The Siachen conundrum
Recently, India’s army chief, General MM Naravane stated that India was not averse to the demilitarization of Siachen provided Pakistan agreed to marking the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL).
Islamabad has so far preferred to ignore the statement at least publicly.
The issue of demilitarizing Siachen had been under discussion between the two countries for years but to no avail. Even the informal understanding that was reached between former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi could not see the light of the day, for the Indian establishment had demurred. Siachen had also been part of the Composite Dialogue process. Nevertheless, a mutually acceptable solution continued to elude the two hostile neighbors.
Pakistan does not see merit in marking the AGPL on the map and insists that the situation as existed before 1984, when India captured Siachen heights in violation of the 1972 Shimla Agreement, be restored. Siachen, lying beyond NJ9842 and being inaccessible, was never delineated by the two sides.
Islamabad has always been of the view that fighting for Siachen makes no sense as both sides have not only been squandering whopping resources but also losing precious human lives with no consequential strategic gains. The last time Pakistan publicly offered settling the Siachen issue urgently was in 2015 when the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressed the UNGA session on 21 November. In that address he also, inter alia, proposed formalizing the 2003 ceasefire understanding along the Line of Control (LoC).
I was then the Pakistan High Commissioner in New Delhi. To follow up on Pakistan’s proposals, I sought a meeting with India’s National security advisor Ajit Doval. In response to my question, Mr. Doval was categorical that the issue could not be separated from the settlement of the Kashmir dispute. He even linked the Sir Creek issue with Kashmir which I then thought could be considered in isolation as a “low-hanging fruit”.
Now it is the Indian Army Chief who has raised the subject, and I find it somewhat intriguing on at least two counts:
First, General Naravane, while reiterating the Indian position, did not link it to the final settlement of the Kashmir dispute. Perhaps the Indian establishment now realize the futility of their earlier position, especially when they are also lately facing military pressure from China in eastern Ladakh.
Unfortunately, Islamabad has not been able to put together a well thought through strategy on Kashmir in response to Indian measures.
Second, India could be conveying to Islamabad and the international community at large that Jammu and Kashmir is no more a dispute now that the Indian parliament has stripped Kashmir of its special status on August 5, 2019. Accordingly, India is now ready to talk to Pakistan on Siachen as a stand alone issue.
While it would appear unreasonable on the part of Pakistan to jettison India’s offer of talks exclusively on Siachen, that is exactly what Islamabad has been trying to achieve since 1984. Be that as it may, one expects Pakistan will not get carried away and inveigled into India’s mechanistic diplomacy.
India’s intentions are now clear. Instead of engaging Pakistan in a comprehensive dialogue process as in the past, it would seek solutions to long-standing issues one by one, gradually pushing Kashmir off the bilateral agenda. In fact, the process to that effect had already begun when Pakistan agreed to sign the LoC ceasefire agreement on 25 February 2021. No matter what rationale Pakistan put forth, the timing was most inauspicious in the context of its Kashmir diplomacy.
In the wake of India’s illegal measures in violation of the relevant UNSC resolutions; Shimla Agreement and in defiance of its own Supreme Court ruling of 4 April 2018 (stating that Article 370 related to Kashmir can neither be amended nor revoked), Pakistan’s reaction was par for the course and in sync with the aspirations of the people of Pakistan and Kashmiris. To remind, Pakistan took the position that there could be no bilateral dialogue until India restored the status quo ante.
It goes without saying that diplomacy loathes to put itself in an irredeemable situation; the door must always be left ajar. However, it is India which is solely responsible for the present deadlock.
Therefore, it is now for India to retrieve the situation by taking some concrete steps apropos Kashmir rather than suggesting, however implicitly, that Kashmir is no more on the bilateral agenda.
Pakistan would do well to insist on exclusive talks on Kashmir as without its fair settlement there is simply no possibility that the two countries would ever be able to build bridges of mutual trust and live peacefully. Doing more of the same is a recipe for allowing India to continue pursuing its detrimental Kashmir policy with impunity. In fact, as I have been suggesting for years, the two countries now need a third party to mediate and settle Kashmir once and for all.
Meanwhile, one cannot rule out the possibility that the two countries might have already resumed engagement on the back channel to discuss Siachen as was done in the case of the ceasefire agreement. I hope Islamabad is smart enough not to be tricked again and then regret and repine.
Unfortunately, Islamabad has not been able to put together a well thought through strategy on Kashmir in response to Indian measures. It is time to revivify the Kashmir-first diplomacy.
– Abdul Basit is the president of Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies. He was previously Pakistan's ambassador to Germany and Pakistan's High Commissioner to India.