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Moving Towards Peace?

By Abbas Rashid

The Daily Times
November 29, 2003

1989 was election year in India and that more than most things seems to have put paid to the chances of an agreement on Siachin being implemented. Now, another election year is coming up. Hopefully, the Indian leadership can
demonstrate greater statesmanship this time around On completing the first year of his government in office Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali addressed the nation on Sunday, November 23 and announced a unilateral ceasefire along the Line of Control in Kashmir. The response from India
was swift and positive: the cease-fire would be reciprocated. It sought the extension of the ceasefire to the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) in Siachin. Pakistan's foreign minister responded by saying that its initiative was
inclusive of this.

In another conciliatory gesture, Pakistan indicated that it wanted to revive air links immediately and would no longer insist on a guarantee from India against any unilateral disruption of traffic. This may also have to do with encouraging the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to attend the upcoming SAARC summit in Islamabad. All of this has been accompanied by some of the usual rhetoric by both sides, more so on the part of India with Vajpayee
sounding upbeat and the Indian Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani insisting that there has been no let up in 'cross-border terrorism'. The important thing, however, is not to dwell too much on the reiteration of long-held positions from either side but to focus on what may be new in the equation.

Meanwhile, India is also moving ahead on the parallel track of negotiating with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). The faction led by Maulvi Abbas Ansari has accepted the invitation of the Indian government to hold talks without insisting that Pakistan be included in a tripartite arrangement for deliberations, simultaneously. This is not something for Pakistan to worry about. In fact, it should endorse all such negotiations with the representatives of the people of Kashmiri and avoid playing favourites, as it did to the detriment of its interests in Afghanistan. It is time in other words for Pakistan to review its policy of recognizing Syed Ali Geelani as representing, exclusively, the leadership of the APHC.

Earlier, by way of an important confidence-building measure, Pakistan took steps to deal with a key reservation that India has repeatedly expressed with regard to Pakistan's efforts to check what it calls 'cross-border terrorism'. It has often pointed to the lack of a serious crackdown on groups that it blames for terrorism in Kashmir. The government recently declared that militant groups that had simply re-named themselves after an earlier ban would not be allowed to operate. Their offices were sealed and some organisations were placed on a watch list. More may need to be done, but India should acknowledge the effort.

Pakistan would also do well to use India's stated concern with Siachin to make it central to the current peace initiative. It has been said often enough that this is a particularly mindless conflict with the dubious distinction of being
fought out on the highest battle-ground in the world where at altitudes of 20,000 feet many more soldiers perish as a result of the freezing cold rather than as a consequence of enemy fire. It is also a horrendously expensive operation.

According to one estimate India is spending over Rs1000 crore on its Siachin operations every year. Even if Pakistan is spending one-third of that, it still translates roughly into over Rs1 crore a day. There is an urgent need to move on this issue also because of its symbolic value. If Pakistan and India can generate a momentum for peace through disengagement on the heights of
Siachin, it can go a long way in changing the atmospherics surrounding the Kashmir issue and put the peace process more solidly on track.Nearly a decade-and-half ago, an agreement on Siachin was virtually in place. The joint
statement of June 17, 1989, after a meeting of the defence secretaries of the two countries, clearly sets forth the idea of a comprehensive settlement on Siachin 'based on redeployment of forces.' Due to domestic political considerations India refused to pursue this. In 1992, it sought to go ahead but with a caveat: troops would be redeployed to agreed positions but only after recording existing positions.

A Zone of Disengagement would thereby come into existence and both sides would undertake not to occupy vacated positions. In a major concession Pakistan agreed to record existing positions, though in an annexure and on the understanding that these would not be used as a basis for negotiation. This was understandable given that India was occupying these positions as a result of unilaterally altering the position on the ground in violation of the Simla Agreement.

In 1994 Pakistan decided to play tough and withdrew from its earlier position, going back, in effect, to the 1989 understanding. According to the well-known Indian lawyer AG Noorani, it was George Fernandes, who after becoming defence minister in 1998 and seeking to bolster his credentials with the military and the BJP, decided to scrap the fundamental principle of disengagement based on mutual withdrawal. 'India,' he declared, 'needs to hold on to Siachin, both for strategic reasons and wider security in the region.'

It should be possible at this point when both countries at least appear to be serious about a sustained peace process, to go back to the earlier agreement regarding redeployment of forces and settle other issues such as how the
demarcation line is to proceed from NJ 9842. It should be recalled that 1989 was an election year in India and that more than most things seems to
have put paid to the chances of an agreement being implemented. Now, another election year is coming up. Hopefully, the Indian leadership can
demonstrate greater statesmanship this time around. At the same time, those in Pakistan who insist that the conflict is justified on the grounds that that the costs for India are much higher should by now be able to see the pointless
nature of this strategy.

Abbas Rashid is a freelance journalist and political analyst whose career has included editorial positions in various Pakistani newspaper


Courtesy- Harsh Kapoor/SACW