Settle the Siachen dispute now

The 1992 draft agreement for demilitarising the glacier must be revived

June 11, 2012 12:23 am | Updated July 12, 2016 02:51 am IST

120611- siachen -AG Noorani, Illustration for Lead article -Siachen- AG Noorani

120611- siachen -AG Noorani, Illustration for Lead article -Siachen- AG Noorani

A textual analysis of the drafts presented by India and Pakistan during the talks on the Siachen issue in New Delhi in November 1992 reveals how a virtually done deal on this costly dispute was scuttled exactly 20 years ago. The Hindu could not have published them at a more opportune time (June 10, 2012). On April 18, 2012, Pakistan's Army Chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, referred to the several rounds of talks since and said, “You know that they were close to a solution but then nothing came out of it. We want this issue to be resolved and it should happen. It is a tough mission for us and them, which has its costs.” In sum, he is prepared for a settlement — based necessarily on a fair compromise.

That was precisely what the 1992 drafts and the unsigned agreement that followed had ensured. Initially, each side's offer was a non-starter. Pakistan proposed an upturned demilitarised triangle — marked by Indira Col in the northwest; point NJ9842, where the Line of Control (LoC) ends in the south, and the Karakoram Pass in the northeast. A joint commission would delineate the LoC beyond NJ9842 after the troops withdrawal.

India agreed to the delineation of the LoC, but insisted on the definition of “existing positions” of both sides and the places where they would deploy. The area so vacated would be “a Zone of Disengagement” bounded by the specified “existing positions.”

Amended offer

Faced with deadlock, Pakistan amended its offer to read: “The armed forces of the two sides shall vacate areas and re-deploy as indicated in the annexure. The positions vacated would not for either side constitute a basis for a legal claim or justify a political or moral right to the area indicated. The delineation of the LoC from point NJ9842 to the Karakoram Pass will form part of the comprehensive settlement to follow the re-deployment of troops.” According to Indian negotiators, the idea that the delineated LoC must end up at the Karakoram Pass was not pressed by the Pakistani side.

Now, surely to specify existing points to be vacated and record them in an annex is to “authenticate” them. This does not differ from India's draft, which provided: “India: The Indian Army shall vacate their existing positions at … and … redeploy at … Pakistan: The Pak. Army shall vacate their existing positions at … and … redeploy at …”

Pakistan's revised proposal fully met India's insistence on authentication of existing positions. The deal was struck between India's delegation, led by its Defence Secretary at the time, N.N. Vohra, and his Pakistani counterpart. The then Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit repeatedly testified to the accord in public. Matters did not end there. In the technical talks that followed thereafter, it was agreed that: (1) India would withdraw to Dzingrulma and Pakistan to Goma, at the base of the Bilaford Glacier; and (2) surveillance was to be conducted by helicopter.

On January 24, 1994, India confirmed in a non-paper to Pakistan that in 1992 “a broad understanding had been reached on disengagement and redeployment, monitoring, maintenance of peace and implementation schedule. … Both sides agreed that to reduce tension in Siachen, the two sides shall disengage from authenticated positions they are presently occupying and shall fall back to positions as under: …” Ancillary details were set out.

P.V. Narasimha Rao scuttled the deal in 1992. Benazir Bhutto followed suit in 1994, resiling from the concession on authentication. She denied the agreement and cited, instead, the India-Pakistan Joint Statement on June 17, 1989, which India had earlier resiled from: “There was agreement by both sides … on redeployment of forces … The future positions on the ground so as to conform with the Simla Agreement … the Army authorities of both sides will determine these positions.”

At that time, in 1989, Pakistan's Foreign Secretary, Humayun Khan, had told the media the accord envisaged relocation of forces “to positions occupied at the time of the Simla Agreement.” India's Foreign Secretary at the time, S.K. Singh, said he would “endorse everything [Humayun Khan] has said.” The very next day, however, the Ministry of External Affairs was instructed to deny the deal. The then Army Chief insisted in the talks being held on July 10, 1989, that existing positions be identified. An effort was made during Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's visit to Islamabad on July 16, 1989, to resolve the deadlock by extending the LoC northwards. India's offer, described by Iqbal Akhund, Pakistan's National Security Adviser, was a fair one. The line “should run due north, that is, up to the Chinese border in a ruler-straight line,” dividing the zone. But nothing came of it.

‘Peace mountain'

From 1985, the basis of all the parleys was mutual withdrawal. On July 18, 1998, Defence Minister George Fernandes subverted it. “India needs to hold on to Siachen both for strategic reasons and wider security in the region.” None of the Prime Ministers or Defence Ministers had made such a claim before.

Lt.Gen. M.L. Chibber, former GoC-in-C Northern Army Command, who was responsible for planning and mounting Operation Meghdoot on April 13, 1984, in Siachen, emphatically declared, “Siachen does not have any strategic significance. The strategic importance being talked about is all invention.”

Mr. Fernandes' stand wrecked the talks on Siachen held on November 6, 1998. The DGMO, Lt.Gen. Inder K. Verma, dutifully declared that day, “How can you ask us to vacate this position? We don't care either about money or the number of casualties we suffer.” But, of course, this violates the Simla Agreement. It says, “Pending the final settlement of any of the problems between the two countries, neither side shall unilaterally alter this position.”

Hopes were revived when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the jawans at the Siachen base camp on June 12, 2005 that “the world's highest battlefield” should be converted into a “peace mountain.” He added: “Now the time has come that we make efforts that this is converted from a point of conflict to a symbol of peace.” In the talks with Pakistan, he said, “the security of our nation would be kept in mind.”

The then Army Chief, Gen. J.J. Singh, who had mounted a campaign on Siachen, said on June 21, 2005, “We have given our viewpoint to the government on converting the Saltoro ridge and the glacier into a demilitarised zone.” He spelt out two demands — authentication of existing positions and a monitoring mechanism. Ironically, on November 4, 1992, both these demands had already been conceded.

Trust is a political decision for the highest leadership to take, based inter alia on military advice. No government can allow a veto to the army.

The last paragraph of India's non-paper of January 24, 1994, said, “An Indian delegation at Defence Secretary level is willing to visit Islamabad in February 1994 with a view to negotiate a formal agreement on Siachen on the basis of the agreement reached (in 1992).” Now, 18 years later, India should revive that offer and put the sad episode behind us.

Gen. Kayani hinted at much more than a Siachen settlement. He said that “peaceful coexistence is necessary for both countries. There is no doubt about that.” This explains Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar's repeated statement that “we are not going to be bogged down by an older mindset.” This is precisely the impression this writer formed in February from extensive interviews with officials, diplomats and others in Islamabad. Centuries ago Demosthenes said: “In important transactions, opportunities are fleeting; once missed they cannot be recovered.” Only Prime Minister Singh's visit to Pakistan can shape the relationship for a promising future.

(A.G. Noorani is a lawyer, author and commentator. His latest book, Article 370: A Constitutional History of Jammu and Kashmir, was published by Oxford University Press in 2011.)

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