India and Pakistan break ice over SiachenNEW DELHI - One result of past hostilities between India and Pakistan is the world's highest battlefield on the Siachen glacier, where thousands of soldiers have died due to the cold rather than gunshots.
In the most significant push to the peace process since the initiation of the bus service between Indian and Pakistan Kashmir in April, the two countries have agreed to deploy troops from the glacier.
Although the modalities of the withdrawal are yet to be worked out, the commitment is important as there were doubts about the peace process reaching the next level due to fresh misgivings and doubts that have crept in the recent past between New Delhi and Islamabad.
While New Delhi continues to hold firm on the need for Pakistan to dismantle its militant infrastructure, and Islamabad sees no immediate solution to the "core" issue of Kashmir, the dynamics of India-Pakistan relations have been further complicated by India and the US striking a new friendship.
Pakistan, for so long used to being the favored one, has been unable to digest Washington's affinities toward New Delhi that have taken the form of renewal of arms supplies and an expansive nuclear deal. In the recent past, Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf has made it apparent that Pakistan is not very happy about Washington's pro-India slant. Despite the embarrassing revelations about a tainted Pakistani nuclear scientist engaging in proliferation, Musharraf has re-iterated that Islamabad wants a similar civilian nuclear energy deal to India's.
There is, however, no reason for New Delhi to be happy about its neighbor's discomfiture. In the high of being treated at par with the powerful nations of the world, India has to ensure that its relations with all its immediate neighbors, including Nepal and Bangladesh, are good and the peace process initiated in January last year by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Musharraf does not lose steam. Several analysis have pointed that India cannot be counted as an economic power until the drain on possible resources due to its differences with Pakistan are ironed out.
It is in this context that a commitment to reach an agreement on Siachen before January next year becomes important. Until 1984, neither India nor Pakistan had troops stationed at Siachen as nobody thought it was worth thinking about. In 1947, when the Line of Control (LoC) was drawn between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, the Siachen terrain was considered to be too inhospitable to bother about extending the border.
However, as relations between the two countries deteriorated, Siachen gained strategic importance, with troops eyeballing each other, but dying more due to frostbite. At 6,300 meters (20,700 feet) Indian troops continue to try and defend the 75-kilometer glacier at an estimated cost of up to $1 million a day. There has been no fighting on the glacier since November 2003, when a ceasefire came into effect between India and Pakistan. There may be more respite now, the least for the soldiers who have to operate in the worst conditions.
Last week, Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee said that both countries had agreed on the need to withdraw troops, but there were problems over verifying positions before a pullback could be sorted out. "We have agreed. They [Pakistan] have agreed to withdraw troops from the present positions. There is no two opinions about it, both sides have agreed," Mukherjee said. "The disagreement is where we are demanding that we must identify the places, delineate the places we were before withdrawal, so that there is a record that the respective country's troops occupied these places," he added. "The Pakistani point of view is that when we have agreed to withdraw from the respective positions, what is the relevance after the withdrawal agreement is signed."
This week, India's External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh traveled to Pakistan and met his counterpart Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri, as well as Musharraf. The two sides signed agreements on advance warning of ballistic missile tests, a hotline between their coast guards, conducting a joint survey of a disputed section of the boundary in Sir Creek and a commitment to the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline.
New Delhi maintained that the Kashmir issue needed to be dealt with from a human point of view, though Pakistan reiterated that the "core" difference over the divided state remained. New Delhi's proposals include allowing a greater flow of people across the LoC, trade ties between two parts of the state and setting up meeting points for divided families.
But, the most significant agreement was the commitment over Siachen. "The two sides exchanged ideas on the Siachen issue and agreed to continue their discussions so as to arrive at a common understanding before commencement of the next round of composite dialogue in January," the ministers said in a joint statement.
An Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that Singh and Musharraf also discussed the Siachen glacier and both sides welcomed discussions on a "framework to promote settlement" of the dispute. Kasuri said the possibility of a resolution of the glacier dispute had been created but no agreement had yet been reached. "It stands to reason that if we had already reached an agreement, we would have reflected that in the joint statement," he told the news conference.
Indeed, as with other issues, the glacier remains a relic of past distrust. Any solution has to be a carefully calibrated exercise in which both sides try to ensure that they have not given in more, especially in the eyes of the domestic population, whether it be extremists in Pakistan or the hawks who keep a keen eye on developments in India.
It is in this context that a breakthrough over Siachen becomes important. Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.