IT was once thought to be a ‘low-hanging fruit’ of the dialogue process: an agreement to demilitarise Siachen and for troops on either side of the Actual Ground Position Line to withdraw to their pre-1984 positions.
But on Friday, Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar informed the Indian parliament that his government will not withdraw from Siachen because it could trust Pakistan to reoccupy areas vacated by India and therefore put India at a strategic disadvantage in the glacier region.
Know more: India won’t quit Siachen, says minister
Mr Parrikar’s assertion is both unfortunate and untrue. Pakistan has offered a mechanism for not only verifying mutual withdrawals from Siachen, but a joint patrolling system that would ensure that neither side ingresses into the region again to grab any territorial or military advantage.
The Pakistani suggestion is not only sensible, but cost-effective, transparent and verifiable too. Yet, India has always baulked at the idea.
Also read: Killer Siachen — ‘where a Pakistani soldier dies every four days from the cold’
Part of the problem is history. In 1984, India grabbed an advantage in Siachen that its military has prized ever since and is loath to give up.
The Kargil conflict in 1999 is thought to be the Pakistani response to India’s territory grab a decade and a half earlier — but a response that only gave the Indian military further reason to dig in its heels domestically.
After the Kargil conflict, inside India, the military leadership has effectively told every political government that withdrawal from Siachen would amount to betraying the sacrifices of Indian soldiers who gave up their lives to protect it.
But there is also a practical aspect to the Indian military’s insistence on occupying Siachen: the investments in infrastructure over the years have made the glacier an attractive high-altitude training ground at relatively manageable costs (the recent deaths in an avalanche notwithstanding).
Meanwhile, for Pakistan a withdrawal to the 1984 positions would reverse the advantage India gained and also rationalise military expenditures — a factor that matters to Pakistan given the significantly smaller budget of the military here as compared to India’s.
Yet, why the Indian military is determined to remain in Siachen and why the Pakistani military would prefer a withdrawal are perhaps beside the point.
Read: Indian soldier rescued from Siachen dies
Siachen is a conflict of egos more than an actual strategic gain — if the Indian government cannot even contemplate a sensible solution to the Siachen issue, then what of the bigger disputes between the two countries?
What is also disturbing is that Mr Parrikar’s statement attempts to predetermine an outcome of the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue.
If each issue on which Pakistan’s position has some merit and legitimacy is dismissed by India at the very outset, then how is dialogue supposed to proceed?
Siachen is not a symbol of India’s strength or Pakistan’s weakness, but of the foolishness and terribleness of war.
The real value of Siachen lies in making a success story of a meaningful peace process.
Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2016