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The folly that is Siachen


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THE deadly avalanche that buried 139 Pakistani soldiers has once again brought Siachen into focus as not only one of the issues that bedevils relations between India and Pakistan.

It is also a particularly egregious example of a poverty-stricken region wasting precious lives and resources for prolonging a political and military stalemate that serves no purpose other than to make improvement in India-Pakistan relations more difficult.

It is a tragic reminder that what sensible thinkers in either country would see as a monumental folly in relations with another country is seen as acceptable in India-Pakistan ties, because conjuring up unwarranted bogies can drown rationality.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had during his visit to Indian troops in the icy reaches of Siachen suggested making the latter into a ‘peace mountain’. (Ironically, in the Balti language, Siachen means a ‘place of roses’ — ‘sia’ is rose and ‘chen’ I assume means place.) The time has come, he said, to convert it from “a point of conflict to a symbol of peace”.

In 2008, during his visit to Pakistan, the then Indian foreign secretary and now national security adviser, not only reiterated this but went on to suggest joint environmental mountain survey expeditions as an important measure that could reduce mistrust between the two nations and implicitly help in resolving other issues.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said in Siachen that “there could be no redrawing of boundaries” but implicit in this was also a reiteration of his view that this red line in Siachen as in other parts of Kashmir could be finessed by making “borders irrelevant”.

As is known, this effort at resolving the issue and creating a positive ambience for further negotiations on more intractable issues foundered on the Indian army’s insistence that if the political leadership asked it to withdraw from the positions it was holding, the leadership should not expect the army to retake these positions if the Pakistanis ‘treacherously’ moved in and occupied them.

I remember having long discussions separately with two retired foreign secretaries of India during a visit to Delhi about the possibility of a bilateral agreement on Siachen being reneged upon or breached by Pakistan.

I suggested that in making policy or in deciding upon the merits of an agreement one could try and cater for a one-in-a-hundred possibility but that given the relative conventional strength of the two countries did the possibility of a breach appear to be more than a one in a million?

One agreed immediately that even while the possibility of a breach may not be seen to be as remote as I made it out to be the benefits of disengaging far outweighed what was admittedly a minimal risk. The other was more circumspect, pointing out that for the Indian security forces the risk loomed larger after Kargil even though foreign policy experts might be inclined to agree with my argument.

What is forgotten or not sufficiently emphasised on either side is the past history of India-Pakistan negotiation. From October 1993 to 1997 Pakistan refused to talk to India in a formal setting. It demanded that such talks would be held only after India proved its willingness to resolve the Kashmir issue and as a first step took measures to alleviate the hardships imposed on the Kashmiris by Indian security forces and the draconian laws under which they operated.

It was only at the Maldives Saarc summit that Pakistan agreed to a resumption of talks in what was termed as the ‘composite dialogue’ to discuss a range of issues. In so doing, Pakistan accepted the Indian premise that Kashmir was an intractable issue the solution to which was difficult when relations between the two countries remained tense. A resolution of more tractable issues would create an ambience in which a solution of Kashmir would become possible.

I was not then associated with policymaking but Indian officials with whom a degree of informal contact had been maintained even during the official ‘freeze’ on talks identified two items on which progress could be made immediately — Siachen and Sir Creek. This even while progress on other items then identified as primarily of interest to India — expanding people-to-people exchanges, enlarging trade and economic ties — would be slower.

It was recognised that realistically we could not expect much progress on Kashmir and on security issues where the positions of the two sides were far apart. But there was hope that the discussions on these subjects would also proceed and perhaps some innovative ideas for a solution would emerge in the medium if not the short term. Siachen and Sir Creek were then low-hanging fruit that could be plucked immediately.

What has happened subsequently suggests that using Kargil and terrorism and the heightened distrust this has engendered as the reason, India has in effect reneged on the understanding on which the dialogue resumption was based. It is ironic that in pursuing relentlessly an expansion of trade and economic ties — admittedly of benefit to both sides — India has not been inhibited by distrust. In asking for transit facilities similarly, India does not seem to be distrustful. Equally importantly today, Indian participants in Track II dialogues present cogent arguments for India and Pakistan to work together to ensure peace and stability in Afghanistan because on that depends peace and stability in the region as a whole.

One can only find it strange that this manifest contradiction is not recognised or corrected in policymaking circles in New Delhi. It is fitting that on the occasion of Youm-i-Shuhada Gen Kayani paid tribute in his remarks to the soldiers who lost their live in the avalanche.

Writing on this subject in 2002 I had said: “Even in times of tension and distrust some degree of rationality must come into play. We must realise that cutting off the Indian nose to spite the Pakistani face or vice versa is really cutting off the nose of the South Asian region as a whole.

“As in other regions but more so in South Asia, ‘beggaring thy neighbour’ is ‘beggaring thyself’. In South Asia, one does not have to invoke the ‘interdependence flowing from globalisation’ for substantiation; our overwhelming and common dependence on water from the Himalayas is enough.”

