Siachen Conflict and the Indo-Pak Rapprochement

12 Jul, 2005    ·   1786

Gurmeet Kanwal examines the prospect of resolving the Saichen conflict in the context of the current Indo-Pak dialogue

Despite all the recent parleys, Indo-Pak relations are still stuck in the quagmire of deeply ingrained mistrust and a politico-diplomatic mindset. Though much was expected after General Musharraf's visit to New Delhi in March 2005, the defence secretary-level talks in May 2005 failed to resolve the deadlock over the demilitarization of Siachen Glacier, and the dispute over the maritime boundary through Sir Creek.

It is now generally accepted that the region has no strategic significance. In spite of the ceasefire since November 2003, both armies suffer medical casualties like pulmonary oedema, frostbite and chill blains due to the prolonged exposure to sub-zero temperatures and icy winds at 18,000 to 20,000 feet and intense physical activity in the oxygen-deficient super high-altitude atmosphere. In the absence of surface links, maintaining a brigade-group sized force through air drops and helicopters costs both sides around $200 to $300 million annually, funds that could be put to better use.

During the ninth round of talks in May, the two defence secretaries once again got stuck on the same old contentious issues. India insists that the actual ground position line (AGPL) physically held by the two armies should be demarcated on maps before disengagement can take place; Pakistan's argues that Indian forces must first withdraw to pre-1984 positions. In India, the Army's view is that it will pull back if the government orders it to, but it has made it clear to the government that it should not be asked to take back the Saltoro if the Pakistan Army occupies it surreptitiously in violation of the agreement to disengage.

After the Kargil conflict, few in the government trust the military in Pakistan. The latter is unwilling to accept delineation of the AGPL as it has been telling its own people that they are in a dominating position at Siachen. If the AGPL is delineated and its course becomes public, the Army, already stymied by its humiliation in Kargil, will lose face further.

Several options are available to resolve the deadlock. The two countries could delineate the AGPL, but keep the maps secret so that the Pakistan Army is spared further embarrassment. Alternatively, for enhanced confidence levels, the maps could be jointly signed in the presence of a special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, and a sealed copy could be kept in UN custody. There is a view in India that it should unilaterally release a map of its positions on the AGPL after permitting a neutral forum like the National Geographic to send an expedition to the area to verify the positions and then be willing to disengage and withdraw its forces to mutually agreed positions. However, such a unilateral approach will exacerbate the problem rather than help to resolve it. Some academics even recommend unilateral Indian withdrawal. However, they underestimate the power of the opposition parties to cash in politically if the government were to adopt such a course of action. Unless the ruling coalition and the opposition parties unite to build public opinion about the futility of fighting at Siachen, any pragmatic step forward will be criticized vehemently by the opposition, making it virtually impossible for the government to move forward.

The other issue is the lack of trust. A minority section view in India is that the country is now a major regional power that can take greater risks. If Pakistan violates a mutually agreed disengagement from Siachen and occupies vacated areas at any time in the future, India will have many options - politico-diplomatic, economic and military, to deal with such a contingency and, hence, should not be too apprehensive of Pakistani deceit. India will also have the weight of international opinion on its side. Even the US is unlikely to countenance surreptitious Pakistani occupation of Indian positions at the Saltoro Ridge after these have been vacated by India as that would further destabilise the delicate region.

Demilitarization of the Siachen battle zone will be a confidence building measure of enormous significance. Both the nations must not lose the opportunity provided by the ongoing rapprochement to evolve a politically acceptable and practically feasible process for disengagement, phased withdrawal of forces and cooperative monitoring of the agreement while looking for and negotiating a final solution. A possible solution could be to declare the Siachen Glacier region a jointly-controlled peace park for the scientific study of glacial belts and the effects of super high altitude on flora and fauna - a "mountain of peace" as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it during a visit on June 12, 2005. Science centres could be set up at the present Base Camp on the Indian side and at Dansam on the Pakistani side, with a forward logistics base for scientific exploration and mountaineering expeditions at the present Kumar Forward Base. Both the nations could control all such activities jointly and establish joint search and rescue teams. Demilitarization of Siachen is an idea whose time has come.