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The chill factor


For the last few weeks, every India-Pak optimist worth his salt has been muttering Richard III's immortal lines: "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer. . . And all the clouds that low'r'd upon our house/ In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. "

Trade is picking up between India and Pakistan. By the end of this year, Pakistan is likely to give India a much-desired MFN status. India will even allow limited Pakistani investment into India. Visas, certainly for business people, will be liberalized soon, which means large trade delegations travelling through Wagah will become more frequent and more meaningful. There is now commentary in Pakistan about US being the new India. The most recent business delegation from India returned with the strong sense that across the political spectrum, there is now a greater desire to be seen to be openly engaging with India.

Officially, the renamed composite dialogue is chugging along - commerce secretaries are picking up frequent flyer miles with each other. India might soon sell power to Pakistan. Home secretaries are due to meet this month to fix visas. Meanwhile, the Pakistani band Junoon continues to fire up audiences in India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh still searches for that elusive reason to finally visit Pakistan and put the bilateral relationship on a different trajectory. That oft-repeated desire may well become our collective undoing.

Pakistan army chief General Kayani actually sounds reasonable when he proposes bringing down the troops from the inhospitable heights of the Siachen glacier, a missile he threw twice in a row, while visiting Gyari where over 120 Pakistani soldiers and civilians were killed in an avalanche. On April 8, during a lunch meeting in Delhi, Pakistan President Asif Zardari proposed a similar "mutual withdrawal" from Siachen. This was followed up by Kayani again making the point that India had somehow shifted the goalposts on a Siachen deal, and had "toughened" its stand - asking for "demarcation" rather than "authentication", as if one was less severe than the other.

The buzz this created prompted the defence minister AK Antony to shun his normal reticence, and tell Parliament: "In the last few days, people across (read Pakistan Army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani) are saying we (India) have hardened our position. Some are saying we have softened our position. We are neither hardening, nor softening. . . We are standing firmly where we were, " said Antony. For good measure, he added that nobody should expect "dramatic" results from the Siachen talks a few weeks from now.

Then, abruptly, Pakistan rescheduled talks on Sir Creek, slated for Monday, May 14, pushing them back all the way until June 22, which would be about 10 days after the defence secretaries meet for the next round of discussions on Siachen on June 11-12.
Now, why would they do that? The official Pakistan reason that their key negotiator would be away is generally a good enough reason. But nobody believes this. Having played out the same gig before, Indian officials homed in on the following explanation: Pakistan was trying to pressure India to be flexible and make concessions on Siachen. In return, Pakistan could ensure that India and Pakistan get a "deal" on Sir Creek. India, they reckon, is really looking for such a deal which will enable Manmohan Singh to visit Pakistan. Pakistan clearly believes that Singh will go to great lengths to justify a personal visit. There is a local reason as well - there has been a fair amount of popular anger over the Gyari deaths in Pakistan. There has been inordinate focus on the lack of preparedness of the soldiers, and their helplessness in the face of such natural disasters. For the Pakistan army, it is always a useful tactic to divert popular anger aimed against itself towards India, by making India seem like the recalcitrant one.

Siachen is the ultimate prize for every Pakistan army chief since India took over two-thirds of the glacier in 1984. Sitting on top, India has a clear view (and control) over the strategic Karakoram Highway, which links Pakistan and China. Given that India will always want to be prepared in the eventuality of a war on either front, it would be madness for India to give up those heights. India controls two key passes, Sia La and Bilafond La, while Pakistan controls Gyong La. This means Pakistan cannot go up to the top, and India cannot access Mount K2. But basically, it means that India controls the heights on the crucial Saltoro Ridge. India bases its position on the 1949 Karachi agreement and the 1972 Simla pact which point "north to the glaciers". That, according to India, puts Siachen in its territory. Second, the treaty of accession of the state of Jammu and Kashmir places the entire state, including Siachen, with India. Pakistan contests that.

As Antony said in Parliament: "The two sides have to first agree on authentication of respective troop positions on the 110-km Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) along the Saltoro Ridge, then delineation on map and ground and subsequently the final demarcation of the agreed border. It's our long-standing considered position. "

If Indian troops come down, they will find it really difficult to go back up. That is the considered view of the Indian army, and nobody in India is going to challenge that, particularly because the trust deficit is a yawning chasm. In all these years, India has invested a fair amount in making the place a little more habitable. The cost per soldier is also down significantly, and over the years, human losses caused by hostile weather conditions have reduced. In 2011, India lost 26 men in Siachen as compared to hundreds in the early years of the conflict.

A Siachen agreement cannot be seen in isolation, because it is intricately connected to the Kashmir dispute. And that is the problem.

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