Olive Branch Flutters On Siachen
17 May 2005
The Indian Express
C. Raja Mohan
New Delhi: When the Indian and Pakistani defence secretaries meet in Islamabad, they have the political mandate from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pervez Musharraf to find an 'expeditious' solution to the long and pointless military confrontation in the Siachen area in northern Jammu and Kashmir. Not too long after the standoff in Siachen started, India and Pakistan began to negotiate a way out. Looking over the record of negotiations, the defence secretaries will know that a solution, in fact, is at hand. Twice India and Pakistan had come close to an understanding on defusing the conflict - in 1989 and in 1992. Both times, a lack of political consensus in New Delhi and Islamabad prevented an end to the conflict. This time there is a different moment between India and Pakistan that the two defence secretaries must seize. In contention are the Saltoro ranges, of which the Siachen glacier is one part. The Saltoro ranges were too remote for either India or Pakistan to extend control over after they started fighting in Jammu and Kashmir immediately after Independence. The Shimla Agreement of 1972 did not extend the mutually acceptable Line of Control in the southern parts of J&K to the northern reaches of the state. The unfinished agenda on delineating the LoC inevitably led to a confrontation in the mid- 1980s that continues to date. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was quick to see the futility of the conflict and ordered negotiations to resolve it. Back channel contacts between Rajiv and Benazir Bhutto produced a positive direction to the negotiators in June 1989. The joint statement issued by the two defence secretaries at the end of their talks in June 1989 defined the way forward: 'There was agreement... to work towards a comprehensive settlement, based on redeployment of forces to reduce chances of a conflict, avoidance of the use of force and determination of future positions on the ground so as to conform with the Shimla Agreement and to ensure durable peace in the Siachen area.' Both the purpose - the need for a settlement - and principles of a framework for demilitarisation and negotiations to define the extension of the LoC could not have been put better. But even before the ink on the understanding was dry, political contradictions in both capitals came to the fore undermining the agreement. In Pakistan, the tension between Benazir and the army undercut the deal while in India impending elections made it difficult for Rajiv Gandhi to proceed further. Besides political problems, the 1989 formula was also hobbled by three sets of technical issues - on where the forces should pull back to, on how to acknowledge the current positions on the ground and on how to prevent either side from a renewed occupation of the Saltoro ranges. In the next round of talks in 1992, the two sides refined the basic ideas. However, it is widely assumed that Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao backed off amidst fears of a domestic political backlash against the agreement to withdraw from the Siachen area. Pakistan, too, had its reservations. The official Indian account of this draft agreement is found in the non-paper on Siachen that was presented to Islamabad by New Delhi in January 2004. It stated that in 1992 'a broad understanding had been reached on disengagement and redeployment, monitoring, maintenance of peace and implementation schedule'. The non-paper said that a joint commission would take up the extension of the LoC 'without prejudice' to the positions held by either side. It added that the two sides 'shall disengage from authenticated positions they are presently occupying' and that the 'areas vacated will constitute a Zone of Complete Disengagement'. The two sides also agreed that 'they shall not seek to reoccupy the positions vacated by either side' and that in case of a violation by one, the other side will be free to respond. The two sides also 'agreed to evolve monitoring measures' and work out mutually satisfactory 'time schedules' for military disengagement. If the basic framework has been with us for so long and much technical work has already been completed, why are we still locked in a needless military standoff in Saltoro? The Indian army, which has shed so much blood and treasure in Siachen, pours good money after bad rather than risk losing the superior positions it currently holds on the Saltoro. It has been unwilling to risk military withdrawal without an authentication of the ground realities and credible assurances that there will be no Pakistani occupation of positions vacated by it under the agreement. The army has also argued that trusting Pakistan to respect the status quo is problematic after the experience of Kargil in 1999 when Islamabad tried to change the status quo on the ground. While the concerns of the army are real, India and Pakistan now have a new opportunity to rethink the problem in Siachen. In the late 1980s and 1990s, India and Pakistan tried to resolve the Siachen issue amidst a broader confrontation between the two nations over Kashmir and terrorism. Now they are in the middle of a peace process that both Manmohan Singh and Musharraf have called 'irreversible'. A ceasefire along the Saltoro (as well as the international border and LoC) has held since the end of 2003. If ever there was a moment to accept some political risk to defuse the Siachen crisis, it is now. Disengagement from Siachen will at once reinforce the peace process and enhance mutual trust. Risk-taking must necessarily be balanced by prudence. The key to a successful agreement lies in having a credible verification mechanism. While nothing offers a 100 per cent guarantee, adopting technology and best practices from around the world should offer a reasonable reassurance against reoccupation. That leaves just one question to be sorted out in the next round of talks - the gulf between Indian insistence on 'authentication' of current positions and Pakistan's reluctance to 'legitimise' Indian presence on Saltoro. Given the political will expressed by Manmohan and Musharraf, it should not be impossible for diplomats to finesse the difference between 'authentication' and 'legitimisation' of ground realities on the Saltoro.