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Demilitarisation of Siachen

An agreement over the conflict zone can serve as a great onfidence-building measure between India and Pakistan, writes Gurmeet Kanwal.

india Updated: Apr 09, 2006 01:06 IST

Indo-Pak rapprochement has been stuck in a rut  for some time with Pakistan insisting on tangible progress on Kashmir and India reiterating that it is necessary to first build confidence by resolving relatively less intractable problems. While offering a treaty of “peace, friendship and security” to Pakistan a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hinted that issues like the dispute over the Siachen glacier region, the boundary dispute in Sir Creek and the Baglihar dam issue could be resolved soon. Present indications are that the PM may visit Pakistan for a summit meeting in August 2006 to sign agreements on these issues.

Discussions to demilitarise the Siachen conflict zone as a prelude to a final agreement to extend the Line of Control (LoC) beyond map reference NJ 9842 have been proceeding slowly but surely towards reaching an agreement as both the parties to the conflict are now willing to accept that the disputed area does not have adequate strategic significance to justify a prolonged conflict. However, till recently, both were finding it difficult to overcome deeply entrenched negotiation mindsets and are unable to look for an innovative approach.

India was continuing to insist that the Indian army’s present defensive positions on higher ground on the Saltoro Range along the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) should be accepted by the Pakistan army and demarcated on both ground and map so that there is a reference point in case a dispute arises in future. Pakistan’s position was that by suddenly occupying the Saltoro Range west of the Siachen Glacier, India violated the 1972 Shimla Agreement and must, therefore, undo its “aggression” without insisting on legitimising its illegal occupation. A glimmer of hope has now been provided by news reports that Pakistan has agreed to let India annex maps showing its forward posts on the Saltoro Range with the demilitarisation agreement without prejudice to Pakistan’s stated position. This should be acceptable to India even though Pakistan will not aunthenticate the marked maps.

So far the Indian army’s position was that the forward posts held by both the armies must be jointly verified and demarcated on the ground and then authenticated on maps. The military advice given to the political leadeship was that if Pakistan violated the demilitarisation agreement and occupied positions vacated by Indian troops, because of the nature of terrain, extremely adverse climatic conditions and the super-high altitude with low oxygen levels in the region, it would not be possible for the army to evict the intruders. This is balanced and completely justified military advice. Army Chief General J J Singh has now said that the army has a positive approach to the issue. He has also pointed out that the army has stated its position, is convinced that the decision made by the government will be in the national interest and will abide by the government’s decision.

Apparently, the government has decided in favour of taking the political risk necessary in order to take the peace process forward. In case Pakistan does venture to occupy vacated Indian posts, a la Kargil 1999, it will be a breach of trust that will push Pakistan into a corner as an international pariah. India should insist on building into the agreement the clause that in case of a violation, both sides reserve the right to take whatever action they deem fit including military measures. On the Siachen issue the right thing to do would be to trust Pakistan in order to give peace a chance and simultaneously enhance military preparedness to open another front on the LoC at a time and place of India’s choosing in case Pakistan violates the demilitarisation agreement.

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 basic framework. The two DGMOs can together chair a Joint Working Group to work out the modalities of the disengagement and monitoring process along with civilan representatives. This JWG will decide the extent of the area to be included in the demilitarised zone where there will be no military presence from either side. The JWG will also work out an outline time frame for the process of disengagement to be completed. 

Monitoring of the disengagement process to ensure compliance with the demilitarisation agreement can be done by using national technical means such as aerial and satellite imagery, including aerial reconnaissance through manned fixed wing and helicopter sorties, side-looking airborne radars and by using UAVs while flying well within one’s own airspace. Certain ground-based sensors that are suitable for the terrain and climatic conditions obtaining in the area can also be used. The monitoring process could be initially unilateral and could slowly graduate to joint and cooperative monitoring with a jointly manned monitoring centre established at the LoC between Chalunka and Siari on the south bank of the Shyok River.

It will be up to the military negotiating teams of India and Pakistan to discuss these operational issues in much detail and reach an agreement based on factors rooted in the deployment on the ground and the likely tactical and logistics impact of each issue. The demilitarisation of the Siachen conflict zone will act as a confidence building measure of immense significance. It is an idea whose time has come. The last stumbling block can be resolved by the Indian and Pakistani leaders finding the political will necessary to accept ground realities. 

(The author is Director, Security Studies and Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)