Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

Siachen: solutions for the taking

20 June 2005
The Hindu

OpinionNews Analysis

Siachen: solutions for the taking

Siddharth Varadarajan

The only guarantee that the glacier will remain demilitarised once India and Pakistan withdraw is a political one. And only Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Musharraf have the capacity to effect it.

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 soldiers deployed at a height of more than 18,000 feet may feel, the Army as an institution, in fact, sees no pressing need to disengage from the glacier. More than 770 soldiers are believed to have lost their lives atop the glacier since Operation Meghdoot, the April 1984 operation that led to India acquiring a commanding position atop the three principal passes along the Saltoro range. Today, however, a ceasefire is in place along the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL), the Army’s 102 Infantry Brigade has a much better knowledge of the terrain, including crevasses, and the equipment available to kit soldiers, though still inadequate, is better than before. Staying on costs the exchequer anywhere from Rs.3 crore to Rs.5 crore a day. But from the calculus of human cost, the Army feels it can continue to sustain its Siachen presence more or less indefinitely.

Army’s objections

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.

© Copyright 2000 – 2005 The Hindu

2 comments on “Siachen: solutions for the taking

  1. Anonymous
    November 29, 2006

    1. The whole world agrees that Pakistan has created and nurtured the Taliban and is trying to keep it alive, that it does not want a

    government in Afghanistan that might be hostile to it’s own interests.

    2. It’s also emerged that Pakistan’s ISI tried it’s level best to keep up the Monarch’s rule in Nepal and the Maoist insurgency to keep out a

    democratic government.

    3. Pakistan is also helping the Sri Lankan government to fight the LTTE.

    4. It supports insurgencies in the North East of India.

    5. It has created front organisations such as the Let, the JeM to carry out terrorist attacks in India.

    6. It is desperate to get some concessions from India ahead of the sham elections next year.

    7. It is the present regime that tried to occupy Indian territory in 99, did not even inform it’s own civilian leadership, later ousted the

    same and for years, even denied any involvement.

    8. They defiantly refuse to hand over even criminals with open-and-shut records such as Dawood Ibrahim. The reason ? Because he was groomed

    by the ISI and provided assistance, he knows their secrets, there’s no way they’ll ever hand him over.

    9. Every time a terrorist attack takes place in India, the links can be traced to Pakistan. The leadership in Delhi might be uncomfortable

    that the Mumbai Police Commissioner chose not to be political but called a spade a spade when he had clinching evidence linking the blast

    perpetrators to a location Bahawalpur in Pakistan.

    10. Most importantly, it is the Kashmir issue that keeps military regimes in Pakistan in business. It is their way of convincing their own

    people of the enemy at the door and why the military needs to stay in power.

    11. The Pakistan government has realised that Manmohan Singh is the man to dupe, fool, con, to use a few ‘cheap’ words. He honestly believes

    that there can be peace in Kashmir if we only make some concessions to Pakistan. We need to remember that he is but a celeberated

    economist, a finance specialist, not a politician or a statesman. He cannot see through Pakistan’s designs. His desire for peace is

    shared by all Indians, but withdrawing troops from Siachen cannot bring this about, all it can do is take away years of hardships, pain,

    suffering and even lives put in by our jawans on those peaks. A ceasefire on Siachen should be sufficient for both the armies to not lose

    unnecessary lives. It does not take a brilliant man to predict that no sooner does India vacate the peaks and passes in Siachen will

    Pakistan make it’s move, probably covertly a la Kargil and the whole world will oppose a war just to get it back.

    Manmohan Singh should sincerely avoid making promises like these to Pakistan, the effects of which would have to be born by future

    generations. Hope he does not make the same mistakes that Nehru made in 62 vis-a-vis his misplaced trust in China.

  2. Farrukh Khan Pitafi
    June 22, 2005

    You write really well. Although I have thus not read all of your write-ups on this page I have read the piece on Godhra and Guantanamo. I have added your site to my favourite list and will continue checking. By the way if you write on Bjorn Lomborg please keep in mind his book Skeptical Environmentalist in mind. If a man can sell his pen once to the corporate interests he can do it repeatedly.

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on June 20, 2005 by in Indian Foreign Policy, Kashmir, Pakistan.



%d bloggers like this: