Pakistan-India dialogue: Time to settle Siachen

ON THE eve of foreign secretary-level talks between Pakistan and India that mark the beginning of the third round of the composite dialogue process, questions are being raised as to what the post January 2004 dialogue has achieved.

By Nasim Zehra

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Published: Sun 15 Jan 2006, 9:14 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:42 PM

Undoubtedly, the dialogue has improved the atmosphere and reduced hostility between the neighbours. But what about the progress on resolution of disputes? While there is growing recognition that Kashmir is a complex issue that would require more time, there is talk of some forward movement on other, less complex disputes. In this context, Siachen is most relevant. This is something on which the two sides did get close to a settlement.

At present, India wants ‘authentication’ of the positions it occupied in Siachen in 1983. Its latest proposal has been to substitute the word ‘authentication’ for ‘acknowledgement.’ Pakistan, on the other hand, continues to call for the content of 1989 agreement as the basis for the resolution of the Siachen dispute. Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi were in power then. At the time, the neighbours had agreed to withdraw their troops so as "to conform to the positions held by the two countries at the time of signing of Simla Agreement."

The statement issued by defence secretaries of Pakistan and India also called for the military commanders of the two countries to work out the modalities of the withdrawal. Subsequently, the process for implementation was initiated and defence secretaries of India and Pakistan met to sign the agreement in 1992. The agreement was finalised between the two and the night before they had ironed out all the differences. However, the next morning a few hours before the signing ceremony, the Indian defence secretary N N Vohra informed his Pakistani counterpart Salim Abbas Jillani that the deal was off. Vohra had privately told Jillani that while the ministries of defence and external affairs were supportive of the agreement, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had been told by ‘certain quarters’ that this was not the time for this agreement.

At present, there are three issues that impede progress on Siachen. First is the question of authentication. The latest Indian position is that after Kargil, India cannot go along with this agreement on Siachen unless ‘authentication’ by Pakistan of current positions held by India is accepted by Pakistan. Pakistan’s transgression in Kargil was prefaced by many transgressions of the Line of Control by India. Unlike Kargil which Pakistan had to vacate under international pressure, India did not vacate the positions it occupied along the LoC since the Simla agreement.

Pakistan argues that for India to now use Kargil also as a justification for Pakistan acknowledging India’s illegal occupation of Siachen is unacceptable. Islamabad maintains that an agreement that will entail movement of troops from existing position to new ones would imply acknowledgement of current Indian troop presence.

Clearly, this seems to be a deadlocked position. India seeks stated authentication or acknowledgement. Pakistan refuses to concede either. However, a compromise position could be worked out to have the formulation in the agreement clearly stating the act of Indian occupation in 1983, Pakistan’s non-acceptance of occupation and then authentication of Indian troop presence within the context of occupation. .

The second issue is the difference of opinion on the zone of conflict. India maintains that the areas it occupied, around 27,000 square kilometers, in 1983 should constitute the zone of conflict. Pakistan maintains that the zone of conflict should constitute the entire area lying in the triangle within the three points of NJ 9842, Indira koli pass and the Karakorum pass. In 1992 India had conceded the entire area as a zone of conflict.

India has also offered that in case Pakistan and India are unable to agree to an agreement on Siachen, the two sides can agree on settling the dispute over the extension of the LOC beyond NJ9842. Pakistan meanwhile has sought settlement of Siachen before opening the LoC question that covers NJ9842. Pakistan’s position on NJ9842 remains that it should veer towards the Karakorum pass while India wants it to veer towards Indira Koli pass. Neither position is rooted in clear legality.

Negotiation will be needed to settle the matter. The fact that the final agreement on NJ9842 has implications of territorial control by both countries makes it an important issue. The third issue has been the establishment of civilian mountaineering in posts in Siachen. India wants to maintain mountaineering posts even after troop withdrawal. Pakistan refuses to agree to the Indian demand.

However, under the 1992 agreement Pakistan did concede this Indian demand. The 1992 agreement was formulated in an atmosphere of mutual give-and-take. India too had conceded to two Pakistani demands. One, the entire area would be acknowledged as the zone of conflict; two unconditional Indian withdrawal from Siachen. Instead of authentication, India had then asked for signed maps of the existing military positions in Siachen to be appended to the main agreement as an annex. Pakistan had agreed to the annexed maps with only Indian signatures. Pakistan would not sign and India had agreed.

These are the three issues that are preventing a Pakistan-Indian agreement on Siachen. Flexibility is needed to overcome these issues. After all, the history of the LoC is fraught with violations by both sides and some settlement on the LoC would be a needed first step to demonstrate that the two sides are capable of resolving their disputes peacefully. If any progress on dispute settlement is to be made, it is time to start on a clean legal position. The two must be willing to return to a clean slate reverting to the Simla agreement which calls for altering LoC through bilateral negotiations.

In the normalisation process, Siachen dispute has become an acid test of the intentions of the two sides. There is the 1992 bilateral agreement already in place. The two can build on it demonstrating to the international community their ability to successfully and maturely negotiate to settle their disputes.

During the early 2005 Musharraf-Manmohan meeting in Delhi, they had decided to continue exploring options on Kashmir and meanwhile to resolve relatively less complicated disputes like Siachen and Sir Creek by January 2006. Negotiations during the foreign secretary level talks must address the hurdles in the agreement. It will demonstrate Indian commitment to normalisation and more importantly to dispute settlement on the basis of legality.

This is an opportunity for India to demonstrate that it is willing to pursue an enlightened self-interest approach towards its policy in the neighbourhood. There can be no genuine peace and stability in the region unless disputes are settled. And on dispute settlement, Siachen can be the first success story of Pakistan-India dialogue process.

Nasim Zehra is a fellow of Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, Mass. She can be reached at nasimzehra@

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