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- Tuesday, May 01, 2012 - From Print Edition

As the search and rescue operation goes on, our prayers and thoughts go out to the victims of the Gyari tragedy and their families. The tragedy has given an insight into the hazardous life spent by our soldiers on those high altitude posts under extreme weather conditions. Siachen indeed is a challenge only the brave and patriotic can face.

But ignorance-based utopian calls for unilateral withdrawal from Siachen are totally uncalled-for. Those who were harping on the withdrawal theme either did not know or just didn’t want to know that it is not Pakistan which introduced the military dimension to the problem. It is the other side which did that by occupying the Pakistan-controlled Siachen sector making this the world’s highest battlefield and a virtual hell.

The Siachen saga began on April 13, 1984, with the Indian army surreptitiously launching a military operation codenamed “Meghdoot” and occupying unmanned positions overlooking key passes in the Saltoro Range. Since 1947, this undelineated area west of Point NJ 9842 of the Ceasefire Line/Line of Control and the Karakorum Pass had been under Pakistan’s control with mountaineering and trekking expeditions always obtaining authorisation from the government of Pakistan. All world maps and atlases clearly showed the Line of Control running northeastwards straight from NJ 9842 to the Karakoram Pass with the Siachen Glacier inside Pakistan.

The Simla Agreement signed by India and Pakistan in 1972 clearly states that “in Jammu and Kashmir, the Line of Control resulting from the ceasefire of December 17, 1971, shall be respected by both sides without prejudice to the recognised position of either side. Neither side shall seek to alter it unilaterally, irrespective of mutual differences and legal interpretations. Both sides further undertake to refrain from the threat or the use of force in violation of this Line.” India’s move into Siachen was a flagrant violation of this agreement.

The move was not without a precedent. India had made similar “tactical intrusions” across the Line of Control on several occasions in the past in clear violation of the Line of Control and had occupied huge territories on the Pakistani side. But it got away with those violations. In fact, in addition to Siachen, other lost grounds also remain in India’s forcible custody, including a large chunk of Pakistan’s territory in Chorbat La sector which it occupied in 1972 and several other posts in Qamar sector in 1988. All these facts are known to the world and yet India’s military muscle is being bolstered against China.

Once India militarised the region, Pakistan had no choice but to maintain its own military presence there. Pakistan’s efforts to wrest control of the occupied area could not succeed because, being at relatively lower altitudes, it was at a handicap to retake the occupied positions. Since then our army has been able to ensure that that the Indians do not advance any further.

There is no question of unilateral a withdrawal while the enemy holds 1000 square miles (2,600 square kilometres) of Pakistani territory under its unlawful occupation and has plans to capture more in order to complete the strategic goal of cutting off Pakistan from China.

For 28 years, both sides have paid heavily with their troops serving in exceptionally inhospitable terrain and extreme weather conditions, with temperatures in winters plummeting to minus 70 degrees Celsius. The Pakistani army is comparatively advantageously placed since its road-head is only 20 kilometres away while that of Indian army is 80 kilometres away.

More men have died on both sides as a result of terrain and weather hazards than from enemy action. Over 8,000 Indian and Pakistani soldiers have died between April 1984 and April 2012; 5,000 of these casualties were suffered by the Indian army and 3,000 by Pakistani army.

The only solution to this problem is for both sides to demilitarise Siachen and delineate the region on the basis of principles stipulated in bilateral agreements of 1949, 1972 and 1989 for demarcation of the Line of Control and demilitarisation of the glacier. If anything, the Gyari tragedy should be a timely reminder to both sides of the need to do so sooner rather than later. In both countries there is growing awareness of the enormous costs being incurred by the respective governments on maintaining permanent military presence in a region known as the Roof of the World.

One must accept that Siachen is a difficult front for both sides and this calls for their troops’ pullout from the area. There are a number of reasons, from financial to environmental, for both countries to withdraw from this front, even in the presence of the core issue of Kashmir. In June 1989, both sides agreed on the basic parameters of a Siachen solution involving the relocation of forces to the positions away from the glacier, but not unilaterally. Pursuant to this understanding, both sides were to work towards a comprehensive settlement based on redeployment of forces to the July 1972 positions. This framework is the only agreed basis available for a Siachen settlement to which Pakistan remains committed.

At least for once we did hear President Asif Ali Zardari also speaking some truth. At a political gathering, he ruled out any unilateral pullout from Siachen, making it clear that “we are aware of the extreme climate and other difficulties at one of the world’s most difficult terrains but the withdrawal can only take place if the two governments decide to pull out from the area jointly.” But one could never be sure whether he genuinely meant what he said or was simply scoring a point over his political adversaries who had earlier called for unilateral pullout from Siachen without really knowing what they were saying.

In this chaotic scenario, the only sane voice came from Pakistan’s army chief, Gen Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani, who spoke of the need for the resolution of the Siachen issue and other outstanding problems between India and Pakistan. He also endorsed the need for spending less on defence and more on the wellbeing of the people. Both countries, according to him, will be more secure and stronger if socio-economic development was taking place and people were happy. No one can question this logic. But then he also reminded the world that Pakistan was not responsible for the Siachen issue. It was India’s military move on the Siachen Glacier that precipitated the ongoing crisis.

In keeping with its tradition, India resiled from the 1989 agreement and insisted that withdrawal would be subject to ground realities. It asked for authentication of the actual ground positions. Obviously, Pakistan couldn’t oblige India since that would have meant legitimisation of Indian aggression and giving India reason to make illegal claims over the territory in future negotiations.

In other worlds, India is obstinately maintaining that line beyond NJ 9842 must be delineated before disengagement and negotiations. This was its position even at the 12th round of Siachen talks in 2011 whereas Pakistan made every effort for bridging the gaps on redeployment and the disengagement process. Dialogue and engagement remain the only acceptable means of resolving disputes today, but it seems we will have to continue to pay the price for India’s stubbornness.

The writer is a former foreign

secretary. Email: shamshad1941@