Can Siachen be an ‘ice breaker’ for India and Pakistan?

By Ravi M. Khanna, IANS,

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is taking a huge risk in trying to hype up public opinion, within Pakistan and on an international level, in favour of resolving the Siachen glacier problem with India.

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The Siachen glacier suddenly made the news headlines earlier this month when Zardari came to India for one day to visit Ajmer Sharif and on the eve of the visit, an avalanche on the glacier killed more than one hundred Pakistani soldiers. It again hit the headlines the next day as one of the issues Zardari discussed with Singh when he hosted the Pakistani leader for lunch before his trip to Ajmer.

According to Pakistani sources, the sudden visit by Zardari soon after Pakistan granted the much awaited MFN status to India was to convince Singh that the Zardari government genuinely wants to improve relations with India. According to the sources, Zardari urged Singh that India should now reciprocate by taking a meaningful step to please the Pakistanis who really want their government to improve relations with their neighbour through trade and other exchanges. Zardari assured Singh that his talks in Pakistan could be turned into a historic visit if the two sides can sign an agreement on the Siachen Glacier. That, he said, would genuinely build tremendous goodwill for India among the Pakistani people as well as with the Army. What he did not say, but was obvious, was that this would also help Zardari win the next elections and improve his relations with the Army Chief.

But the problem is that India has too much to lose if it agrees to the Pakistani formula to resolve the dispute and it may even be accused of compromising India’s security to accommodate Pakistan’s compulsion.

Siachen glacier , in fact, is part of the UN sponsored LoC agreement between the two sides on Kashmir. And the roots of the conflict over Siachen lie in the non-demarcation on the western side on the LoC map beyond Grid Point NJ 9842. Since it was left unmarked and both sides had their own interpretation of the direction of the LoC beyond that grid point, it eventually led to a conflict.

The dispute started in 1984, when the Indian Army captured the two key northern passes in the Saltoro Range. Pakistan tried a few times to dislodge the Indian troops from their posts but found it too difficult because the heights it was holding were lower than the ones under India’s control.

But the defeat on the glacier was never forgotten by the Pakistani Army. So in 1999, then Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf tried to avenge the defeat by quietly sending forces to occupy Indian positions in the Kargil heights that were left unmanned by India during dangerously cold snowy winters. Pakistan’s adventure in Kargil was aimed at cutting off Indian supply routes to Ladakh and thus secure Siachen indirectly. The attempt failed but brought the two rivals close to a fourth war, with both sides suffering heavy casualties. The Pakistani move in Kargil is etched permanently in the Indian psyche.

Now Pakistan wants that Indian troops in Siachen glacier should just withdraw to the positions they held prior to 1984. But the problem for India is that in 1963, Pakistan unilaterally and illegally conceded the Shaksgam area, north of Siachen, to China. So now if India withdraws to the positions it held prior to 1984, it would mean removing the only bulwark to prevent Pakistan and China from linking up militarily on the glacier, a move that will be a losing proposition for the Indian Army.
Even if they are authenticated and marked before the troops are withdrawn, as India had proposed, it will take third-party neutral observers to monitor the situation. Pakistan, so far, has refused even to accept India’s demand of authentication of the positions, and India sees the refusal as a hidden agenda of Pakistan of occupying them at some future date.

The hurdles are so gigantic that any sudden hype about an agreement between the two rivals on this dispute might boomerang against both governments, unless, of course, they find a solution that will not be perceived in India as a “sellout”, and is seen as a “win-win” solution of the dispute for both.

(28-04-2012- Ravi M. Khanna is a long-time South Asia observer. He has headed the South Asia Desk in Voice of America Newsroom in Washington and published a book, ‘TV News Writing Made Easy for Newcomers’. He can be reached at [email protected])