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The folly that is Siachen

Published May 02, 2012 12:20am

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.