least as much protection in international law as a signed map of the actual ground position line (AGPL), which Pakistan refuses to agree to because it feels this might prejudice its eventual claim to the entire glacier.

Dr. Singh and General Musharraf should look seriously at such an option and recognise that their political intervention is needed to get the officials concerned to work out the required details. The risks are few, and the payoff is enormous — not just in terms of lives and money saved but also in terms of producing a highly visible and concrete outcome that will provide the peace process with the longevity and credibility it needs to sustain itself till the end.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr Varadarajan,
Interesting article, but why should India agree to a demilitarized zone in territory that is legitimately its own? Also, why should India be the one to concede this to "prove" the legitimacy of its intentions. India has not been an aggressor and
generally keeps its side in agreements, while Pakistan has repeatedly gone back on its assurances and agreements and attempted invasions into India. Pakistan sponsors terrorism on Indian soil and its present dictator was the one who masterminded its latest attempt to invade in Kargil. It is foolish to concede legitimately held land in exchange for "assurances" and "agreements" which can be easily violated.

India would be the loser if it gives up its positions in Siachen because it holds the high ground.