On Siachen, Indian Army as drawn a line with its political leadership.-File Photo
On Siachen, Indian Army as drawn a line with its political leadership.-File Photo

KARACHI: The Indian army, and not just the civilian government, has played a role in the ongoing deadlock with Pakistan over the Siachen dispute, according to American and Indian assessments contained in confidential US diplomatic cables.

“On Siachen, Joint Secretary (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran) T. C. A. Raghavan” — who has also served as the Indian Deputy High Commissioner in Pakistan — “reported that the Indian army has drawn a line with its political leadership. It has told the government of India that withdrawal was tantamount to ceding the area to Pakistan due to the difficulty of retaking it should Pakistan occupy it,” wrote the New Delhi embassy in September 2008.

While talks held on Siachen this week between the two countries’ defence secretaries may have been inconclusive for a variety of reasons, cables reveal that the Indian army has historically had a role to play, calling into question commonly held perceptions that India's foreign policy lies firmly in the hands of its civilian government.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is described as having to fight intense domestic pressure, and not just from political hardliners. “Were any deal to crystallise, PM Singh would need buy-in from the army and the BJP to avoid handing himself a political firestorm,” noted a 2006 cable in anticipation of talks on Siachen scheduled for May that year.

In a section titled “First Obstacle: Managing the Military”, the cable described how “Army Chief J. J. Singh appears on the front page of the Indian Express seemingly fortnightly to tell readers the army cannot support a withdrawal from Siachen”.

Although the report acknowledged that “Given India’s high degree of civilian control over the armed forces, it is improbable that Gen Singh could repeatedly make such statements without Ministry of Defence civilians giving at least tacit approval”, it concluded that “Whether or not this is the case, a Siachen deal is improbable while his — and the army’s — opposition continues to circulate publicly. …

“The army says the Siachen presence costs 3,000 crore rupees per year ($670m), which is a small sum when compared to the entire Indian defence budget.”

The cable also noted that Gen Singh’s position on the issue “is reflected in the Foreign Ministry as well”: India would not make a deal on demilitarisation without Pakistan signing a map laying out Indian and Pakistani troop positions before withdrawal. The primary purpose of this would be to justify action if Pakistan reneged on the withdrawal agreement.

Any deal, the cable implied, could only come after a go-ahead from the army: “The most telling signpost indicating the GOI is preparing the country for [a deal] would be Gen Singh publicly adopting a neutral (or supportive) position on a Siachen deal to signal in advance that the army is on board, and that the GOI no longer needs to point to army concerns to explain why a deal is not possible.”

This pressure is seen as holding back Prime Minister Singh, who is described as being in favour of a deal — former National Security Adviser M. K. Narayan tells American officials in May 2005 that “the PM had instructed all his subordinates that ‘we need to accept Musharraf’s bona fides, even on Siachen’ … With this guidance in mind, the Ministry of Defence has been instructed ‘to take as flexible a position as possible’”.

A comment written in November 2006 sums up the American view of the matter. “India has repeatedly come ‘very close’ to an agreement on the Siachen issue in 1989, and again (less so) in 1993.

“Each time the prime minister of the day was forced to back out by India’s defence establishment, the Congress Party hardline, and opposition leaders. The Indian army is resistant to giving up this territory under any condition for a variety of reasons — strategic advantage over China, internal army corruption, distrust of Pakistan, and a desire to keep hold of advantageous territory that thousands of Indian soldiers have died protecting.”

Noting that then Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri had recently claimed he expected an agreement on Siachen, the New Delhi embassy added that his statements “go against longstanding conventional wisdom in India that an agreement on Siachen is unlikely anytime soon because the Indian army and the hardline in the Congress Party would not be able to trust Pakistan enough to withdraw, regardless of how much Pakistan is willing to concede”.

America’s own opinion of Siachen is that “this remote region lacks military strategic relevance”. Despite this, cables over the years dating as far back as 2004 describe the issue as an “intractable” one unlikely to be resolved.

According to at least one Pakistani government official, Prime Minister Singh had admitted to this pressure in talks with Gen Musharraf.

In an October 2006 meeting at the Islamabad embassy, then MFA Director General (India) Jalil Jilani “said that he had absolutely no hope of a Siachen solution in the near term, even though Islamabad and New Delhi have already sketched the outlines of a deal.

“Jilani pointed to strong opposition to a Siachen resolution amongst the Indian military and defence establishment as the barrier to a resolution, a hurdle that PM Manmohan Singh had raised in his Havana meeting with President Musharraf in mid-September. Singh had told Musharraf that his military advisers are apprehensive that Pakistan would re-occupy the heights — including Indian posts — were the sides to withdraw from their current lines.”

Cables referenced: WikiLeaks # 168776, 86738, 64523, 83679, 28301, 32755

All cables are available on Dawn.Com