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Despite Kayani’s peace talk, a ‘Siachen deal’ is a bad idea

by B Raman

During a visit last week to the site of the devastating avalanche near Skardu in Pakistan-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan, which killed about 125 Pakistani military personnel and 15 civilians, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff, is reported to have made — for the first time since he took over from Gen Pervez Musharraf — some positive references to India.

The Pakistani media has quoted him as saying: “Peaceful coexistence between the two neighbours is very important so that everybody can concentrate on the well-being of the people… The decades of enmity between India and Pakistan should be resolved through negotiation.”

It needs to be underlined that these remarks should not be interpreted as indicating a change in the hostile mindset of the Pakistan Army towards India. Nor do they indicate a definitive desire of the Pakistan Army for a thaw in Indo-Pakistan relations.

These remarks were made by Gen Kayani in the context of the avalanche tragedy and were apparently designed to prod the international community to revive pressure on India to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement with Pakistan on the Siachen issue that could lead to a mutual withdrawal of troops from the glacier.

Reuters

Pakistan is paying a heavier price than India in Siachen in terms of financial and human costs. Moreover, signs of alienation among the Shia population of Gilgit-Baltistan have been increasing steadily. The fact that the majority of those who perished in the avalanche were from Gilgit-Baltistan— and possibly Shias— and that none of them could be rescued has added to the anger against the Army in the area.

Talks on the need for a stand-alone Siachen agreement with India are therefore a desperate urgency for Pakistan. Kayani has to respond to this desperation if he has to prevent a further erosion of support for the Army from the people of the area.

Kayani’s remarks have the tactical objective of responding to the local anger and projecting India as responsible for the lack of a forward movement on the Siachen issue. His remarks thus have an international as well as a domestic angle.

It would be unwise for India to agree to any stand-alone agreement on Siachen. Any ultimate agreement on Siachen has to be part of an overall package that would address India’s concerns relating to (a) the suppression of the Shias of Gilgit-Baltistan who have ethnic links with Shias of Jammu and Kashmir; and (b) the increasing Chinese presence in the area.

The induction of Chinese construction teams and security personnel — all reportedly from the People’s Liberation Army — into the Gilgit-Baltistan area have totally changed the complexity and complexion of the Siachen issue. It is no longer a simple question of mutual withdrawal of troops. Other dimensions having an impact on our security interests in Jammu and Kashmir have emerged since we started talking to Pakistan sporadically on Siachen.

This is not the time for reopening any talks — substantive or exploratory — on Siachen. We need to have a clear understanding of the implications of the recent developments in Gilgit-Baltistan in order to revisit our strategy in respect of Siachen-related talks.

While we should be cautious and slow-moving on this particular issue, we should not spurn cynically the new – and a little more benign — rhetoric of Kayani on Indo-Pakistan relations in general. This seeming willingness to move away from a compulsive demonisation of India has to be encouraged.

For more than a year now, I have been advocating the beginning of a military-military relationship between the two countries in order to enable senior military officers of the two countries, including the chiefs, to know and assess each other personally, instead of depending on third parties and sources for this purpose.

This is the time to take advantage of the overtures by Gen Kayani to set in motion an exercise in this direction. Let us invite him for an exploratory visit. If he seems reluctant to come, let us request him to depute some other senior officer to come to India on a getting to know each other visit— without a formal agenda.

B Raman is Additional Secretary (Retired) in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. He is currently Director of the Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai; and Associate of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Republished with permission from the Chennai Centre for China Studies.