The Siachen impasse

Print edition : November 22, 2002

Siachen: Conflict Without End by Lt.-Gen. V.R. Raghavan; Viking; pages 240, Rs.395.

LIEUTENANT-GENERAL (retd.) V.R. Raghavan is highly qualified to write on the Siachen issue. He was Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO) at the Army HQ till 1992; was Commanding General of the Siachen sector and was involved in negotiations with Pakistan on the Siachen dispute. After retirement he earned high repute as an analyst on strategic affairs.

This is by far the most comprehensive work on the subject. It is now 18 years since armed conflict between India and Pakistan erupted in 1984 in that forbidding region. Excellent maps designed by the author himself, rare photographs, and appendices containing texts of pertinent documents enhance the value of the book.

Pakistan intended to acquire a permanent presence in the Siachen. India sensed it and moved in first. "There is a growing body of military opinion that the strategic value of holding defences in the Saltoro is not matched by the effort required for it."

Lt.-Gen (retd) I.S. Gill, Director of Military Operations during the 1971 war with Pakistan, observed: "The amounts of money wasted by both sides is very large indeed. There is nowhere that either side can go in this terrain. You cannot build roads on glacier, which are moving rivers of ice. We have no `strategic-tactical advantage' in this area and nor can Pakistan. Ask any officer who has been on the glacier what Pakistan will do if we pull out, and he will tell you at once that Pakistan will do the same. We must withdraw immediately and unilaterally and save wastage of money which we cannot afford estimated at Rs.30,000 crores since 1985" (The Hindu, March 5, 1997).

It is on the diplomatic aspect that the book disappoints us. The author skirts the issue of responsibility for the failure and maintains studied even-handedness in what is otherwise a very sound work, indeed. He carefully traces the origins of the problem in its historical and geographical setting. Unfortunately, both the July 27, 1949 agreement defining the ceasefire line and the December 11, 1972 agreement defining the Line of Control (LoC) stopped at grid point NJ 9842. They trusted the glaciers to keep the peace.

Once Pakistan's map stretching the LoC to the Karakoram Pass gained currency and it began granting permits to mountaineering expeditions, Indian fears were rightly aroused. It decided to move into the area before Pakistan could. Shortly before his assassination in May 1991, Rajiv Gandhi told the Foreign Correspondents Association in New Delhi: "We don't want to sell out, we want to be friendly. I was friendly with Zia, we almost signed a treaty on Siachen with Zia. The only reason it wasn't signed was that he died (in August 1988). At no time were we soft with Pakistan, but we got our work done" (`A role for India', Frontline, May 11, 1991, page 116). Note the fear of being accused of a "sell-out" and of being "soft". Granted the failure in 1988, he offered no explanation for the failure to conclude an accord with Benazir Bhutto in June 1989.

We swear by the Simla Agreement but merrily imply that it does not apply to Siachen since the LoC does not cover that region (it stops at NJ 9842). The impression is utterly wrong. Para 1 (ii) of the Agreement embodies an overriding commitment, independently of respect for the LoC. It says "neither side shall unilaterally alter the situation," in regard to "any of the problems between the two countries".

A helicopter ferries food supplies to jawans sationed on the siachen Glacier.-ANU PUSHKARNA

Rajiv Gandhi tacitly acknowledged breach of the Simla Agreement when he said on November 16, 1989 in Kolkata: "`We have recovered about 5,000 square kilometres of area from occupied Kashmir in Siachen. We will not forgo one square kilometre of that." It was this mindset that wrecked the June 1989 understanding. There have been seven rounds of talks between representatives of the two countries from January 1986 to November 1998. "There seemed no urgency on either side to seek an end to the conflict or to be ready to make the concessions needed to obtain a positive overall outcome."

The even-handedness is laboured. The last three rounds of talks between the Defence Secretaries reflect poorly on India's leaders the fifth (June 1989), sixth (November 1992) and the seventh (November 1998).

The joint statement issued on June 17, 1989 recorded: "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 the 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" (emphasis added, throughout). The fact of an "agreement" was explicitly mentioned, so also the two basic principles on which it was based "redeployment of forces'' (that is, withdrawal) and "determination of future positions on the ground so as to conform with the Simla Agreement". In sum, return to positions held by the parties at the time of the Simla Agreement.

This was in striking contrast to all previous joint statements. The next day, separate talks between the Foreign Secretaries concluded. At a joint press conference, Pakistan Foreign Secretary Humayun Khan referred to the Defence Secretaries' meeting. According to the Voice of America's tape, he called it "a significant advance" and spoke of a joint commitment to "relocation of forces to positions occupied at the time of the Simla Agreement. The exact location of these positions will be worked out in detail by military authorities of the two countries." Foreign Secretary S.K. Singh said: "I would like to thank the Foreign Secretary, Dr. Humayun Khan, and endorse everything he has said."

The very next day Aftab Seth, Joint Secretary and official spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in New Delhi, said that no agreement had been reached on troop withdrawals. "There was no indication of any such agreement in the joint press statement issued at the end of the talks." This statement was palpably untrue. The two meetings of military representatives during July 11-13 and August 17-18, 1989 did not help.

In the sixth round held in New Delhi from November 2 to 4, 1992, India proposed (a) the demarcation of the LoC in the area as a matter of priority; (b) redeployment of troops on both sides to agreed positions, but after recording existing positions; (c) definition of a Zone of Disengagement which would come into being consequent on the redeployment and (d) undertakings by both sides not to 1. reoccupy vacated positions; 2. occupy new positions "across the alignment determined by the vacated positions", 3. undertake any military or mountaineering activity in the zone.

The Zone and the alignment of existing positions marked a clear retreat from the June 1989 agreement to India's former position. The monitoring would have been along the existing positions. The zone itself was defined to accord with the existing Actual Ground Position Line.

Pakistan's riposte was to propose a triangle whose points were Indira Col in the west and the Karakoram Pass in the east, both joined to NJ 9842. Troops of both countries would be withdrawn from the area within this triangle. The status quo would be maintained pending demarcation of the LoC by a Joint Commission.

Both proposals were non-starters. Put off by the Indian proposal, Pakistan made one that India could not possibly have accepted. However and this is to fact which has not been publicised confronted by the deadlock, Pakistan sought to revive the 1989 agreement by formally making a proposal which was a major concession to India; namely, that existing positions would be recorded, albeit in an annexure and on the understanding that it would not constitute a basis for a claim to the area legally, morally or politically. The annexure would mention the points at which the troops will "redeploy" (read, retreat). Demarcation of the LoC will follow thereafter. India did not respond to the proposal, and the talks ended.

However, in the technical talks in November 1992 it was agreed that: (a) India would withdraw to Zingrulma and Pakistan to Goma at the base of the Bilafond Glacier, and (b) surveillance would be undertaken by helicopter.

On November 6, an MEA spokesman acknowledged that "there was a certain progress made in terms of technical details of the disengagement". He claimed that the 1989 talks foundered on this point but that was not the case this time. He did not claim that any accord had been reached. Thereafter reports appeared in the press that India's concessions would not go beyond "minor adjustments" on the Saltoro Range.

A year later, K.K. Katyal reported in The Hindu of January 25, 1994: "As regards Siachen, India has veered to the view taken by Pakistan towards the end of 1992. There is an element of frankness in New Delhi's explanation that the domestic political environment of that period came in the way of acceptance. In doing so, India may have exposed itself to criticism that decisions on crucial issues were allowed to be influenced by narrow domestic considerations."

The Non-Paper India gave Pakistan on January 24, 1994 unctuously claimed: "1. During the discussions between India and Pakistan at the Sixth Round of Talks held at New Delhi, 1992, on Siachen, a broad understanding had been reached on disengagement and redeployment, monitoring, maintenance of peace and implementation schedule. 2. It was agreed that immediate focus should be on restoring peace and tranquillity in Siachen. Towards this end, without prejudice to the positions taken by either side in the earlier rounds of talks (India's position: Point NJ 9842 should extend to Sia Kangri; Pakistan's position; Point NJ 9842 should join with Karakoram Pass), both sides agreed that the delineation of the LoC beyond NJ 9842 shall be examined by a Joint Commission later. 3. Both sides agreed that to reduce tension in Siachen, the two sides shall disengage from authenticated positions they are presently occupying and shall fall back to positions as under: ... ." This was sent with Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit's approval, obviously. He retired from service on January 31, 1994. India was to disengage from its positions on the Saltoro Ridge to those east and north of Zingrulma. Pakistan was to withdraw from its positions to a defined line to the west. The area so vacated was to constitute a Zone of Complete Disengagement. Pakistan's Non-Paper of February 19, 1994 flatly denied that any such agreement was reached in 1992 and relied on the 1989 accord. It sought, obviously, to whittle down its major concession in 1992 recording the existing positions in an annexure.

No sooner did George Fernandes become Defence Minister in March 1998 than he decided to wipe out the fundamental principle on which the talks had proceeded for over a decade; namely, disengagement based on mutual withdrawal. He declared on July 18, 1998 that "India needs to hold on to Siachen, both for strategic reasons and wider security in the region". Lt.-Gen. Raghavan's book ably refutes this absurd view. Fernandes adopted it to secure political mileage and to court the hardliners in the Bharatiya Janata Party as well as the Army. He left the seventh round of talks held on November 6, 1998 doomed to certain failure. The four-point proposal made by India on November 6 was crafted to ensure its rejection comprehensive ceasefire based on a freeze of "present ground positions", discussions on the modalities for implementing the ceasefire within an agreed time-frame, a "bilateral monitoring mechanism" and authentication of existing ground positions. Earlier, inspired press reports had it that the talks would be "dominated by one issue the control of strategic positions along the Saltoro Range". In short, the status quo should be preserved.

Having resiled from the 1989 agreement and aborted an accord in 1992, India itself made an offer in 1994 based on the fundamentals of 1989 and 1994. In 1998 it abandoned all these and insisted on preserving the status quo. At the end of the talks, on November 6, 1998, the DGMO, Lt.-Gen. Inder K. Verma, claimed that the area north and east of grid point NJ 9842 where the LoC ended, had been under India's control even before the Simla Agreement was signed on July 3, 1972. The claim was as novel and belated as it was utterly untrue. It flew in the face of the incontrovertible facts about the 1984 Operation Meghdoot and of Rajiv Gandhi's statement on November 16, 1989.

The author grapples with the record on these three episodes of 1989, 1992 and 1998 with remarkable delicacy. In 1989 "there had been some informal contacts established between the two Prime Ministers. These had led to the understanding that a mutual pullback by the two militaries from the Saltoro would not be difficult to accomplish. The Indian delegation had therefore been given a mandate to work for a disengagement by both armies." But Pakistan sought "to retain its position unchanged". He blames it for the failure and deals thus with S.K. Singh's remarks in endorsement. "He had in fact only endorsed the sentiment that there had been progress during the bilateral talks. Confronted with Pakistan's interpretation of the talks as amounting to an Indian pullback, the Indian government denied that there had been any such agreement." This is contrary to the joint statement as well as the record of the 1989 episode.

On the 1992 talks the author does little better. "It was now the turn of the Indian side to find (sic.) a stumbling block to progress on the Zone of Disengagement idea. Senior members of the Indian team briefed the top political leadership about the outcome of the talks. The outcome had been on lines which had been discussed during pre-talk sessions at the highest levels. The Zone of Disengagement, which had been approved, was now found to be unacceptable. Either the support of major political parties to the outcome had not been forthcoming, or the political executive had second thoughts in view of the violence that was being instigated by Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir. Relations between the Congress government and the BJP were also beginning to harden due to differences on the Babri Masjid issue. These developments had not been anticipated." This defensive explanation is followed by an assertion that is untrue.

"The Pakistanis were in any case unwilling to concede the need for marking the current deployment, and were extremely hesitant about a Zone of Disengagement which even remotely indicated the ground reality before the pullback commenced." This is grossly misleading. The truth is that, true to form, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao went back on the brief he had given the Indian team. Pakistan's delegation was kept waiting only to be told that despite its vital concession on recording the existing positions no further talks would be held. This, incidentally, was repeated by Vajpayee in Agra in July 2001. The author remarks: "In India, it was essential that the major political parties in Parliament agreed to the disengagement plan. It would as such be unfair to entirely blame the government of the day in New Delhi for the failure of negotiations in the sixth round." Who else should share the blame, pray? Public opinion, apparently, does not exist in Pakistan or China. The author, likewise, puts a gloss on India's stand in the Seventh Round (1998). He notes, but does not criticise, the fact that India's proposal "indicated a significant shift in positions taken earlier". Yet, he criticises Pakistan for rejecting a ceasefire based on the rejection of the decade-old agreed principle of withdrawal by both sides.

Raghavan asserts that the "new dimension to these (Indian) proposals was that they referred to the Saltoro Range. There was no mention of the Siachen glacier". The official press note, which he cites in support, however, said: "We have proposed an agreement on ceasing fire in Siachen." He ends, predictably, with Kargil. His solution is simple. "A freeze on fighting through an agreed ceasefire, a commitment to stop changing the status quo on ground, and reducing some forces over an agreed period after informing each other, can provide the basis for a deliberate and carefully planned exercise."

Nationalism triumphs over objectivity. Raghavan misses the point that India wants to freeze the status quo it altered militarily to its advantage in 1984. Pakistan the revisionist, cannot accept that, either on the LoC or in Siachen. As always, even the best of us, like Raghavan himself, refuse to look beyond our own narrow interests whether on Siachen, Kashmir or the boundary dispute with China and despite the fact that compromise will be in India's larger, long-term interests.

J.N. Dixit was India's High Commissioner to Pakistan in 1989 and Foreign Secretary in 1992. His versions are tabulated below:

1. "The fifth round of talks on Sir Creek and the sixth round of talks on Siachen were held in Delhi between 2 and 6 November (1992). Both the meetings were resultless because Pakistan refused to budge from its highly technical stance on the issues involved" (Dixit's book, Anatomy of a Flawed Inheritance 1995; page 168).

2. Asghar Ali Engineer in The Hindu of February 24, 1996 reported Dixit's claims at a seminar. In 1992, he along with his then Pakistani counterpart had evolved an agreed draft to solve the Siachen issue. However, the Prime Minister had said that though it was good he could not accept it as he was not sure whether Parliament would support him."

3. Dixit's Memoirs of a Foreign Secretary (1996, page 125): "The sixth round of talks between the Defence Secretaries of India and Pakistan regarding Siachen had been held from 2 to 5 November 1992. My colleague, Defence Secretary N. N. Vohra and Pakistan's Defence Secretary Syed Salim Abbas Jallani almost finalised an agreement for the redeployment of Indian and Pakistani forces. I expected that this would put an end to a strategically futile and economically costly confrontation. Three factors prevented the agreement from getting governmental approval from India and Pakistan. First, for its part, Pakistan continued to harp on the precondition that India should agree to the line of control notionally being accepted as running north-eastwards from the grid reference point known as NJ 9842. Secondly, Pakistan continued to express reservations about finalising a joint cartographic document which would pinpoint positions from which troops of both countries should pull back. Thirdly, our own government had reservations at the political level about approving the agreement reached at that point of time, because of increased levels of Pakistan-sponsored violence in Jammu and Kashmir and also because of the intensity of the hostile diplomatic and publicity activities against India in which Pakistan was engaged. It was felt that Indian public opinion and Parliament would not be supportive of any positive move forward on Siachen at that point. At the official level, we felt if this was the case, we need not have got into the very detailed discussion which we had with Pakistan in November 1992."

The first two assertions are untrue. Pakistan had agreed to record existing positions. Narasimha Rao's refusal to ratify the understanding was not due to the factors Dixit cites but due entirely to the unworthy ones that Katyal mentioned.

4. Dixit's article in Outlook of November 2, 1998 put forth a totally different version altogether. "One wonders why both countries do not implement the agreement already arrived at and initialled on Siachen and the Tulbul navigation project finalised between 1990 and 1994." A professional diplomat, he used the word "initialled" advisedly, one would think. However it is untrue. No accord on Siachen was reached let alone reduced to writing and "initialled". This novel assertion is contradicted by his own earlier accounts. The Non-Paper of January 23, 1994, given after the Foreign Secretaries' talks from January 1 to 3, 1994 in Islamabad made no such claim.

5. Dixit's book India, Pakistan in War and Peace (2002) repeats (page 288) what he wrote in his memoirs in 1996; not the claim of initialling. Dixit, no doubt, considers his versions from 1995 to 2002, to be consistent with one another. Others may be forgiven for holding a different view.

Pakistan's version of the May 1989 understanding is set out in Benazir Bhutto's National Security and Foreign Affairs Adviser Iqbal Akhund's memoirs Trial and Error (Oxford University Press, 2000; pages 99-112). During his visit to Pakistan in June 1989, Rajiv Gandhi remarked: "If only your Foreign Secretary had not mentioned the 1972 positions in talking of redeployment, we would not be having all this trouble." Akhund remarks that this was "a confirmation that he was having problems with the Opposition and, probably, with the Army". The year 1989 was an election year. In 1992, Narasimha Rao had no such excuse. He lacked leadership, a quality that did not grace any of his successors either H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral, or Atal Behari Vajpayee of the Agra fame.

Akhund confirmed Rajiv's version (page 105). His able aide, Ronen Sen, now High Commissioner in London, proposed splitting the difference. The LoC would have "run due north, that is, up to the Chinese border in a ruler-straight line"; between Indira Col in the west and Karakoram Pass in the east.

Thanks to Narasimha Rao's attitude in 1992, Pakistan withdrew its concession in 1994 and linked Siachen to the `K' issue. It must be delinked now. Both sides must withdraw from the Siachen.

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