Last fortnight when Gen Kayani, the Pakistan Army chief made the statement that Pakistan was ready for demilitarisation of Siachen, peaceniks from both sides enthusiastically took up the refrain, looking at it as an opportunity to settle a major bone of contention, reduce tension and improve relations between the two countries. Shortly after, Gen Kayani again talked about resolving the Siachen issue and blamed India for hardening its stand.
It is worth analysing whether the euphoria of glacial hopes generated by the General’s statement can lead to long term peace between the two nations.
While there may be a vast silent majority on both sides hoping for better Indo-Pak ties, unless words are matched with deeds, it is unlikely to happen in the near future. A major reason for this is the huge trust deficit existing between the two countries. Since becoming independent from British rule in August 1947, there has been a history of breach of trust and backtracking by Pakistan at crucial junctures whenever the hopes for better relations arose. Those instances are well known and it is not the intention here to recount them, but to underline the importance of building up trust if we are looking for lasting peace between the two neighbours.
Perhaps Gen Kayani’s initial statement, which came during his visit to Pakistani held portion of Siachen in the aftermath of loss of life of about 140 Pak soldiers due to avalanches, was meant as balm for the anguished families of those killed. But his words also provided a certain amount of political mileage to him, as he was hailed as a visionary statesman.
Additionally, a perception that it was India which was not amenable to a peaceful resolution of the issue was sought to be created. His subsequent statement only reconfirms this.
Post-1971 War between India and Pakistan, the military commanders from both the sides sat down on the negotiating table to delineate and authenticate the line of control (LC) as existing between the two sides in J&K.
It was the line which was physically held by troops of both the sides after incorporating the decisions of the 1972 peace accord signed at Shimla between Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It started from where the international border ended at the junction of Pakistan on one side and J&K and Punjab on the Indian side, and carried on up to a point referred to as NJ 9842. Beyond this point, the two sides left the boundary unmarked and chose to describe it as, “and thence Northwards, towards the glaciers.”
This was interpreted by Pakistan to mean connecting NJ9842 with Karakoram Pass which actually lies to the Northeast. India, on the other hand, rightly interpreted it as moving North towards Indira Col, thus incorporating Saltoro Ridge as part Indian territory.
When in the end-1970s and beginning-1980s, Pakistan started giving permission to international mountaineering expeditions to visit Saltoro ridge area and also carry out some of its own mountaineering activities, the possibility that it may claim this area by its de-facto presence got highlighted, especially after an Indian expedition led by Everester Col Narinder Kumar climbed Saltoro ridge.
Pakistani manoeuvers through proxy civilian-military expeditions were considered at the highest level in New Delhi, and in response, in 1984, the Western Command under Lt Gen P N Hoon rushed troops to occupy dominating positions on the Saltoro ridge. The Pak army too scrambled its troops but they proved no match and were beaten back from most places with heavy casualties.
The Indian Army also suffered casualties but the Indian Army ended up holding almost all the important positions on Saltoro ridge, thanks to some superbly heroic actions by the Indian troops.
The issue of Siachen has been a subject matter of discussion between the two countries for the past 20 years. Unlike in the rest of Jammu and Kashmir, where the line of control (LC) between the two sides is fully demarcated and authenticated by both and is not violable easily, Pakistan does not seem to be keen on applying the same principle to the currently held positions by both on the glacier.
Instead, it has been talking of both the sides simultaneously vacating and declaring Siachen as a ‘zone of peace’.
There could be two possible reasons for this reluctance to delineate current positions. One, the Pakistan military which has a considerable say in the country’s affairs, has never apprised its countrymen of the dominant positions held by India on Siachen since 1984, and consequently the inferior Pakistani positions.
Nor, it appears, is the Pak public aware of the losses Pak army suffered in its attempts to recapture some of them. Thus at this stage if it were to authenticate the current positions physically held by both sides, it would be seen in bad light by its own countrymen.
The second reason could be a design to quickly reoccupy vacated positions, including those on the Indian side which otherwise they are unable to capture, and thus present a fait accompli.
Given the opportunity, the terrain is significantly favourable for such an action in a quicker timeframe by the Pakistani forces.
In the light of reports appearing in a section of the media of Pakistan having leased out Gilgit – Baltistan region to China for 50 years, any vacation of troops from Siachen is likely to make the position of Indian troops deployed further East vulnerable.
Secondly, our claim up to Karakoram Pass, which we stopped patrolling long back, would stand weakened. Thirdly and most importantly, vacation of Siachen enhances the possibility of collusive action by Pakistan and China. It has to be kept in mind that Pakistan did not hesitate to share a part of Kashmir under its occupation to China as a gift for anti-India support.
There is no denying the fact that the terrain on the glacier is extremely inhospitable and coupled with the inclement weather for most part of the year, has been responsible for more deaths on either side than due to the actual combat.
The logistic effort and expense of maintaining troops at the glacier is huge. It is also a fact, well known and open, that Indian troops shed a lot of blood in recapturing positions occupied by Pakistan army in the past.
If vacated without due authentication, and occupied by the Pakistani army by deceit, India will have to pay a very heavy price to recapture them.
Pakistan had illegally ceded Shaksgam Valley (approximately 5180 sq km) to China.
There have been a number of recent reports of large scale influx of Chinese workers, labour and soldiers in Northern Areas of POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir). Such activity is worrisome from the Indian perspective, particularly when J&K is referred to as a disputed area by the Chinese.
Issues of stapled visas and denial of visa to Lt Gen B S Jaswal, GOC-in-C Northern Command, for visiting China are still fresh, leaving Indians with a sense of unease. By its location, Siachen has a strategic role to play in being an outpost for the security of the country.
Siachen’s dominating position is important from a military perspective.
All said and done, it all boils down to trust deficit.
If Kargil could happen in 1999 even while the Indian Prime Minister, Mr AB Vajpayee, was on a bus journey for peace to Lahore, “how do we develop trust?” And without verifying the actual ground position of each side?
How does India trust a state which has been sponsoring terrorism and indulging in proxy war in J&K for the last 23 years?
How does India accept the events of 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai and the fact that its perpetrators are still at large within Pakistan?
Breach of trust in the past has made India wary of vacating tactically dominant and important positions without proper demarcation and authentication.
Nonetheless, the idea of declaring Siachen as a ‘zone of peace’ is a laudable one. There is a large constituency for peace between the two nations in both the countries.
The fact also is that both the countries are nuclear powers and continued tension between them makes the subcontinent one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Both need peace and stability to move on the path of economic growth and development. But India needs to be sure if the Pakistan army, which has generally maintained a hawkish stance towards India, really has had a change of heart.
When asked if Pakistan would carry out a unilateral withdrawal to promote its concept of a ‘zone of peace’ at Siachen, Gen Kayani’s answer was an emphatic no. Possibly, they also fear that India might occupy vacated areas. This once again is a case of lack of trust.
Two conditions must be met before any withdrawal of troops from Siachen is envisaged.
Firstly, the existing ground positions held by each side should be duly delineated and authenticated, like in case of the rest of J&K. That would help in ruling out the possibility of future mischief or mischiefs by either side.
Secondly, any solution on Siachen should be linked to an overall solution to the rest of J&K as Siachen forms part of J&K. Resolution of Siachen should not be seen in isolation but as part of the overall picture.
Piecemeal solutions will leave the larger issues unresolved, which is not in the long term interest of both India and Pakistan.