Compulsive disengagement

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With domestic political compulsions leaving India and Pakistan unable to come to any agreement on less contentious issues like Sir Creek and Siachen, there are little indications of a meaningful dialogue between the two countries in near future. Iftikhar Gilani reports

Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh did succeed  in keeping the dialogue with Pakistan on track, despite reported suggestions from within the official quarters to once again suspend talks in the wake of David Hadley’s disclosures in a Chicago court coupled with the killing of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani cantonment town of Abbotabad. He, even shot down a suggestion from Home Ministry to be a party to a petition filed by a Jewish leader against Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in a New York Court.

But, it seems officials from both sides have made it a point, not to show any progress in the talks. Even they are unable to pick up threads from 2008, when the dialogue was paused due to 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

Both countries had at least covered a large distance on the issues of Sir Creek and Siachen between 2004 and 2008. Both the issues were almost near to solution. The confidence was exuded by Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who had asked his counterpart in Mohali on the sidelines of India-Pakistanis high voltage world cup cricket semi-final, to advance talks on these two issues. He must have been under the impression that a progress on these less contentious issues would have a countervailing effect on other issues.

But what surprised everyone was that progress eluded on both issues. It was also reported that both sides were even repudiating the progress made during earlier talks. Even, though a joint survey conducted on Sir Creek had almost demarcated borders and Pakistan had also agreed to delineate borders on the middle of creek, it was surprising that during recent talks of surveyor generals, it was decided to conduct another joint survey. Ironically, the delegations which met in Rawalpindi did not even mention past progress. The officials sat for hours not to proceed on the issue, but to find words to draft joint statement for the waiting press.

It was an identical story, when defence secretaries sat across the table to discuss the issue of Siachen. Veterans in India even are now willing to admit that the strategic significance of icy heights is overstated.

“There is absolutely no strategic significance to Siachen now. There’s no war going on there for two years. Why are we deployed there? There’s no justification for this prolonged deployment. Even if there’s a loss of one life due to elements now, it’s uncalled for,” says Ex-Siachen Brigade Commander, Brig Gurmeet Kanwal. Indian Army that has retained the commanding heights at great cost, has also borne 20,000 casualties, and holding on to the glacier now costs India Rs 1,000 crore annually.

The dispute persists because when the cease fire line (CFL) and the Line of Control (LoC) were delineated in Jammu and Kashmir under the 1949 Karachi agreement and the 1972 Shimla agreement respectively up to point NJ 9842, the area beyond that point remained un-delineated due to inhospitable terrain, leading to different interpretations.

Pakistan had been insisting that the Indian troops should return to 1983 positions as per the 1973 Shimla Agreement that contemplates that the Line of Control (LoC) can be altered only through the bilateral negotiations.

In November 2007, at the height of peace process, a via-media was found, whereby, Pakistan offered to “acknowledge” the Indian military positions at the glacier even while not “authenticating” them as such. In its proposal, Pakistan said that “authentication” would amount to tacit acceptance of India’s claim on the glacier, which was against the spirit of Shimla Agreement.

It, however, suggested that its alternative proposal of “acknowledging” positions would meet the Indian Army’s apprehensions. “But, if there is intention to seek endorsement of certain claims, it will be difficult,” Pakistan said in a written proposal.

While India occupies the strategic heights at the Siachen, Pakistan is in a better position in terms of logistical support to its army due to favourable gradual descent on its side. Pakistan, moreover, has better access to the glacier as the road heads are closer to the less steep heights. India, on the other hand, has to maintain all its logistical support through air due to extremely rugged and harsh terrain where temperatures hover between 30 to 50 degree Celsius below freezing point.

India believes that though the Karachi agreement delineated borders on paper only up to the point NJ 9842, it has mentioned that borders beyond would lie northwards towards the glacier. The Shimla agreement is also silent on the delineation beyond the cartographic point NJ 9842.

Pakistan, however, claims that the line joins NJ 9842 with Karakoram Pass, which is North West of the cartographic point. The Indian position is that the line runs towards the glaciers along the watersheds formed by the Saltoro Range as per the internationally accepted principle of border delineation.

Notwithstanding, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reporting that the glaciers in the Himalayas including Siachen have been melting faster by 30 per cent over the past ten years, both countries are resorting to mountaineering to reassert their claims over the parts of glacier. Siachen is the longest glacier in the non-polar regions from where the Nubara river originates and is a source of the Indus river in Pakistan which caters to 75 per cent of its irrigation requirements.

The studies have also pointed out that during the last two decades, the melting of Siachen glacier has been the fastest in the world. The melting is evident from the base of the glacier and through the continuous thinning of ice along its entire length. The studies concluded that Siachen, along with several other major tributary glaciers, were reduced by 35 per cent in volume during the last 20 years and are retreating at the rate of 110 metres per year.

Siachen issue came for an agreement twice in 1989 and1992. In 1989, the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was told by advisors that with general elections round the corner pictures of Indian troops vacating icy heights would be a stick in the hands of a resurgent opposition baying for his blood for his alleged involvement in infamous Bofors gun scandal. In 1992, prime minister Narasimha Rao overruled his defence secretary NN Vohra (current governor of Jammu and Kashmir), as saffron brigade had unleashed a campaign to build “Ram mandir” at the place of Babri Masjid, which was ultimately demolished on December 6, 1992.

National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon had once told parliamentarians that their most important task was to create a national consensus on foreign policy issues. He said as India gains global status, the absence of national consensus and domestic political compulsions tie hands of diplomats to negotiate.

After the boundary agreements signed between China, Russia, Kazakhistan and Tajikistan, the Sino-Indian boundary remains the only unresolved boundary dispute for China. Though the Sino-Indian Joint Working Group and the experts group working on the implementation of the Sino-Indian Agreement on the Line of Actual Control continued to function, no serious discussion had taken place to move forward because of political compulsions in India. Even a tiny incursion in the disputed area of Arunchal Pradesh stalls parliament session for days.

Not only the hot headed officials, the elements within the ruling Congress party also rue that the prime minister’s unilateralism vis-?-vis Pakistan affects party’s image. The way domestic electoral compulsions are made to shadow foreign policy objectives and even to settle smaller disputes like Siachen or Sir Creek, the distrust would rule out any accord on any issue. A big question in such a atmosphere is whether India would be ever able to settle issue of Kashmir?

(The author is a senior staffer at Tehelka.com)

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