DEFENCE NOTES

THE SIACHEN

GLACIER 1984 to 1998

humera

Columnist Ms HUMERA NIAZI carries out a study of the policy

initiatives behind the fighting on the world’s highest battlefront

It was Friday (7th November) talks, at New Delhi between Pakistan and India, which have brought very little forward movement to attain a solution of the dispute on Siachen Glacier. The talks, themselves could be seen as some achievement, as they took place after a lapse of six years (November ‘92). This shrugs off the coldness of an attitude. Nonetheless the talks have not progressed towards any substantive result which ended on an optimistic note, ‘that talks would be resumed’ serving as a flicker of hope to all those who are not pessimists.

There has not been any major breakthrough after the present talks. The dialogue seems to be caught between two issues (i) a ceasefire offer by India and (ii) the re-deployment of troops as agreed upon in 1989.

It is that, Pakistan rejected the offer made by India, for ceasefire on the Siachen Glacier. But Pakistan’s rejection, is said to be caused by the India’s ‘refusal’, to re-deploy troops, at the disputed Siachen Area.

What the Indian Defence Secretary Ajit Singh is trying to say: that much progress was not in the talks. It is because of the ‘refusal for ceasefire’ on Pakistan’s part. Further stating, that Islamabad wanted third party monitoring of any ceasefire. And that, third party intervention is not acceptable to India. Implementing a ceasefire, does bode well for the dispute. But the offer coming from New Delhi straight away, is an oddity out of context of what was agreed upon. Furthermore, bearing India’s track record of always backing out of agreements and coming up with new propositions and this could be seen in the 1992 Foreign Secretaries talks. At that time, it was perceived that the talks would have been clearly for the purpose of discussing the modalities that would implement the 1989 agreement. Also a note of caution, which Pakistan takes: That is, in 1992, Pakistan avoided being trapped into giving up any part of its area, when India floated another idea of a de-militarized zone. But Pakistan firmly maintained the 1989 agreement in reply and asserted that India should stick to 1989 Agreement. Such perpetual habit of reversing an agreed clause of the agreement by India which has showed such signs on two previous occasions that it is undergoing pressure because of its Siachen mis-adventure (a) When it proposes an immediate ceasefire and (b) India’s admittance in 1989 that it would pull out (relocate) troops, meant it had moved in area which was under Pakistan’s control.

This realization on India’s part furthers when it reveals reportedly, that a war in Siachen costs the Indian government, statistically, an approximate amount of Rupees ten billion a year. And in comparison, India spends ‘daily’, on its Siachen upkeep, what Pakistan spends in ‘one month’. But then economics should not be the only cause (negation), but for peace, as it is the principal and logical aspect which should be important. And having a ceasefire, it is a good development, promoting a peaceful atmosphere. But the counter-questioning is, why does New Delhi, does not want third party monitoring and re-deployment of troops? After all, even if a ceasfire is there, it is not a solution to the main dispute which was probably the purpose for which the talks were held.

Siachen Glacier, is claimed to be the world’s highest battleground. This happened in 1984, when India moved its troops into territory under Pakistan’s administrative control. Furthermore, India prowled so secretively into the area (it has been reported) that the snooping was detected by the intelligence agencies. When they got wind of it through a mountaineering advertisement, appearing in an Indian magazine, showing the territory as a part of India. Since then, the armies of Pakistan and India have found themselves, in combat on ‘the roof of the world’. What happened after that, Pakistan Armed Forces have been able to physically freeze India’s territory grabbing intentions. And politically, they made India by means of dialogue, agree to troops re-deployment, which resulted in the 1989 Agreement.