The loss of life at Gayari and what we have learnt about the quickening pace of glacial melt because of our military presence makes disengagement even more urgent.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (34) Closed

alirinchen May 03, 2012 03:28am
Invest in the people....the wall of Kargil should be gone. The people of the area should had the right to visit the relatives,ancestors grave,villages and religious sites.
TheseusIam May 04, 2012 03:08am
You don't have to be the richest country in the world to handle mischief from Pakistan. Indian has more than enough money to handle Pakistan even with all it's hungry people. By the way, Pakistanis don't have to die of hunger. They are dying because of bombs and bullets and those bombs are not India . Do a reality check on yourself.
Sumod May 02, 2012 04:54pm
The writer does not sound logical and quite does not undertand India. The truth is India knows on what to trust with Pakistan. That is objective thinking which this writer lacks.
moonjely sonny May 03, 2012 02:57pm
Mr Nazmmuddin, if this was happened with Indian army , what would have been your comment. as per your comment, it only indicates Indian leaders view? what about Pakistani leaders view? you can not mention their view, because the PAK ARMY is ultimate.
alirinchen May 03, 2012 03:45am
Invest in the people....the wall of Kargil should be gone.
p kumar May 02, 2012 06:26pm
sorry to say this badar bhai but your interpretation of the strategic location of the 'glaciar' is incorrect.Pakistan's indus river starts from Mansarovar lake in tibet(as do sutlej and brahmaputra).I do not think siachen gives rise to any river flowing through pakistan.
Muhammad Ahmed Mufti May 02, 2012 09:20pm
Why are we begging India for Siachin solution? We the Pakistanis should stand up and face the challenges. It’s very disturbing to see our leaders begging the Indians for dialog, cricket, siachin and yet the other side has yet to show any sign of flexibility. I believe the cowardice shown by our corrupt leaders is not reflective of our national psyche. We should be open to dialog, cricket and other possibilities but yet have resolve to fight for a 1000 years as our stand is based on principal and justice.
R. Albuquerque May 02, 2012 08:29am
As the author pointed out - A resolution of more tractable issues would create an ambience in which a solution of Kashmir would become possible. Hence it would indeed be the only sensible thing to do. Be friends and build up trust and all concessions and settlement is possible.
Rahmat May 03, 2012 01:13am
You must be resting under a huge rock. Have you taken a look around our beloved Pakistan. It is coming apart at seams.
Another Indian May 02, 2012 12:27pm
As did 1948. :( Its up to Pakistan to prove its sincerity
krish May 03, 2012 02:26am
While I agree with the writer that spending millions of dollars by both countries in keeping their armies in this desolate place called Siachen is a huge drain on their economies, the writer does not mention the causes of India's mistrust of Pakistan - their misadventure in Kargil, the attack on the Indian parliament and the Mumbai attacks- all originated by (state or non-state?)/ in Pakistan. One should not forget that the Siachen conflict was first started by Pakistan when they occupied some parts in that area and India had to respond by sending troops and re-occupy those areas.
Aditya May 02, 2012 01:56pm
Yes , but if we remain free and if God is always just then it implies that we have not denied freedom to anyone.
rkapoor May 02, 2012 07:44am
Each action has a reaction. It is the ghosts of Kargil Mr Shaikh, which need to be exorcised by Pakistan and Pakistan alone. Your analysis itself brings out the reasons for break in Indian stand. If you want you can continue the past legacy or accept the change.
Pathanoo May 02, 2012 04:42pm
Excellent article, Mr. Shaikh. Blame game has gone on for too long. Time to be realist, take a step forward for recounciliation. Develop business ties. Remember when goods croos the borders, the armies do NOT.
Rakesh May 02, 2012 04:09pm
Two major wars and numerous other Pak originated attacks have completely obliterated the trust. Trade is the only way to build some equity in mutual relations.
@god4atheist May 02, 2012 03:20pm
We may not be richest but keeping a military at Siachen is not hurt us as much as it does Pakistan. Pakistan's folly has been always to compete with India which it does at the cost of it's citizens. India gives no importance to Pakistan as far as military might is concerned. It has to defend it's border against Chinese aggression. It is still inferior against Chinese military
Shoaib May 02, 2012 06:00am
I do not understand the logic of Pakistan being stubborn about keeping its army on Siachen Glacier, When Pakistan is going through so much internal turmoil. Pakistan should negotiate with India and if that means settling for less so be it, so we can spend this money on our people who are suffering from poverty and diseases. A healthy ego is good to have but an ego that defies common sence is out right foolish.
AAK May 02, 2012 07:11am
What that might be ??
Suren May 02, 2012 10:54pm
Read "Descent into chaos" by Ahmed Rashad. An eminent Pakistani journalist has provided enough evidence of Pakistan's treachery .
Srini (Chennai) May 02, 2012 10:51pm
All this opinion pieces are useless! Pakistan refuses to authenticate and sign the Actual Ground Position line(AGPL). AGPL just confirms what part of the glacier both the armies are holding on to. If Pakistan does this, both the armies can get down form Siachen. That is all it takes. Why won't Pakistan army do it?
Arpit May 02, 2012 07:34pm
