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Will fresh talks break ice in Siachen?

BS Political Bureau | August 03, 2004 11:10 IST

It is an icy waste with no apparent strategic value for either India or Pakistan. And yet, the two armies together lose an average of four soldiers every month - not in the firing but because of the cold.

On 5 and 6 August, defence secretaries of India and Pakistan are going to engage in a dialogue on the one issue that experts say should be easiest to resolve as part of the composite dialogue going on between the two countries - the Siachen glacier.

The last time the two countries had a conversation of Siachen it went on over six rounds between 1986 and 1992. Arguably the greatest opportunity for India to have washed its hands of Siachen arose in 1992 when JN Dixit was foreign secretary and PV Narasimha Rao the Prime Minister.

At that time, the ministry of external affairs proposed that in view of the limited diplomatic and strategic value of Siachen, the Army could vacate the glacier. However, smarting from the political setback of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Narasimha Rao refused to countenance the idea.

The Siachen story dates back to 1984 when India noticed that Pakistan was sending mountaineering expeditions to the glacier.

Alarmed, India sent its own expeditions led by Everest veteran Col Narinder (Bull) Kumar who confirmed that Siachen could become part of salami-slicing (annexing small parts of the territory of another nation) by Pakistan, via Khapalu, the roadhead. A detachment of the Kumaon regiment was stationed in Siachen after this.

Pakistan objected as it said India was violating the NJ 9842 line that  both nations agreed to after the Simla Agreement of 1972 and posted its own troops on Siachen, to address an enemy it could not see and 'conquer' lands that were of no use to it.

But symbolically Siachen became a big issue in India-Pakistan relations., Pakistan Army officers - including successive Chiefs of Army Staff and Gen Pervez Musharraf - believe that the Kargil incursions equalised India-Pakistan score after Siachen.

Pakistan's current position is that India should withdraw its forces to the 1972 position.

After the last round of talks an agreement was reached to rename the zone of disengagement as the zone of peace and tranquillity. The dispute was over map markings.

This involved both India and Pakistan marking on a map, the positions of the respective armies. This was to have been followed by positions of disengagement - that  the two armies should retreat to the roadheads - Pakistan to Khapalu and India to the base camp on the Nubra river.

Siachen was to have been turned into a science park as the final breakthrough, with a monitoring and verification system in place on both sides.

The task of identifying troops and the procedure of withdrawal is what needs to be resolved now. India wants to withdraw from the north to the south of the glacier. But Pakistan wants India to return to the 1972 position. It is this issue that the defence secretaries will discuss on 5 and 6 August.

The India-Pakistan composite dialogue will resume later this week with a defence secretary-level meeting on the one issue that experts are most hopeful will be resolved: Siachen.

Talks on Siachen are to be held between the two officials on 5 and 6 August for the first time since six rounds of talks were held between 1986 and 1992.

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