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Not skating on thin ice

The Siachen talks have been bogged down on the issues of authentication of existing positions and definition of the LoC to be drawn thereafter, writes AG Noorani.

india Updated: Jul 04, 2007 00:14 IST

Barbara Crossette of The New York Times met Rajiv Gandhi hours before his tragic assassination on May 21, 1991. She misunderstood his remarks in her report: “We were close to finalising an agreement on Kashmir. We had the maps and everything ready to sign. And then he (Zia-ul-Haq) was killed in 1988.” To the Foreign Correspondents Association, however, he revealed on April 27, 1991, that he had “almost signed a treaty on Siachen with Zia. The only reason it was not signed was that he died”. What has since emerged on impeccable authority is that in 1989, he had come close to a deal on Siachen with Benazir Bhutto. It was not clinched, but the formula he offered then can serve as a basis for an accord now.

Rajiv Gandhi and Zia-ul-Haq agreed in Delhi on December 17, 1985, to begin talks on Siachen at the level of defence secretaries. At the fifth round of these talks, in Islamabad on June 17, 1989, a joint statement was issued, which stated: “There was agreement by both sides to work towards a comprehensive settlement, based on redeployment of forces to reduce the chances of conflict, avoidance of use of force and determination of future positions on the ground so as to conform with the Simla agreement and to ensure durable peace in the Siachen area. The army authorities of both sides will determine these positions.”

The fact of an ‘agreement’ was explicitly mentioned. It was on “determination of future positions”, not existing positions. The army authorities were to “determine” these positions, i.e. future positions to which they would withdraw (“redeploy”). The Indian army chief, General B.C. Joshi, insisted in the talks held a month later in New Delhi, on July 9 and 10, 1989, on identifying existing positions. This still remains our position. An agreement was, however, reached in the sixth round, in New Delhi on November 2 to November 4, 1992, on where the two armies would redeploy. But Prime Minister Narasimha Rao refused to clinch the deal.

However, India gave a Non-Paper to Pakistan on January 24, 1994, which asserted that in the 1992 talks, “a broad understanding had been reached on disengagement and redeployment, monitoring, maintenance of peace and implementation schedule”. There was agreement on a “zone of complete disengagement”, resulting from the withdrawals, as also the points to which both sides would withdraw — India to Dzingrulma and Pakistan to Goma. But a snag remained in this formulation: “The two sides shall disengage from the authenticated position they are presently occupying.”

Para 4 of this Non-Paper is still relevant now in 2007. It bound both sides in three respects: (a) not to “reoccupy the positions vacated by them or to occupy the positions vacated by either side”; (b) not to undertake any activity in the zone of disengagement; and, what is most relevant now, (c) “that if either side violates the commitment in (a) and (b) above, the other side shall be free to respond through any means, including military”.

This takes care of the question, how do we trust Pakistan not to reoccupy the areas it vacated? Worst case scenarios always prevent accord on any dispute. How, then, do we settle Kashmir, let alone Sir Creek and Siachen? In these days of satellite surveillance, the distrust is groundless. Siachen is not flat land that anyone can cross by stealth. There was accord on joint surveillance by helicopters in the November 1992 talks. Pakistan would invite reprisal from a militarily superior India and incur odium internationally, as it did on Kargil in 1999. A good model is the Indo-Pak accord on February 4, 1987, on “the pullout of troops deployed on the border by both sides”, sectorwise, after Exercise Brasstacks. “Both sides agreed not to attack each other.” It was based on trust and realism.

On Siachen, both sides agreed also that “the delineation of the LoC beyond NJ 9842 (its present terminus) shall be examined by a Joint Commission letter”, a task doomed to failure. Pakistan wants the LoC to stretch eastwards to the Karakoram Pass; India, to extend it to Indira Col in the west of its existing position. Neither side can possibly accept the other’s stand.

The talks have thus been bogged down on the twin issues of authentication of existing positions and definition of the LoC to be drawn thereafter.

“Redeployment of forces” was to be but a first step in a “comprehensive settlement” whose end result would be “determination of future positions on the ground”. This would fill the gap left by the Karachi agreement on July 27, 1949, defining the cease-fire line, as well as the Suchetgarh Agreement of December 11, 1972, which defined the present LoC in J&K.

But there is a difference between the two agreements on the terminus of the line. The 1972 agreement says simply “thence along the boundary to NJ 980420” and ends there. However, the 1949 agreement had gone further. It mentioned the last two points (“Chalunke, Khor”) and ended thus: “thence north to the glaciers. This portion of the CFL shall be demarcated in detail on the basis of the factual position as on July 27, 1949, by the local commanders, assisted by UN military observers”.

The next para provided that the CFL shall be drawn on a map and verified on the ground by the local commanders “so as to eliminate any no-man’s land”. But no line was drawn from Chalunke, Khor “north to the glaciers”. The gap can now be filled by drawing a line north to the glaciers.

A high Indian source told this writer in the early 1990s that in 1989, the PM’s able envoy, Ronen Sen, offered Pakistan precisely such a line. His counterpart, Iqbal Akhund, confirmed this in 2000 in his memoirs Trial and Error. “It should run due north, that is, up to the Chinese border in a ruler-straight line”. Ronen Sen said at Belgrade during the NAM Summit inter alia that “some principles must be established for extending the line of control beyond No. 9842”. It is unlikely that the parties would agree on anything but “a ruler-straight line” to the north as the 1949 agreement envisaged.

India’s vital interest is to ensure Pakistan’s disavowal of a claim to the Karakoram Pass. The up-turned Triangle Indira Col in the West, the Karakoram Pass in the East and NJ 9842 below both is almost evenly split. The entire area can be demilitarised.

The issues of authentication of existing and future positions are bypassed. A clear line will be laid down, called the Actual Ground Position Line to allay fears of a complete partition of J&K. It would not shorten the Sino-Pak boundary as some in Pakistan fear. On the contrary, Pakistan regains much of it, but we keep it well away from the Karakoram Pass.