The Siachen stand-off!


Friendly Fire

Khalid Saleem

IT would bear repetition that the stand off at Siachin (that has been graphically described as the highest battlefield in the world) is a result of the violation by India of the Simla agreement of 1972. While Indian policy makers have been reverently professing the sanctity of the Simla accord, they simultaneously have taken the stand that the “ground reality” at Siachin be accepted as a fait accompli. In other words, they would like to eat their cake and have it too. Several years back, the Indian establishment had tried to rewrite the rules of the game when they announced the launching of expeditions of trekkers onto the Siachin glacier. A somewhat lame protest lodged by Pakistan was unceremoniously swept aside by an Indian military spokesman. The Indian Defense Minister speaking to the reporters had volunteered the information that ‘in the past year as many as 15 military trekking teams had visited the Siachin glacier’. For good measure he went on to add, “The whole of Jammu and Kashmir is Indian territory. What is the problem?” If this did not constitute thumbing the nose at the so-called composite peace process, one would like to be informed what is!
There were in addition several bits of news, datelined New Delhi, on the subject of Siachin. The Indian Army apparently organised “a civilian mountaineering and trekking expedition” to the Siachin Glacier for two years in a row. Despite somewhat feeble protests from Pakistan, India continued to maintain that it does not need Pakistan’s approval to send trekkers to Siachin “since it is essentially Indian territory”. Despite umpteen sessions between the two sides and several optimistic prognoses emanating from oracles of a past regime, one has yet to hear what may be termed as good news in so far as the Siachin imbroglio goes.
Meanwhile, serious environmental problems have cropped up in regard to the Siachin glacier area. International experts have warned that unless the two armies vacated the area, there is serious danger of melting of the glacier that could lead to an ecological disaster of immense proportions. Resolution of the issue would thus be an important step towards saving the glacier and the environment. This new realisation failed to shake the two sides from the stupor that has enveloped them for far too long. The snow slide disaster some years back that took so many innocent lives remains a gory reminder. The dispute had its beginning – circa 1982-83 – when India, reportedly taking advantage of the delivery of Soviet high altitude helicopters, landed its troops and set up military posts on the Saltoro range. Prior to that, the entire area of the Siachen glacier was internationally recognised as being under the de facto administrative control of the Pakistan authorities, a fact that was not disputed by India at the time of the signing of the Simla accord.
Since the time of the Indian excursion, the forces of India and Pakistan have faced each other eyeball to eyeball in the ‘world’s highest battlefield’. It is perhaps the only battlefield in which more casualties have been the result of inhospitable climatic conditions than due to actual military operations. The confrontation in the Siachen area has been hurting both sides in terms of casualties as well as mounting unproductive expenditure. It may not be out of order to attempt an over-the-shoulder glance at the Siachin stand-off. In 1989, the then Indian Prime Minister had expressed willingness to sign an agreement based on unconditional withdrawal of the troops of both sides to conform to pre-Simla positions. Regrettably, the Indian government changed its mind before the agreement was ready for signature. Since that time, Indian negotiators have been blowing hot and cold in the same breath and the matter has been hanging fire. If anything, the attitude of the Indian establishment appears to be hardening at every step. This state of affairs hardly gives cause for optimism.
Pakistan and India had come close to finalising an agreement on withdrawal of the troops of the two sides as a result of talks between the Defense Secretaries of the two countries in New Delhi during November 1992. A delicately balanced draft text taking into account the preoccupations of either side was worked out by the two delegations. All that was left was the production of fair texts and the annexure for signing by the two sides. The two delegations parted in good spirits after hand-shakes to reconvene after lunch for the formal signing. For reasons that remain inexplicable, Indian government (establishment?) scuttled the agreement and the envisaged signing ceremony never materialised.
With the danger of an impending environmental catastrophe on the horizon, time is of the essence. Siachin issue demands urgent attention of both parties. The question is: will the two sides heed the writing on the wall or will they continue on their bumbling path until the environment catastrophe materialises? The meandering way in which the India-Pakistan relations appear to be moving hardly gives cause for much optimism. One may be excused for looking askance at the clamour for resumption of the composite dialogue. The more one looks at its “results” the more it appears to be a dialogue of the deaf. Instead of leading the common man on both sides up the garden path, would it not be the decent thing to do to let him know the facts. And should the two establishments also not recognise that the path of CBMs is strewn with pitfalls that can be damaging for the peace-wagon, considering that it is already foundering on the rocks of non-credibility?
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.

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