Siachen: glacial speed
THE Siachen dispute has exacted a toll. A study by Dr Ghulam Rasul of the Pakistan Meteorological Department entitled Climate Data and Modelling Analysis of the Indus Ecoregion warns that the Siachen glacier has been reduced by 5.9 kilometres in longitudinal extent between 1989 and 2009.
A ‘Siachen proposal’ was formulated some months ago at Lahore by a group of retired military officers and diplomats of Pakistan and India, on the basis of consensus as part of a project on conventional confidence-building organised jointly by the University of Ottawa and the South Asia Centre of the Atlantic Council.
It envisages demilitarisation of the region by redeployment of the troops to agreed positions after recording the present ground positions. Two previous accords collapsed.
The import and significance of the proposal, very briefly set out above, can be appreciated only in the context of the diplomatic background since the dispute erupted following India’s occupation of the Siachen glacier on April 13, 1984.
Agreement was reached in Islamabad on June 17, 1989 “to work towards a comprehensive settlement, based on redeployment of forces … and the determination of future positions on the ground so as to conform with the Simla Agreement …The army authorities of both sides will determine these positions”. India’s army chiefs insisted that existing positions be identified. Pakistan feared that this would signify its acceptance of the status quo.
Pakistan’s army chief, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was perfectly right when he said last April: “You know that they were close to a solution but then nothing came out of it. We want this issue to be resolved and it should happen. It is a tough mission for us and them, which has its costs.”
In the talks in New Delhi on Nov 2-4, 1992 each side had begun with an offer which was a non-starter. As I wrote earlier in another publication: “Pakistan proposed an upturned demilitarised triangle — marked by Indira Col in the northwest; point NJ9842, where the Line of Control (LoC) ends in the south, and the Karakoram Pass in the northeast. A joint commission would delineate the LoC beyond NJ9842 after the troops withdrawal. India agreed to the delineation of the LoC beyond NJ 9842.”
However, India wanted a definition of existing positions for both Pakistan and India, and where there would be deployment. The vacated area would be “a zone of disengagement” within the boundaries of “existing positions”.
But the Pakistani offer was amended: “The armed forces of the two sides shall vacate areas and redeploy as indicated in the annexure. The positions vacated would not for either side constitute basis for a legal claim or justify a political or moral right to the area indicated”.
Pakistan’s amended proposal took in India’s concerns. The deal was struck between India’s Defence Secretary N. N. Vohra and his Pakistani counterpart. In the technical talks that followed it was agreed that: (1) India would withdraw to Dzingulma and Pakistan to Goma; and (2) there would be helicopter surveillance.
On January 1994 India confirmed to Pakistan that in 1992 “a broad understanding had been reached on disengagement and redeployment, monitoring, maintenance of peace and implementation schedule. … Both sides agreed that to reduce tension in Siachen, the two sides shall disengage from authenticated positions they are presently occupying and shall fall back to positions as under:….”
One fundamental on which the talks had proceeded since 1986 was mutual withdrawal. It was left to defence minister George Fernandes to wreck it. He asserted on July 18, 1998 that “India needs to hold on to Siachen both for strategic reasons and wider security in the region”. None had made this claim before.
The talks that followed in New Delhi on Nov 6, 1998 thus were doomed to failure. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who came to office in 2004 with a strong desire for an Indo-Pakistan rapprochement, told the soldiers at the Siachen base camp on June 12, 2005 that the icy battlefield should be converted into a “peace mountain”.
However, successive army chiefs espoused the Fernandes line, ruling out any withdrawal. On June 10, 2012 The Hindu not only published the full texts of the rival proposals made in the 1992 talks but also a revealing interview by the leader of the Indian team, the Defence Secretary N. V. Vohra. One of the most upright civil servants, he is now governor of Jammu and Kashmir.
“We had finalised the text of an agreement at Hyderabad House by around 10pm on the last day. Signing was set for 10am. But later that night, instructions were given to me not to go ahead the next day but to conclude matters in our next round of talks in Islamabad in January 1993. That day never came,” Mr Vohra said. “That’s the way these things go.” Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao was out to appease the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Siachen proposal of 2012 provides that “both sides should agree to withdraw from the conflict area while retaining the option of punitive action should either side renege on these commitments”. The region will be demilitarised. An annex set out the details on “monitoring and verification of the demilitarisation”. It drew attention to a very important but hitherto neglected fact.
“Nothing happens quickly on Siachen; logistics and weather drive all. The possibility of a quick, stealthy reoccupation, without an area bridge is remote”. India secures joint authentification of existing positions; Pakistan secures mutual withdrawal from Siachen.
The writer is an author and a lawyer.