Pakistan’s steadfast defence against the Indian army’s occupation of positions on the Saltoro ridge of the spectacular 78-kilometre long Siachen glacier is sustained by an impressive network of roads and paths. The Gayari camp — where an avalanche has tragically buried 138 men under masses of snow — was a vital base in this intricate design. The catastrophe has brought the Siachen issue under the spotlight again.
Responses range from anguished questions of why Pakistan was fighting for a frozen wasteland to succinct — if rather deterministic — narration of strategic factors that block a peaceful settlement. Impassive to human losses, a former Indian army chief brushed aside the humanitarian concerns of an Express News anchor and declared that having “climbed the wall” ( the Saltoro ridge ), India would maintain the glacier’s partition.
The basic facts can be summarised easily. The 1949 Karachi agreement and the 1972 Simla agreement created the present Line of Control up to the map reference point NJ 9842 beyond which it, for Pakistan, ran to the Karakoram (KK) pass. Free of any military presence till India launched Operation Meghdoot exactly 28 years ago (April 13, 1984), Siachen was traditionally under Pakistani oversight. Complacent because of the injunctions of the Simla agreement against any territorial change in Jammu and Kashmir by force and the forbidding terrain, Pakistan lost valuable time in assessing the Indian thrust into Siachen.
It then mounted a superhuman effort to stabilise the situation, even as the initial tactical advantage had enabled the Indian army to capture positions on the ridge; the valorous Pakistani contingent was still a week short of it. This counter-move was not futile; it relatively secured the Gyong La pass sub-sector, though the Indians had already taken the Sia La and Bilfond La passes. Restricting Indian control of the Gyong La pass stopped further Indian marches; the area overlooks the Shyok and Nubra river valleys. The 1989 Rajiv Gandhi- Benazir Bhutto agreement was implicitly cognisant of an enduring stalemate. It was not fanciful; earlier in April 1989, the two sides had disengaged in the Chumik glacier.
India justified its incursion by citing non-existent Pakistani designs on a vast swath of land between NJ 9842 and the KK pass. Subsequently, it refused to implement the disengagement agreement on the grounds that, beginning with the meeting of military commissions in August 1989, Pakistan had consistently declined to “authenticate” positions actually held by the two armies. Wikileaks has confirmed that the veto came from the Indian army.
The Siachen story has its heroic moments for both the countries but it would, nevertheless, be remembered in history as an example of Man’s perversity. It may not be a low hanging fruit ready to be plucked, but all the elements that seem to put it beyond the peacemakers are amenable to mutually satisfactory solutions. The most reassuring aspect of the Siachen reality is that neither side can proceed with any great despatch to deceive the other side during demilitarisation and withdrawal. The Indian army’s contention that Pakistan would somehow escape the carefully crafted, executed and monitored process of disengagement to seize the coveted Saltoro heights is as disingenuous as its contention in 1984 that it had pre-empted Pakistan’s scheme to militarise the entire stretch to KK pass.
Given the history and the distrust, it would be hard work spread over at least one whole season, to implement a fair operational sequence of measures that progressively reduce troops and dismantle forward bases, while every detail is jointly monitored. Satellite imagery would be available for the asking from several sources. India has excellent alternatives to place on international record the cherished Actual Ground Positions Line (AGPL); Pakistan can similarly reiterate that the Indian ingress was a grave violation of the letter and spirit of the Simla agreement. The different perspectives could henceforth come under rubric of ‘disputed territory’. A joint action plan for environmental restoration of the battered glacier, its scientific study and its tourism potential would eliminate fears of either side violating terms of disengagement. At a fraction of the present cost, India and Pakistan can agree to install long-term land-based, aerial and satellite monitoring.
When it blocks conversion of Siachen into a potential peace park, the Indian army is rightly suspected of ulterior motives in retaining the present tactical advantage for a future westward power projection. This will rule out any unilateral reduction of forces on the Pakistani side. If the Indian political leadership grasps the fact that vainglorious dreams of exploiting this advantage strategically are entirely ephemeral, it may still summon the necessary will to accept disengagement by discussing Pakistan’s non-paper of June 2011 earnestly. The wild flowers that give the glacier its name can blossom again to celebrate peace and not to mark funerals of brave men from either side.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 16th, 2012.
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