In his press conference on January 12, on the eve of Army Day, the Indian Army Chief, General Naravane, reportedly made an intriguing reference to the possibility of “demilitarisation of the glacial region” in Siachen. He is said to have reiterated that Pakistan would have to first authenticate respective troop positions along the 110-km long actual ground position line (AGPL) in the Siachen-Saltoro Ridge region for any talks on demilitarisation to take place.
The army chief’s remarks are significant because, in the past few years, relations with Pakistan have deteriorated. Any talk of Indian forces stepping back from any positions that they currently hold has been considered defeatist, even anti-national. Even though the army chief’s reference to demilitarisation is conditional to the AGPL being formally acknowledged, it is a departure from the uncompromising position that has been current in the recent past.
During the period when I served as India’s Foreign Secretary (2004-6), India and Pakistan were engaged in what was then known as a Composite Dialogue, the agenda for which contained eight items. These were: Jammu and Kashmir, Confidence Building Measures, Wullar Barrage/Tulbul navigation, Promotion of Friendly Exchanges, Siachen, Sir Creek, Terrorism and Drug Trafficking, and Economic and Commercial Cooperation. During this period, the two sides also agreed that there were two issues on which early agreement was possible. These were Siachen and Sir Creek respectively. There were more focused negotiations launched at the foreign secretary-level to try and resolve these two outstanding issues at an early date.
It is true that the AGPL delineation had been a major sticking point in reaching an agreement on Siachen. However, this matter had been resolved between the two sides, first during bilateral defence secretary-level talks in 1992 and then subsequently in foreign secretary-level talks in 2006. These agreements could not be formalised and implemented due to political reasons.
Since this is a contentious issue it may be worthwhile to dwell on its historical background. India and Pakistan signed a Ceasefire Agreement in 1949 after their first armed conflict over Jammu and Kashmir soon after their independence in 1947. The ceasefire line was drawn up to a point known as NJ 9842 on the map. Beyond this, the agreement stated, the line would run “north to the glaciers” leaving an un-demarcated zone right up to the border with China. This formulation was repeated in the agreement on the Line of Control in 1972, which followed the Simla Agreement of 1971 in the aftermath of the Bangladesh War. This was an act of omission on our part because by this time we had a boundary dispute with China which involved eastern Ladakh, where currently there is a continuing stand-off between the two sides. The Siachen-Saltoro glacier area is literally sandwiched between a hostile Pakistan to the west and an equally hostile China to the east. It would have mitigated the security threat if the line beyond NJ 9842 had also been demarcated on maps in 1972.
It was in the later years of the 1970s that the India side picked up activities by Pakistan in the Siachen area, such as sponsoring international mountaineering expeditions. This would have implied that Pakistan had jurisdiction over this territory. This was also the time when official US maps began to show the LoC as extending right up to the Karakoram Pass on the India-China boundary, which would, in effect, imply that the Siachen glacier fell under the actual jurisdiction of Pakistan. The Chinese followed suit. As a result, roughly 2,300 sq km of territory in this glacier zone came to be shown as under Pakistani control. In response to this encroachment, the Indian Army launched what came to be known as Operation Meghdoot, in 1984, to occupy the Siachen-Saltoro ridge. Pakistani attempts to dislodge the Indian troops from the heights did not succeed though they did occupy and fortify the lower reaches on their side.
During a meeting between the then Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and the then Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, in December 1988, it was agreed that the two sides would hold talks to resolve the Siachen issue through mutual troop withdrawal. However, there was no final outcome because Pakistan did not agree to map the actual ground positions of the two armed forces from where they would withdraw. The Indian side insisted on this to make any future intrusion by the Pakistani side into the zone of disengagement a clear violation.
A further effort was made at bilateral defence secretaries-level talks under the Narasimha Rao government. An agreement in principle was reached in 1992, when Pakistan reportedly agreed to the Indian proposal to record the respective locations of the forces of the two sides and the points to which they would withdraw. Joining the existing troop locations would have yielded the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). Even though agreement had been reached, PM Narasimha Rao took a decision to defer its actual signing to a later date but then this did not happen.
In 2006, we had the draft agreement of 1992 available as a reference point and this enabled a draft agreement to be reached in the foreign secretary-level negotiations. It was agreed that there would be a formal agreement on mutual but phased withdrawal and joint monitoring of the demilitarised zone. There would be an annex which would record the current locations of the forces deployed by the two sides and the locations to which they would withdraw. There would be a schedule of withdrawals in different phases. The idea was that less risky areas would be vacated first and the more sensitive areas later. The agreement and the annex would have the same legal validity and this would be explicitly declared in the agreement itself. The proposed agreement ran into opposition as had the 1992 version and the initiative was then dropped. I believe that the agreement would have been a positive gain for India and diminished the challenge of confronting threats on both flanks of a most strategically sensitive area. Perhaps there is a rethink on this issue and I, for one, would welcome it.
I have been to Siachen on some of the border infrastructure surveys I undertook during my time in government. It is a most inhospitable theatre and the extraordinary human and material costs it imposes on our troops would justify a review.
This column first appeared in the print edition on January 15, 2022 under the title ‘A sign of unfreezing’. The writer is former foreign secretary and senior fellow CPR