Somewhere in 1984, India did the ‘Kargil in reverse’ on Pakistan. Till then, Siachen had remained an undemarcated region because of its impassibility and the Line of Control (LOC) stopped considerably short. Most mountaineering expeditions to the region were routed through the Pakistani territories. Fearful that Pakistan might move into the area and occupy some vantage peaks, India pre-empted to do exactly the same and set into place the longest conflict at the highest altitudes in the history of warfare. Trust South Asia to indulge in platitudes of unmatchable quality even when fighting wars. The rest, as they say, is history.
While Pakistan has maintained that the natural boundary, or the ceasefire line — subsequently renamed the LOC — must go North-East to the Karakorum Pass from the point where the current demarcation ends (MJ9842), India, on the other hand, had held that the line travelled vertically North from that point. India’s claim would have placed the Karakorum Pass just across from the Indian controlled areas; an eventuality both China and Pakistan would resist. The 1972 Simla Agreement merely located the boundary ‘thence north to the glaciers’. But then, India moved to annex the series of peaks along the Saltoro Ridge, which travels exactly North-West eating further into 3,000 Square kilometres (Kms) of the Pakistani territory.
Pakistan, holding heights lower than those in possession of India, tried a few times to dislodge the Indians but found the going heavy. Both sides now remain entrenched into hardened bunkers, physically and mentally. The area is in the phase of strategic and tactical stagnation, with the 70 Kms long glacier under the arrogated control of India. Where man or beast feared to tread, there are now oil pipelines and logistics tracks that criss-cross the region.
Consider the consequences: as the glacial melt advances under the weight of the two armies occupying those heights, there is an established danger of both India and Pakistan rapidly galloping towards the ignominy of water-stressed nations. The existing per capita per annum water availability in Pakistan is only 1,200 cubic meters, while that for India is 1,700 cubic meters; below 1,000 cubic meters and the categorisation changes to being water-stressed. Water-stressed societies lead to enhanced poverty, disease, malnutrition and are forced into mass migrations. This creates societal instabilities which no force is able to hold against. Strife and war ensues. We need to reclaim the glaciers from the armies to restore their status as the water reservoirs of the river systems of both India and Pakistan. These river systems sustain life in South Asia as most habitations exist around these water systems or their extended distributaries.
This is then what the Bangkok meet agreed on: there is little strategic significance of the Siachen region (indeed the significance lies in the socioeconomic domain of a shared resource); without prejudice to each country’s territorial claims in the area, and without diluting in any manner their stated positions, the two sides recommend to their officialdom a joint recording of the respective force positions along the Saltoro Ridge and those occupied by Pakistan below that ridge and exchange such records. Subsequently, the region must be demilitarised under a verifiable regime and reverted to its status of 1984-ante. Even if other more enterprising initiatives as turning the glacier into a ‘peace park’ do not materialise — and those shouldn’t because we need to save this all-important-feeder for our water needs from any human intervention — there should be joint monitoring and responsibility for securing the glaciers in the North. This actually is a much broader compulsion given the vulnerability of sizeable chunks of Indian and Pakistani population centres to the sustenance of the Indus River Basin.
In the last round of official discussions between the two sides, there reportedly has been a slight regression in the Indian position. If earlier India insisted on authenticating the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL), their revised stance is to convert the AGPL into an extended LOC. This is India’s maximalist position. A negotiated settlement in the longer term interest of saving the two societies from turmoil will indeed be via media. The group’s recommendations based on a common understanding of the underlying determinants and vulnerabilities suggest that via media. The Pakistanis pointed to an implicit authentication of the AGPL when positions are recorded and exchanged.
The emphasis needs to be on finding work around methodologies to obviate irritable protractions. Also, common resource needs to be jointly protected and cared for. It is time to change the way we think.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 13th, 2012.