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Siachen recollections

ACCORDING to a Hindustan Times story of Jan 13, Indian chief of army staff Gen M.M. Naravane, addressing a press conference in New Delhi on the previous day, stated that India was “not averse to the possible demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier, but the precondition for that is to accept AGPL [the 110-kilometre Actual Ground Position Line]. Pakistan has to accept what are their positions and what are ours, and both of us have to sign on the dotted line before any kind of disengagement takes place”. Hindustan Times adds: “Islamabad has so far not agreed to authenticate troop positions on the glacier.” The fact is, the issue of authentication, which was hanging fire for almost 10 years, was addressed between Pakistan and India at the foreign secretaries talks in the Composite Dialogue format in 2006-07, and it is worthy of recounting.

In 2006, based on an unrealised understanding reached in 1992, Pakistan proposed that the schedule for disengagement could be demarcated on maps which should be annexed to an overall agreement for establishing a zone of disengagement covering the glacier and its joint monitoring and management. After a delay of a couple of months, the Indian side responded suggesting that the maps for the schedule should be signed and be an integral part of the proposed agreement. Pakistan agreed. The issue was thus addressed as the positions of Day-1 would have recorded the current AGPL. Even the elements for a possible agreement were discussed.

The Indian side also had concerns about the Pakistan Army taking advantage of the disengagement process. To assuage these concerns, Pakistan expressed readiness to discuss any monitoring arrangement, bilateral or multilateral, acceptable to India. It was also pointed out that any Pakistani attempt to take military advantage across the Saltoro Ridge was practically untenable.

Since under the Composite Dialogue, the matter fell within the purview of the Defence Secretaries Committee, the Pakistan Foreign Office alerted the then defence secretary Lt-Gen Tariq Waseem Ghazi to expect a possible response from the Indian side at the next committee meeting in May 2006. To our disappointment, during the following two successive meetings, the Indian side repeated its familiar position, obliging the Pakistan side to do the same. We raised the matter at the formal round of the Composite Dialogue in 2007 with Shiv Shankar Menon who had replaced the former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran. Shankar Menon responded by simply saying that “On that issue we have to get back to you”. By end 2007, we assumed that perhaps the Indian Army had objections.

Little can be achieved when distrust comes into play.

The story was revealed by Shyam Saran in his book How India Sees the World published in 2017. He writes that by 2006, he had worked out the structure of a possible agreement with the Pakistan Foreign Office and had expected its approval at a high-level Cabinet Committee on Security meeting to be chaired by prime minister Manmohan Singh. To Shyam’s surprise, at the CCS meeting, the then Indian national security adviser M.K. Narayanan “launched into a bitter offensive” to oppose the proposal saying that “Pakistan could not be trusted”, and that there would be “political and public opposition”. Army chief J.J. Singh, who had “happily gone along with the proposal in its earlier iterations”, decided to join Narayanan. Prime minister Manmohan Singh “chose to keep silent”. According to Shyam, “… the opportunity to finally resolve a long-standing issue and a constant source of bitterness in Pakistan was lost”. The details can be read on pages 80 to 83 of Shyam’s book.

The efforts to resolve the Siachen dispute go back to 1989 and 1992, based on prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s idea of establishing a jointly managed zone of disengagement covering the body of the glacier. They stalled for a long time on Indian insistence on authenticating the Line of Actual Control before disengagement. Pakistan’s suggestion in 2006 was meant to address this Indian concern, but little can be achieved when distrust comes into play. Following the 2012 Gayari tragedy, at the instance of the then Pakistan army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani, I had tried to explore the possibility of addressing Siachen with ambassador Satish Lamba, who thought that Siachen could be settled together with Kashmir but not separately. The irony was that on the Pakistan side, the Siachen experience had cast a shadow on the dialogue process, whereas a breakthrough could have helped the backchannel effort on Kashmir.

Siachen demands attention beyond political and military considerations. The presence of a large army, with the use of heated igloos and heavy traffic for supplies, alone is damaging the glacier not to mention the simmering conflict on its surface. As I had once remarked to my Indian counterpart, even if we knew there was gold underneath the surface, the ice of the glacier was far more precious. Its disappearance will mean the end of the fragile but vital, life-giving ecosystem of the Karakoram and the Himalayan glaciers.

During 2005-06, the discussion on Siachen was carried out in the Composite Dialogue format, while a simultaneous effort was made through the backchannel in respect of Kashmir in what is commonly known as the Four-Point Formula. Both efforts were pursued in good faith with an out-of-the-box appro­ach, a bit removed from the maximalist positions of the two sides. Bearing in mind the need to safeguard the vital interests of either side, in essence the approach to Siachen focused on preserving the environment and on Kashmir, responding to the political aspirations of the Kashmiris and making their life less difficult. Both efforts fell prey to the turn of circumstances and the tyranny of the dictum, ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’, and are now reduced to minor footnotes in the history of the troubled relations between the two South Asian neighbours.

The Aug 5, 2019, measures by the government of Prime Minister Modi have closed the door for discussion on Kashmir and attempted to impose the straitjacket of its terms on diplomacy with Pakistan. Unless the two neighbours choose flexibility and pragmatism to address their long-standing disputes through positive and innovative approaches, their mutual relations will continue to lurch in a fog of distrust, suspicion and tension, with incalculable risks.

Riaz Mohammad Khan, "Siachen recollections," Dawn. 2022-01-18.
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