Siachen: A little peace of land

It’s high time the glacier got demilitarisedGurmeet Kanwal Delhi While offering a treaty of “peace, friendship and security” to Pakistan at Amritsar on March 24, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hinted that the Siachen, Baglihar and Sir Creek issues could be resolved if Pakistan was prepared to de-link these from the final resolution of the Kashmir issue. The demilitarisation of Siachen is an idea whose time has come. Only one major stumbling block remains. India continues to insist that the Indian Army’s present defensive positions on the Saltoro Range along the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) should be demarcated on both ground and map so that there is a reference point for disputes that may arise in future. Pakistan’s position is that by suddenly grabbing the Saltoro Range west of the Siachen Glacier, India violated the 1972 Shimla Agreement and must, therefore, vacate its “aggression” without insisting on legitimising its illegal occupation. It was reported recently that Pakistan is now willing to let India annex a map with the demilitarisation agreement that would show India’s positions on the AGPL. This is a major concession and should suffice from India’s point of view. The demilitarisation agreement should explicitly state that it has been reached without prejudice to the positions of both the countries on the final settlement of the Siachen dispute and in consonance with India’s position on the China-Pakistan boundary settlement of March 1963, by which Pakistan had illegally ceded 5,180 sq km of J&K territory to the Chinese.  Soon after a political agreement to demilitarise the Siachen conflict zone is reached, the disengagement process can begin with the Indian and Pakistani armies negotiating its framework. The two DGMOs can together chair a Joint Working Group to work out the modalities of the disengagement process and the time frame and evolve a monitoring mechanism. Given the political will to move forward, no major disagreement is likely between the two armies. It will not be difficult for them to mutually work out a viable disengagement process that can be implemented to the satisfaction of both. Disengagement can be completed over a period of two summers. The monitoring process could be initially unilateral and could later graduate to bilateral cooperative monitoring with a jointly manned monitoring centre established at the LoC between Chalunka and Siari on the south bank of the Shyok River. There have been several examples of strict adherence to negotiated army-to-army agreements in the past. In the Siachen area, the agreement reached between the sector commanders in May 1989 in the Chumik Glacier has been respected ever since.  There are still many people in the government and serving army officers who are unwilling to trust Pakistan. Some analysts are of the view that India enjoys a clear advantage due to its forward positions being on higher ground and this advantage must not be given away without major concessions being made by Pakistan. It needs to be considered whether it is logical to continue to deploy the army at the Saltoro Range even when no fighting has taken place since the November 25, 2003 ceasefire along the LoC came into effect. Most casualties at Siachen have been due the elements – adverse weather conditions and the inadequacy of oxygen in the air at heights above 18,000 feet, combined with the treacherous terrain. Even one additional medical casualty should not be acceptable if it can be avoided. As for trusting Pakistan, with a rapprochement process underway, it would be worthwhile to take a military risk to give peace a chance. In case Pakistan violates the demilitarisation agreement and occupies some of the vacated posts, India should be prepared to open a new front at a point of its own choosing across the LoC. International opinion will surely support India and condemn Pakistan.  Negotiations between nations can be successful only if these are conducted in a spirit of give and take – you win some, you lose some. The Manmohan Singh government has taken several unique foreign policy initiatives. It should negotiate a package deal on the Siachen and Sir Creek issues with Pakistan. The demilitarisation of Siachen will act as a confidence building measure of immense significance and a catalyst for future demilitarisation on other sectors of the LoC. (The writer is Director, Security Studies, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)