T. R. Ramachandran writes in for Tribune News Service

New Delhi, April 7, 2006
With a clear directive from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to find an early solution to the protracted Siachen problem, the two sides have stepped up diplomatic and back channel efforts amid indications that demilitarisation of the highest and most treacherous battlefield in the world is a complex issue but not an intractable one.

When Dr Singh made this suggestion in June last year, it found an echo in Pakistan though the neighbour’s instant public reaction was to urge India to unconditionally vacate its 1983 aggression.

With the meeting of the Defence Secretaries scheduled for next month, sources alluded to some forward movement on the Siachen issue. The secret meeting between the National Security Adviser, Mr M.K. Narayanan, and Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in Dubai two months ago appears to have set the tone for moving forward in finding a solution to the problem.

At the same time sources drew attention to the complexities involved as the Prime Minister had affirmed there was going to be no redrawing of boundaries. The matter of Pakistan accepting and authenticating the drawing of a straight line north of the Soltoro Ridge was of critical importance. Till the actual ground position line (AGPL) was worked out, withdrawal of troops by both sides could only take place subject to certain some other parameters being thrashed out.

While India has assured Pakistan of its sincerity in striving for a solution, there is an element of skepticism as little headway was made at the last Defence Secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan in Islamabad last May.

Even if the UPA government and the armed forces are not unduly worried about losing control of Bilafond La, Gyong La or Siya La, the three passes along the Soltoro range, the key issue is Pakistan reneging on its part of the bargain and trying to gain control of these heights a la Kargil at a later stage in a demilitarised situation.

The political leadership wants to ensure that such an act will be treated as an act of war and India will be well within its right to mount an attack at any place of its choice. The armed forces can strike at any site of its calling along the 780-km LoC as these will be localised skirmishes.

The sources explained that for effective demilitarisation, there had to be a constant monitoring mechanism and meetings of Commanders to end the eyeball-to-eyeball contact.

The view of retired and senior Army officers, diplomats, academics and strategic experts is that there is no strategic significance to Siachen other than the need to guard against Pakistan’s attempts to link Karakoram Pass with the area in Shaksgam Valley which Islamabad illegally ceded to China in 1963 and through which the Karakoram highway has been built.

It will also be necessary to delineate the present positions of both sides on the ground for the subsequent demilitarisation. Without delineation it will not be possible for India to deal effectively with violations in future, experts aver.