At what is commonly referred to as Siachen, India hold the dominating high ground on Saltoro Ridge. To the west of this is Gilgit and Baltistan, which is proposed to be leased by Pakistan to China, to the north Sakshgam valley already ceded to China by Pakistan and to its south east, Aksai Chin already occupied by China. Legally, this area is part of the Indian Union although some in illegal occupation of Pakistan and China. Parliament’s unanimous Resolution of 22 February 1994 states that ‘Pakistan must vacate the areas of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir which they have occupied through aggression’.
India holds high ground, which in the event of being occupied by Pakistan or China post any demilitarization, will be almost impossible to recapture.
Strategically, India’s present position prevents any possibility of a Pakistan China link up in the area whilst tactically India holds high ground, which in the event of being occupied by Pakistan or China post any demilitarization, will be almost impossible to recapture. Visiting the Base camp in Siachen on 13 June 2005, the Prime Minister told the troops that Siachen would be converted from a point of conflict to a zone of peace.
The last round of Indo-Pakistan Defence Secretary level talks on resolution of the Siachen dispute held on 12 Jun 12 ended with both sides reiterating their known positions. But even as these talks were being held both sides were acutely conscious that a series of Track II talks had been going for nearly a year between groups of both sides. That neither the Indian government nor the media shared this with the public perhaps tells its own story.
It was a press release of 2 October 2012 by the Atlantic Council, which announced that a group of retired senior officials in a meeting in Lahore adopted by consensus a number of CBMs more specifically on a proposal regarding demilitarization of the Siachen area. The discussions were jointly organized by the University of Ottawa and the South Asia Centre at the Atlantic Council and supported by others. The release named two co chairs of the discussions both retired, a Pakistan army chief and an Indian air chief.
Due to their informal nature they merely prepare the ground for policy makers to find solutions to contentious international issues.
This prompted a reporter on the sidelines of a function on 10 November to ask the Defence Minister if there were efforts being made through Track II dialogue. He is reported to have said ‘ No, we are not for that. Our stand on Siachen is very clear and there is no change in our stand’. This stand being that any pull back can only be considered after joint authentication of the actual ground position line (AGPL), which Pakistan rejects. The Indian army for sound reasons has strong reservations regarding demilitarizing of the area without such cast iron precautions.
Lt. Gen. Katoch (retd) informally interviewed the co chair of the Indian team and quotes him saying that the entire exercise was organized and funded by the Atlantic Council of Ottawa with them selecting and contacting the individual members with the Indian government playing no part. He further stressed that although he was co chair, he had no control over the members who were each acting in their individual capacity. The team was briefed both by the MEA and military authorities and on conclusion, a report was submitted to the RM, MEA, NSA and the service chiefs.
Coming as this revelation does on the heels of the Gulam Nabi Fai case, questions of propriety and security arise in respect of this Track II venture. Fai, as will be recalled was the executive director of Washington based Kashmir American Council and was charged for being funded by Pakistan’s ISI. According to the FBI affidavit a confidential witness told FBI investigators ‘ISI created the KAC to propagandize on behalf of the government of Pakistan with the goal of uniting Kashmir.’ This episode left many of our intellectual community who enjoyed Fai’s hospitality not only red faced, but running for cover!
Track II is informal diplomacy, but a form of diplomacy nonetheless implying that interlocutors enjoy the confidence of their respective governments and are appointed or endorsed by them. Due to their informal nature they merely prepare the ground for policy makers to find solutions to contentious international issues. The present case raises some serious questions, where a private initiative is proposing solutions to the government and the military.
It is no secret that there are many peaceniks in the country that would like Indian troops to pull out of Siachen in furtherance of their desire for peace with Pakistan.
A question that arises is that can a high powered team comprising of retired chief, four three starred ranks, an ex Special Secretary RAW, an erstwhile Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to US amongst others take it upon themselves as individuals to discuss sensitive national security issues with a similar team from Pakistan without the blessings, if not the involvement of the Indian government? Are we so naïve as to believe that a Pakistani team of similar weight will work independent of the ISI and its army?
A member of the team writing after the press release makes the point that their proposals on how to demilitarize Siachen are doable provided the Indian government answers the questions of why and when. He then concludes ‘The Track II teams of both countries have done their job, and now it is up to the two governments to make the next move.’ This gives the impression that the teams were working to respective government charters.
Earlier on 1st June 2012 a retired Brigadier had written an article in a national daily titled “Siachen demilitarization: A low-risk option to test Pak army’s sincerity”. Quite apart from the questionable validity of this logic from a respected security analyst, it now emerges that the writer is a member of this Track II group and one wonders if the message was discreetly timed to coincide with the change in leadership of the Indian army, which occurred the day before the article was published?
The troubling questions to which answers need to be forthcoming are as follows. Was the government party to this exercise? The demilitarization plan devised by the so-called Track II is something that the two Director Generals of Military Operations would easily have arrived at, once the difficult political decisions were taken. Was this a discreet message to the army to fall in line? An intriguing question is why would any sponsor ask an erstwhile air chief to co chair such discussions when the obvious candidate should have been one from the Indian army? Why indeed did an erstwhile air chief accept such an assignment? Worse, it has even been suggested by some commentators that of those constituting the army membership of which there were five, none had served in the Siachen area.
It would be in the public interest for the government to take the people into confidence on this entire issue. Any delay will merely fuel rumours.
On the other hand, if the Indian Government had nothing to do with this private initiative as claimed by the Indian co chair why were briefings held at the external affairs and military levels and reports accepted? Especially as it is not the practice for the services to brief private teams and accept their reports. Was it wise to allow such very senior and distinguished retired officers to be chosen and funded by foreign agencies to discuss vital national security issues with equally senior representatives from Pakistan? ‘There are no free lunches’ is a cliché well known. With the Fai episode in the open was it not obligatory on the part of concerned authorities to check antecedents and deeper motives of the organizers and funding and caution these so called individual do-gooders, if not forbid them as retired senior functionaries to partake in this jamboree? Or is it the government’s case that it was helpless?
It is no secret that there are many peaceniks in the country that would like Indian troops to pull out of Siachen in furtherance of their desire for peace with Pakistan. It is also no secret that the US and many other friends would deeply appreciate such a move as it suits their national interests. The Pakistan army, which is playing a double game even with its close allies in AfPak, has not displayed any change of heart in its policy of deceit against India. What then is the guarantee that having failed in its proxy war in J&K, in Kargil and the war to win the intelligentsia in the Fai episode it has not now homed on to the Track II bandwagon? And in this way target the minds of distinguished soldiers and diplomats who even in their retirement can be a source of immense knowledge about the institutions they served and the ethos and thinking within the Indian security establishment?
Speaking at the HT Leadership Summit the other day, how ironical that Musharraf the architect of Kargil in the midst of India’s sincere peace efforts and a fugitive from his own country, should now smoke the peace pipe and appeal for compromise and accommodation on the part of bigger India while audaciously blaming the Indian army for stalling a Siachen solution. Does he see an opportunity to create a deeper wedge within the Indian security establishment, encouraged by perhaps this type of Track II initiative?
It would be in the public interest for the government to take the people into confidence on this entire issue. Any delay will merely fuel rumours. Indian democracy and sovereignty interests would also dictate that any decisions on demilitarization of Siachen should be subject to Parliament’s approval in keeping with the spirit of its earlier resolution.