For a long time now there has been speculation whether India and Pakistan are moving towards some kind of a resolution on Siachen, an issue on which the two sides have been locked in a frosty and deadly battle since the eighties. Informal assessments say that it is costing India about three crores rupees per day. And this is just to keep the supplies going to Siachen. This does not include the deaths, most of which is due more to the harsh conditions than bullets. Ever since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and General Musharraf earmarked the Siachen and the Sir Creek issues for priority attention, the speculation has grown about what kind of a solution might be possible. When the Prime Minister reached New York last month, all sorts of movement on the issue were predicted.
Nothing of the sort happened in New York. If anything, New York set India-Pak process back a few notches. Mainly because President Musharraf, heavily pre-occupied with his dalliance with Israel and making his pitch to the American Jews, in addition to the US, decided to mention Kashmir and the UN resolutions in his general assembly address. This took some of the wind out of the bilateral sail. The general apparently also gave a detailed presentation of how Indians should conduct their Kashmir affairs, especially in terms of withdrawing troops from certain sectors in Kashmir. The Prime Minister had to tell the general off, and the warmth in the atmosphere was less due to the congenial atmosphere and more due to the heat generated by their "frank and candid" discussions.
If there is one thing External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh’s trip to Islamabad and Karachi demonstrated, it is that New Delhi is not going to let the general’s unusual approach to managing bilateral disagreement dictate the pace of relations. In addition to the composite dialogue format, we now have a Joint Commission that goes over some of the areas the composite dialogue also goes through. This has some advantages. The first increases the points of engagement by introducing new subjects of bilateral discussions not envisaged in the composite dialogue format. Second, it increases the frequency of meetings at the higher levels which might help speed up the pace of the overall engagement: Under the composite dialogue format, the cycle of engagement lasts typically six months and a review is done after the cycle. Thus there is a six month wait for a particular subject to be taken forward, in case there are hitches. The Joint Commission mechanism introduces a new point of benign intervention to get things moving.
But what of Siachen? Yesterday the Pakistani foreign secretary hinted that things were now so poised on the issue that the third round of composite dialogue could address fruitfully. The next afternoon, the Indian side let it be known that discussions were going on for "a framework on which to promote the settlement through a mutually acceptable solution." This is easier said than done.
The joint statement that was issued at the end of Natwar Singh’s Islamabad leg said :"The two sides exchanged ideas on the Siachen issue and agreed to continue their discussions so as to arrive at a common understanding before commencement of the next round of Composite dialogue in January next year." That doesn’t give it too much time for this to happen: about three months.
If India and Pakistan have to withdraw troops from their current positions, India would first want Pakistan to endorse the positions they now occupy in the glacier, given Pakistan’s aggression in Kargil. Pakistan is not about to "endorse India’s aggression of Siachen" by doing this. It is the chicken and egg story. So the sequencing of a possible solution presents problems. Now what has been decided is to work out a package in terms of a framework which would mitigate the political difficulties each side would have in accepting some reasonable and doable solution. Can this be done?
There are at least six clusters of issues on Siachen that needs to be addressed:
- The first pertains to the area which will be vacated by the troops.
- The second has to do with how to work out where the troops will re-deploy.
- The third has to deal with how to define an area of disengagement.
- The fourth has to do with how to work out a regime to keep that area of disengagement demilitarized.
- The fifth has to do with how to verify that the regime is working to mutual satisfaction.
- And lastly, how to define a boundary beyond point NJ 9842?
Can a framework understanding be arrived on all these issues in three months? If that happens, then all of us will know that the bilateral track is proceeding better than we expected