December 4, 2001


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Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

Boundary control

Boundary control is a well-established technique used by firefighters in combating major conflagrations which tend to get out of hand. At sea the technique is used to prevent the spread of fire as well as flooding. In simple terms, it means establishing the outer limits of damage and ensuring that the fire or flooding is contained within that limit. Once such a boundary is established the controllers move inwards until the main fire is doused.

Well-wishers of both India and Pakistan who are trying to douse the fires in Kashmir and want to establish better relations between the two countries may like to adopt the technique of boundary control in tackling the issues.

Less than six months after the Agra summit, any progress on Kashmir has come to a grinding halt. It was hoped that following September 11 and the rout of the Taliban in Afghanistan, we would see a decrease in militancy followed by some new initiatives towards a solution of the long-pending issue.

Far from it. The Agra spirit is dead and buried. The two sides are not even talking to each other. Pakistan's nothing-except-Kashmir and India's everything-but-Kashmir stands are unlikely to produce any results for some time to come. On the other hand, if the fires in Kashmir are allowed to burn without control, they may spread to other areas in both countries.

Our efforts should therefore be to try to limit the damage that Kashmir is causing to both countries, economically, politically and militarily. The Indian Ocean offers a perfect arena for boundary control. Why should we allow the problems on land to spread to the sea? In fact, the Arabian Sea offers considerable scope for cooperation between the two countries. Given the will and the determination to stop the spread of land problems on the sea, agreements can easily be reached in demarcating the maritime boundaries, a more pragmatic and humane method of dealing with fishermen, laying of oil pipelines, avoiding incidents at sea between the two navies and cooperation in search and rescue.

Take the demarcation of maritime boundary, for instance. The problem is highly complex or extremely simple depending on how one wants to look at it. The entire problem devolves on whether the boundary should be drawn from the southern shore of Sir Creek or from its centre. The area involved is a few hundred square kilometres at sea. A little give and take and the entire problem can be sorted out in about 10 minutes.

An Alexander or even the village idiot would have drawn a line midway between the disputed portion and that would have been that. But no, that will not do. After all, the dispute is bread and butter to a number of bureaucrats and hydrographers on both sides. So they continue to produce historical records, search for boundary pillars and debate whether a piece of land is new or old. The dispute resembles one of those feuds over half an acre of land which two families keep alive from generation to generation.

While both sides bicker over the maritime boundary, the local fishermen who have fished in the area for a thousand years continue their tradition. The plentiful fish in the area do not respect national boundaries, nor do the fishermen. There is plenty of fish for everyone. Not even 30 per cent of the possible catch is harvested.

Until a few years ago, there was an atmosphere of live and let live in the area. Enter the Indian Coast Guard and the Pakistani Maritime Security Agency. Both were out to prove a point. Nowadays both sides routinely apprehend fishing vessels from the other side and lock up the fishermen for years on end. Every so often, when possibly the jails are full or when their conscience bothers them, the fishermen are released with great publicity. No one bothers to ask why they were kept in jail in the first place.

Before the Agra summit, to produce the right atmosphere for the meeting, the Indian government released all the Pakistani fishermen and gave orders to the Coast Guard to resort to only warnings instead of apprehending the erring boats. There has been no reciprocity from the Pakistani side and the problem continues to fester.

An agreement between the two navies to avoid incidents at sea is another desirable goal. Many former adversaries have today similar agreements between them. During the sixties and the seventies the Russian and American navies played frequent games of chicken which resulted in avoidable collisions and accidents. Fortunately, saner minds prevailed and an historic agreement was signed between the two countries to avoid incidents at sea. The fact that the agreement, called INCSEA, was signed at the height of the Cold War is a pointer to both India and Pakistan that such cooperation is possible at sea even when the two countries have an adversarial relationship on land.

Similar agreements can be forged to assist each other in search and rescue at sea, to prevent pollution, and for joint action against piracy and terrorism at sea. The scope is unlimited. Important as they are, all these cooperative actions dwarf in comparison with the one area, which requires immediate and concentrated attention from both countries.

Recently, the US and Russian presidents announced their intention to reduce their nuclear stockpiles by more than 75 per cent in the next few years. At present, the United States has about 12,000 warheads and Russia about 8,000, enough to blow apart the world a hundred times over.

Nuclear and strategic experts will no doubt be able to explain why countries require to build such enormous arsenals of warheads, but the common man can never understand why they are stockpiled at such enormous expense only to dump them in the sea in the end. Surely the time to limit them is before they are built. Nuclear capping makes better sense than nuclear disarmament.

India and Pakistan are today where the US and the Soviet Union were in the sixties. Having exploded their respective nuclear devices a few years ago, both countries are, no doubt, in a race to build up their arsenals. It is also an open secret that India is building a nuclear-powered submarine capable of delivering nuclear weapons from the sea.

Pakistan will not be far behind. Egged on by their respective Strangeloves, both countries are intent on spending crores in building their nuclear arsenals on land and possibly at sea. Having exhausted themselves economically, India and Pakistan may well get down to nuclear disarmament talks in 2030.

Does it not make sense to initiate the talks now before spending money on research and building the weapons? And what better place to stop the spread of nuclear weapons than at sea?

Do people in Mumbai and Karachi perpetually want to remain under the threat of a submarine-launched nuclear missile? It may not be long before this scenario becomes a reality. The time to prevent it is now. Rather than "no first strike", "no nukes at sea" appears a better proposition.

Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

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