A recapitulation and description. Today with the existence of a ‘glasnost’ relationship between the Armed Forces and the Press in Pakistan, visits to the area have enabled the reporting of valuable information, which also provides descriptions of the battleground and the extraordinary conditions existing there. Narrations about Siachen cannot appear picturesque. But amid the white wilderness, the freezing silence does not break ice with the singing of birds, but instead, the roar of guns resounding, in exchange on both sides. Siachen Glacier is an inhospitable terrain which provides sub-human conditions with the temperature going below 35 degrees Celsius. At an elevation of 20,000 feet, the hazards of living at these hostile, inhospitable and chilling heights, and at the same time countering the advance of the enemy are mainly: lack of oxygen, prevention of frost bite, problems in logistics, drinking water which freezes (which need to be heated), blizzards causing poor visibility, render a period of no activity. Forward posts present the most tough conditions. There is a problem of scarcity of space in the forward areas. There are places which require guarding on ledges, when two persons cannot even stretch out at the same time, whereas at other places, soldiers on the vigil have to perform their duties constantly only in a stretched posture, as it is not possible to sit up due to shortage of space such are the impediments faced by the soldiers.

It is the November 7th, 1998 Siachin talks which sent a positive signal. But analysts have come down hard, on the aftermath of the talks terming them as a failure. This is probably because of high expectations. That is because of a over blown expectations that something would come out of these talks, owing to the fact that everything was seen near finalisation the last time around when India did not honour the Agreement. But the statements emanating from the Pakistani delegation expressed a pragmatic and practical approach. Pakistan’s Defence Secretary said, ‘It is a difficult and complex situation. It will take time’ - more mature and meaningful.

It was in 1992 that the two sides had agreed upon re-deployment of troops (which would come first) and then demarcation of the Line of Control. There is an ambiguity about the Line of Control, because the glacier covered areas to the extreme north remains undemarcated (probably the terrain being so difficult). Therefore, the 1989 agreement, clarifies this issue when it states the troops placements, being final and the areas under each country’s administrative control. In the process of implementing the 1989 agreement, if some discrepancies could emerge and the need for military experts from both sides to be part of the talks. Demarcation requires expert handling and wise-thinking. But logically, moving into an area which is ‘not yours’ (by India), does not define the Line of Control.

The Siachen Glacier, has no significant strategic value. But, there is an established ‘linkage’ between the ‘Siachen’ issue and ‘Kashmir’. This nexus is because (a) the Siachen Glacier crosses the Line of Control (b) the Political dimension.

In the most recent (1998) talks, Pakistan Defence Secretary had, predictably (and rightly) stated that ‘India’s dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir is likely to over-shadow talks on the Siachen Glacier’. And that ‘Siachen is a by-product of Kashmir and some linkages are bound to be there’.

The Siachen Glacier is an issue created by India, although potentially it does have a solution by dialogue. There appears to be no dominant stumbling blocks in this context. Except when the agreement is to come into effect on the ground - India backs out. Any action on Siachen has been deadlocked in the Indian mind. There is a possibility that India sees negotiating an agreement on Siachen, which makes its ‘wrong policy’ on Kashmir more prominent thus weakening India’s stance. India should also see the other side, that is solving the Siachen issue, would have a very positive effect on the solution of Kashmir and other issues between India and Pakistan taken at the regional basis. One has to start from somewhere, with positive outlook and solving Siachen issue, could surpass other C.B.M (Confidence Building Measures) and also the recent Track-II diplomacy. The Track-II effort is positive, but seems ‘slow’, in providing end results. Whereas, Raj Mohan Gandhi’s (grandson of Mahatma Gandhi), feelings expressed on the Kashmir issue, is to be appreciated, but are a little late in the day. In fact, if the Siachen issue cannot be solved, in these ongoing talks, it would indicate that there was an agreement at hand, but the ‘political will’ was not there or not forceful enough. With that, it makes the area (a kind of) a ‘War-Zone’ aggravating it further with the Kashmir Conflict, which is a flash point located in its, backyard. This issue does not augur well in making a bad situation regionally. And entering into a static issue at this point of time, which makes Siachen more dangerous and volatile than before. The spirit of give and take approach, should be there, on both sides. But, there is nothing to compromise though, because they have already agreed to ‘disagree’. And what is becoming pressing and important this time are the new ground realities in the region, with the nuclearisation of both countries. This fact should be realistically seen (which India is not prepared for it). Therefore, a lot would be made clearer, in the next round of talks. India is making Siachen a Zero-sum game which does not serve any useful purpose. ‘Time’ is becoming an important factor in solving the Siachen issue. And if solved, which should be sooner than later, will be a great achievement in the sense that both countries have the intrinsic ability to solve their problems through dialogue.

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