your people may not be dying of Hunger but they are not driving BMW's either. Reality check... compare the per capita income of an Indian and a pakistani in 1990 ans 2010.
gp65 May 02, 2012 04:10am
"I suggested that in making policy or in deciding upon the merits of an agreement one could try and cater for a one-in-a-hundred possibility but that given the relative conventional strength of the two countries did the possibility of a breach appear to be more than a one in a million?" If logic guided Pakistani army, I would agree with you. But the fact is 1965 DID happen , as did KArgill.
rkapoor May 02, 2012 08:03am
Each action has a reaction.It is the ghosts of the past which have to be exorcised by we SouthAsians.Let us start a Reconciliation Moment in South Asia like South Africa has done.Amen
zafar May 02, 2012 11:18am
Yeah as if India is the richest country in the world. Reality check: Pakistan is going through its worst economic times, but still our people are not dying of hunger. In the words of Abraham Lincoln: "Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God, cannot long retain it."
P. Joseph Raju May 02, 2012 02:48pm
It is time for India and Pakistan to burry the past misgivings and mistrusts and strive for a new relationship that will benefit both people, bring stability to the border, and solution to the eternal war. The current removal of trade barriers must pave the way for a better relationship and wider partnership which will further reduce the mistrust. Pakistan cannot change India and India cannot change Pakistan. Each country should change its own policies for the benefit of both. If both countries could become good neighbors, in my view, that alone will solve the Kashmir problems. Good neighbors never need fences.
Pidtis May 02, 2012 03:32pm
And is Pakistan this beacon of freedom? Ruled by the military for most of the past half century and with an insurgency in the tribal lands and Balochistan that people in Pakistan choose to forget conveniently. Our countries cannot afford this war but if it is a question of who cannot afford it more I think the answer is clear. Btw: People dye of hunger in both countries. There was just an article here about how the flood affected people are still suffering.
UNitedIndia May 02, 2012 02:48pm
I think India has to be very cautious in any sort of deals with Pakistan. The authorities in Pakistan are at least two faced.The civilian government in Pakistan who is so dependent upon army that any deal made with them makes no sense until Pak army put their stamp on it.On the other hand, Pak army can not be trusted. Their whole survival revolves around India.Its their bread and butter from the kickbacks and the kind of position they hold in Pak society.Until and unless there is a strong democratic government in Pakistan who can make thier own decisions, peace between India and Pakistan is not possible.
Badar May 02, 2012 04:03am
Great article. Bur we must also realize the strategic location of this glaciar. Our rivers start their jounrey from there and we cannot afford to give their control to India. No way. We had to move troops there because India took the lead in moving her troops for no good reasons. We cannot disengage if India also does not agree for the same and agree to the pre-1984 border limits. Indian incusrion has created a mess in terms of Pakistan and China border as well. So far, India has refused to accept her mistakes and does not agree to disengage. So its a zero sum game for both countries. Overall, Glacier is the ultimate loser due to miliatry movements on both sides
pardesiuno May 02, 2012 01:16pm
DAWN selectively censors comments - SHAMEFUL!!!!
Dinesh May 02, 2012 02:34pm
"Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God, cannot long retain it." How is it relevant to the current situation? Who is denying whose freedom in Siachen? We are just defending our borders so that another Kargill doesn't happen.
sameer May 02, 2012 03:46am
If pakistan cannot bear the cost in men and material of maintaining the army there .......its upto them to have their own course.....why plead india ? india will decide the issue on its own interest sameer
maqbool bhatti May 02, 2012 10:24am
If Pakistan and India cannot resolve Siachen issue, it is hard to imagine how will they resolve complicated issues. Fix the date.Hoist both flags on the area.Save lives of youthful soldiers. Funds so saved be utilized for helping those who already served and suffered in Siachen.
Dev May 04, 2012 12:14pm
I appreciate the writer's sentiments, and in fact share it. But once the history of a land has been written in blood, it is unrealistic to expect a quick resolution. There is no point really in repeating the claims of either country here, because we already know that they are contrary, and orthogonal. That's where the whole dispute comes from. This will be resolved too, but the situation overall has to improve. Trade is a good start. Maybe we could collaborate in education as well. Education sector in India is now completely in the stranglehold of stifling regulation. If Pakistan were to set up universities without restriction, and provide necessary protection, there could be a great number of Indian students willing to study there. Afterall, who could resist flying back home each weekend :-) May the almighty bless peace upon the two beleagured and estranged neighbours.
Mohammed S Khan May 09, 2012 10:11pm
If you read the book India and Indian Ocean written by Panikar then you can easily understand the Indian leadership's apprach towards her neighbours. The concept of MAHA may be great but has little or no meanings in the present day world. The policy of territorial respect definitely brings peace and prosparity. And reduces the degree of abject poverty.. .