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The Siachen key

25 June, 2012

By Momin Iftikhar

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"They seated themselves, engaged in aimless conversation and then dispersed." A Persian quote describing the ambience of futile talks.

If the peace process and the diplomatic engagement between India and Pakistan have to inch forward incrementally towards reaching the pinnacle of Kashmir, then there, perhaps, is no better Confidence Building Measure (CBM) than effecting a thaw in the frosty diplomatic immobility over Siachen.

Manifestly, this is easier said than done. As the June 11-12 parleys between the Defence Secretaries of the two countries held at Islamabad indicate the level of inflexibility in the Indian stance over options to bring the area to status quo ante that prevailed when the Indian army launched Operation Meghdoot to occupy the Saltoro Ridge, defining the south western limit of Siachen Glacier, has only gone up several notches. A major factor contributing to the hardening of Indian stance is an entrenched opposition by the Indian army to stymie its government's initiatives to clinch a deal on Siachen.

As is becoming evident, the Indian army has emerged as a major stakeholder in defining the parameters of the Indo-Pak dialogue process; effectively challenging the political writ of the government. In the buildup to the Siachen parleys, there was a prominent campaign in the Indian media that bluntly threatened the government to desist from making any move to roll back the Siachen deployment against the wishes of the Indian army.

An article in India Today, entitled Blood Politics on Siachen, quoting the army and security based sources, is a good sample out of numerous such outpourings, reflecting the Indian army's entrenched resistance to any political settlement. This campaign picked up momentum in the backdrop of a statement by A.K. Antony, the Indian Defence Minister, on April 30 this year, who tried to create a positive ambience for the impending parleys by announcing in the Lok Sabha that the government was holding a meaningful dialogue with Pakistan to demilitarise the glacier. This was not the first occasion when the political leadership had been snubbed by the Indian army.

As far back as June 2005, the Indian Premier Manmohan Singh had indicated about the pulling back of forces from the glacier. "Siachen is called the highest battlefield, where living is very difficult. Now, the time has come that we make efforts that this is converted from a point of conflict to the symbol of peace," he had then said. Translating this political statement into diplomatic initiative got effectively curbed when General J.J. Singh went public by stating that the Indian army's withdrawal was against national security interest and, hence, opposed by it. In the buildup to the latest (thirteenth) round of talks, an intense and well orchestrated anti-Manmohan campaign started dishing out disinformation, quoting 'government sources' that the Indian Prime Minister had now, as before, authorised a pullback plan in order to facilitate and advance the dialogue with Pakistan.

Expressing opposition to the political will, sources leaked out to the media that for such a contingency to happen the Indian Army Chief expected the Prime Minister to issue a written directive before complying with the political direction. A bevy of Indian retired generals, diplomats and bureaucrats started advancing vitriolic agenda to forestall any progress during the parleys. The emphasis was on making Pakistan agree to the delineation of the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) before discussing the pullback, which turns out to be a non-starter being impracticable and non-negotiable for Pakistan. The AGPL delineation is unacceptable because it amounts to legitimising the Indian aggression in Siachen; an area that was left unmarked due to terrain difficulties when the UN sponsored Karachi Agreement in 1949, marked the Ceasefire Line (CFL) in Kashmir on cessation of hostilities. The terminus then was a benchmark called NJ 9842 beyond which the boundary line was not extended towards the Chinese border by military commanders of the two countries.

Siachen, with its unalienable linkages with the Kashmir issue, provides an ample test case to evaluate the Indo-Pak capability in resolving their problems bilaterally. As opposed to the Gordian Knot of Kashmir, it is uninhabited and, therefore, shorn of political dynamics. From a military perspective, the adversarial presence on the glacier, touted as the highest battleground in the world, is juxtaposed to its strategic importance that should justify such a costly and casualty intensive deployment of troops.

According to Major General (retired) Ashok K. Mehta: "The Siachen mess was created by the politicians and generals, who gave the glacier an exaggerated geopolitical and geostrategic importance." The Indian army's premise that it chose to occupy the glacier to pre-empt Pakistani aggression in the northern areas is absolutely ridiculous. According to military experts, the Indian justification for occupying the Saltoro ridgeline, in order to block a military approach to Leh, is hardly credible in the presence of the Shyuk and Indus River approaches. The overriding veto by the Indian army over the political initiative, and the latter's subservience to let the dialogue process with Pakistan stall, is nothing but a glaring example of political expediency in continuing with and accentuating a veritable military blunder.

Many apprehensions, mostly untenable, have been proffered to justify the Indian intransigence to demilitarise Siachen. A major one being that Pakistan could occupy the Saltoro ridgeline and its passes in case the glacier is demilitarised. This is hardly tenable; reflecting a fossilised Indian mindset steeped in suspicion and mistrust. Technology for monitoring troop concentrations and movements has undergone radical transformation and ironclad guarantees, including third parties' involvement, can be incorporated in the agreement to preclude violations. Then there is the presence of the UN Military Observers Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), which has been mandated by the UNSC through its resolutions to monitor CFL (now called LoC) separating the two armies in Kashmir.

By incorporating the available technology, they, under the authority of the UN mandate, can keep an effective watch over the glacier as the troops vacate the disputed area. Many solutions are available to resolve the embedded problems, but first India will have to let go of lame excuses that have effectively grounded all efforts to bilaterally solve major issues topped by Kashmir. Siachen can provide the key to bilaterally finding a way to clean the Augean stables of Indo-Pak disputes.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

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