18 May 2024 09:07 AM



The Killer Glacier: A Solution Has to Be Found

Some more Indian soldiers have died at the Siachen glacier recently. The unnecessary deaths should have refocused the attention of both India and Pakistan on the futility of posting forces at the height of some 23,000 feet where the temperature is minus 41 degrees. Both should have sat across the table to find a solution to the unsavory happenings.

Instead, New Delhi has treated the matter as sacrifice of soldiers and ended it with their state funerals. More than a decade ago, when Pakistan lost as many as 180 soldiers in an avalanche, the two countries did discuss the matter at length and reached an agreement.

The then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, initialed it. But he could not sign the agreement because our armed forces raised the question of how the glacier was strategically important. It was a mere bogey. I have discussed the matter with the retired top-brass. And they have rejected the strategy angle.

Still the soldiers remain perched at that height. It was General Pervez Musharraf who spoilt the situation. He is the one who stationed soldiers and tribal on the glacier when the then Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajapyee, took a bus ride to Lahore. Musharraf, then heading the army, did not want peace with India. He, like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, thought that Pakistan could defeat India. He realized his mistake and admitted publicly that he wouldn’t do so again because he had “learnt from history.”

India lost heavily in the Kargil war initially but ultimately prevailed because of superior military strength. The situation has not been normal since. Some incidents, off and on, take place to keep the two nations apart. Maybe, there are elements which do not want peace between the two countries.

The Pathankot incident is a recent example. A few days before the meeting between foreign secretaries of the two countries, the incident took place. Both New Delhi and Islamabad have become mature enough not to break off the talks, which are re-scheduled again. Yet, the fact remains that the talks between the two countries have not taken place and there is no likelihood of their early resumption.

In fact, the Siachen glacier is itself a matter of dispute. This is one of the matters which are spoiling the relations between the two nations. Unfortunately, the problem has assumed a political colour. The ideal solution is to let the glacier become a no-man’s land.

The Simla conference which delineated the Line of Control, now an international border, could not extend the line to the glacier because it was found impractical to do so. The matter was left at that. It is no use apportioning blame now. Both nations have to overcome bitterness that has deepened since then.

The two countries can still pick up the threads from where the Simla conference had left it off. If the glacier has to become a no-man’s land, both sides will have to implement the Shimla agreement in letter and spirit. Pakistan was not straightforward when the understanding was reached last time. It had some other ideas because it had ordered a large number of snowshoes from Germany.

When the Indian intelligence agencies informed New Delhi about the procurement of snow shoes, it stationed its troops on the glacier. Pakistan was surprised to find them when it sent its troops to occupy the glacier. The fear of being stabbed in the back has stalled peace. Yet, there is no option except to have trust in each other.

India and Pakistan are seldom on the same page. Partly, it is because they carry the baggage of partition and partly because they have no trust in each other. Above all, there is a general perception in India that since the army is a decisive factor in the affairs of Pakistan, it is not possible to foster any meaningful relationship until it becomes a democratic polity again. In fact, since the time when General Mohammad Ayub Khan took over the reins of Pakistan in 1958, India has assumed that no normalcy between the two countries is possible.

General Ayub had even offered a “joint defence pact.” India’s then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru spurned it with the remark: “Joint defence against whom?” The leaders of the two other military regimes in the seventies and later—General Zia-ul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf—were never taken seriously because New Delhi believed that their say from the military point of view would never allow any exercise for peace to succeed.

However, when Pervez Kayani was the army chief, he jolted India’s thinking by advocating “peaceful coexistence” between the two countries. But his suggestion that the civil and military leaderships should discuss ways to resolve the issue was a bit confusing. He should have known that the military leadership in India is not part of the decision-making process which is primarily in the hands of the elected representatives.

General Kayani’s proposal did not stop at the Siachen glacier. He had hinted at a follow-up, thus belying the impression that peace between India and Pakistan was a hostage to the army’s hawkish thinking. He opened a window of opportunity which the governments on both sides should have grabbed with the two hands to normalize relations.

I wish a back channel had worked on Kayani’s suggestion. Though New Delhi failed to react officially then, the media had welcomed his proposal with guarded comments. The question then was whether the Indian forces would withdraw from the Siachen glacier after Pakistan had rejected a unilateral pullout as was suggested by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at that time.

History has once again created the circumstances because Nawaz Sharif is the Prime Minister. He should take the initiative, especially when Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed the gesture of visiting Pakistan while returning from Kabul. Both can meet either at Islamabad or at New Delhi to implement the agreement which Rajiv Gandhi had initialed.

They should realize that in the absence of normalcy between India and Pakistan, the region cannot develop. The largest number of poor is in this part of the world and the two leaders will have to bury the hatchet to extract them out of helplessness.