The never-ending saga of Siachen!
In one respect the Siachen story is a bit different from the rest. What has lent a sense of urgency of sorts to the Siachen discussions was the fact that ecologists had been warning for some time of the ecological disaster waiting to happen if military activity in the glacier region was not brought to an end. Apparently, there was looming danger of 1) a devastating landslide and 2) the melting of the glacier, unless the ‘military’ activities of the two armies were not halted betimes. Both possibilities could create havoc. The “outcome” of the bilateral negotiations underscored the fact that the Siachen saga would continue with all its attendant ramifications and at the peril of the whole region. And now the tragedy has struck! Who is one to hold responsible? The joint statement issued at the end of the last talks was lame and a great disappointment indeed. Even the phrases used are passé. “Frank and cordial atmosphere”, “enhanced understanding of each other’s position” and “suggestions towards the resolution of the issue” have all been used before umpteen times. In fact, media opinion appeared to have sunk so low as to interpret the mere issuing of the joint statement as an indication of ‘some progress”. The headline in one of the dailies talks of the two sides ‘inching towards a solution’. How can anyone talk of ‘inches’, at a time when there are virtually miles to cover? And let it also be said that time was of the essence, given the ecological warning.
The contentious issues appear to be destined to be pushed from the backburner to the cold-storage. Siachen dispute figures among the less intractable ones. It is just that India has over the years exhibited a marked reluctance to budge an inch from its traditional – and, one might add, somewhat irrational – stand; that of not taking a step forward unless the “ground realities” are not only recognized but also formally authenticated. It may not be out of place to set down a few home truths for the record. Until 1984, the Siachen glacier was just a vast, peaceful expanse with nary a soldier in sight. There was universal de facto recognition — both pre and post Simla Agreement — that the area was under the ‘administrative control’ of the Pakistan authorities. Occasionally, teams of explorers from around the globe would apply to the relevant ministry in Pakistan for permission to carry out scientific expeditions in the glacier area. Such applications were invariably approved and explorers carried out their scientific studies across the formidable glacier without let or hindrance.
In the nineteen-sixties, Pakistan and China had negotiated a border agreement covering the frontier between China and the area under the administrative control of Pakistan. This agreement covered, inter alia, the expanse of the Siachen glacier and extended up to the Karakoram Pass in the East. The government of India went through the formality of putting on record its reservations, but made no attempt to challenge Pakistan’s notional de facto control over the area. If India’s contention were to be accepted then the Pakistan-China border accord would be knocked for a six.
Scientific expeditions returning from the Siachen Glacier, circa 1984, expressed to the Pakistan authorities their surprise at having encountered armed Indian soldiers in the area. It so happens that - taking advantage of the technological superiority afforded by the supply of high-altitude Soviet helicopters — India had surreptitiously landed soldiers and established advance posts on some of the heights. This represented the first serious violation of the Simla Accord (the Kargil fiasco being the second). Pakistan then moved its forces on the opposite heights. Since then, the two forces are dug in, facing each other eyeball to eyeball on what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh somewhat graphically described as the “World’s Highest Battlefield”.
The two sides have wasted so much time, energy and scarce resources on endless squabbling over the past decade and a half. There have been more casualties due to the harsh conditions than any hostilities. The rub lies in the fact that India continues to insist that the “ground realities should be formally recognized”. In simple language, it expects Pakistan to not only acquiesce in India’s unilateral inroad but also to actually “authenticate it” for all times to come. It may be added in parentheses that whatever decision is arrived at, it may have a profound bearing on whatever final settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute is on the cards. The ecological disaster in which so many non-combatant innocents lie buried under tons of snow should logically serve to impress on the two sides the urgent need to move forward in the quest for equitable settlement of the Siachen squabble and other contentious issues. We simply cannot afford another tragedy like the one in Siachen.