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The Siachen Saga: Demilitarisation Attempts, Dirty Dealings and a Commitment to Pakistan

Indian soldiers patrol near the Siachen Glacier. (PTI file photo)

Indian soldiers patrol near the Siachen Glacier. (PTI file photo)

For 17 years, attempts to dimilitarise Siachen Glacier were made. One wonders how many policy makers were aware that Siachen Glacier flows east of the Saltoro Range and there is not one Pakistani on the Glacier.

Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran’s book ‘How India Sees the World’ brings out how India and Pakistan nearly agreed to demilitarise Siachen Glacier, mutually withdraw troops from the area and thereafter establish a joint monitoring team.

He writes that both countries came close to an agreement on Siachen Glacier thrice - in 1989, in 1992 and then in 2006. First, during the Rajiv Gandhi era (1989), the deal didn’t materialize due to Pakistani disagreement, and during the PV Narasimha Rao era (1992), it was left to the next round of talks.

In 2006, Saran, then Foreign Secretary, struck a deal with his Pakistani counterpart Riaz Mohammad Khan on orders of the Manmohan Singh government, which sought to withdraw Indian troops from Siachen. It insisted the agreement and annexure be signed with the main agreement explicitly declaring that the annexure has same legal validity as the agreement itself.

Singh asked Saran to draft the agreement and obtain consensus from key Indian stakeholders. The former foreign secretary held multiple consultations with senior bureaucrats and ministers in ministries of defence, home and finance. Army Chief General JJ Singh and all chiefs of the intelligence agencies were brought on board.

The draft agreement was then presented to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) where National Security Advisor MK Narayanan raised serious concerns, arguing it would compromise national security and thereafter General JJ Singh also supported this view.

Narayanan also suggested the Siachen issue be taken off agenda for India-Pakistan talks on border issues, but defence minister Pranab Mukherjee supported de-militarisation of the Siachen glacier and home minister Shivraj Patil also held the same view.

One wonders how many policy makers were aware that Siachen Glacier flows east of the Saltoro Range and there is not one Pakistani on Siachen Glacier – never was. How many appreciated strategic importance of the Saltoro Range and the tremendous disadvantage to India for vacating it. It is more pathetic that none bothered to find out about this while such agreements were being worked out for 17 years since 1989.

What about Saran himself who was foreign secretary since July 31, 2004? When was the CCS meet in 2006 – before September 1 or after when Shivshankar Menon succeeded him as foreign secretary?

Saran needs to explain how he brought all relevant stakeholders “on board”, what arguments he gave and what were the carrots offered? He has mentioned the Army Chief by name but the nation deserves to know names of others who were brought “on board” – politicians, bureaucrats and chiefs of intelligence agencies.

Tasked to obtain consensus of all stakeholders, why did Saran not consult the NSA? Chiefs of intelligence agencies brought “on board” would have informed NSA anyway. Was this by design to give NSA benefit at the CCS meet – since Narayanan was close to the Congress high command?

Recall when PM Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated at Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991, first visuals showed Narayanan (then Director IB) standing close to Dhanu (the suicide bomber) much before she approached Rajiv Gandhi. This may be coincidence but Narayanan got himself removed from those visuals.

Post retirement, Saran served as Manmohan Singh’s Special Envoy for Nuclear Affairs and Chairman of National Security Advisory Board (NSAB). As Chairman of NSAB, he also formed the one-man inquiry that found China had nibbled away 645 square kilometre of Indian territory in addition to Aksai Chin and Shaksgam Valley.

Why has the report not been made public? In his book, Saran has eulogised Nehru and dumped all the blame on Manmohan Singh so that he remains in the good books of Congress high command. Readers can decide whether Manmohan Singh took such a decision by himself or followed orders. But Saran is equally culpable in this sordid affair - coordinating the dirty deal as foreign secretary.

All diplomats are not holy cows. Sardar Patel had warned Nehru in 1950 about KM Panikkar, who was then posted in Beijing. Saran’s above book was published in 2017 but he skipped mentioning that the conspiracy to demilitarise Saltoro Range continued with Shivshankar Menon as foreign secretary, who almost got it through serving as NSA (January 2010 to May 2014) through the infamous Indo-Pak Track II – termed as good as Track I.

In this Track II, the eight military veterans were deliberately placed in front with the two diplomats and former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat playing back benchers. Did Menon’s tenure in Beijing also influence his functioning?

Menon also has the distinction of inserting Balochistan in the July 16, 2009 India-Pakistan joint statement at Sharm el-Sheikh after Manmohan Singh met his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani. The draft sent by Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad had no mention of ‘Balochistan’. Why did Menon do this – surely he understood the implications?

In India, treasonous acts like attempt to vacate Saltoro Range get overlooked though a trial is warranted. There is more to the demilitarisation saga. In 2010, I attended the Afghanistan-India-Pakistan Trialogue at Kabul as part Delhi Policy Group delegation, where India-Pakistan Track I Dialogue was also being held in the same hotel.

During a break, former ambassador Vivek Katju approached me and asked me if I was the fellow who was making noises against de-militarisation of Saltoro Range. I reminded him he was part of the Defence Secretary Ajit Kumar-led delegation that I had briefed at Base Camp as Siachen Brigade Commander in 1998, after which the delegation was to proceed for talks to Pakistan.

He confirmed he remembered and acknowledged it was the first time strategic significance was really understood. But he said there are problems. According to him, PM PV Narasimha Rao committed demilitarisation of Saltoro Range to Pakistan ‘without’ reference to Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). Wheels within wheels!

MEA tried delay tactics by asking Pakistan for ceasefire, which they agreed. Pakistan was then asked to identify posts along the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). Pakistan took long but eventually agreed. So now MEA was in quandary. My question was why the quandary with a brigade-worth PLA sitting in Gilgit-Baltistan, Chinese encroaching in Eastern Ladakh and Pakistani proxy war going up exponentially; why can’t we simply tell Pakistani we will not vacate Saltoro Range, which is our territory? That was in 2010 and the Indo-Pak Track II still happened after that!

Disclaimer:The author is a veteran of Indian Army. View are personal.