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India and Pakistan: Need to demilitarise Siachen glacier

20 August 2012

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The Hindu, August 19, 2012

Melting more than the glacier

by Meena Menon

Tears flew from Motup Chewang’s eyes as he spoke of his last visit to the Siachen glacier in 2005. Born in Nubra Valley in Ladakh, Motup, a mountaineer and tour-operator, says: “It was moraine all over till up to 16,000 feet. The glacier has receded so much.”

In 1986, as a guide to the glacier, he remembered the glacier’s snout lying at 10,000 ft. At a discussion organised by People for Social Action and Sanctuary Magazine earlier this week in Mumbai, a diverse group including former Union Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, human rights activist Asma Jahangir and labour activist B.M. Kutty from Pakistan, Admiral (retd) L. Ramdas, Lt. General (retd) Vinayak Patankar, environmentalists Bittu Sahgal, Yashveer Bhatnagar and journalists spoke of the need to evolve a consensus on the issue. Talks between India and Pakistan on the Siachen glacier did not lead to a breakthrough in June yet the tone is optimistic.

The avalanche in June that killed 140 Pakistani soldiers near Siachen could lend added weight to the urgency of demilitarising the area. Mr. Sahgal said: “Glaciers will be the most dangerous place to stand on and ice will become a killing machine no matter which side of the border you are on. A third influence will be felt in the relations between the two countries.”

However, Mr. Aiyar had a word of caution. “The answer to hate extremism cannot be peace extremism,” he quipped. He raised several issues with respect to the proposed agreement to demilitarise Siachen, comparing it with the “panoply” of technical experiences of other countries with demilitarisation.

More than being an issue of “climate disaster” that is threatening Siachen, as Motup puts it, it was also a strategic issue. An environmental solution cannot be a substitute for a real political military solution, Mr. Aiyar warned. “The real issues need to be tackled as the entire issue is not military and there is also a trust deficit.”

While talks for an agreement on Siachen are being held at a high level, Asma Jahangir pointed out that there is an urgency for an agreement to demilitarise the area not only because of cruelty to the military personnel but also for the huge expenses involved. “Pakistan spends $ 300 million a year to station troops in Siachen and it cannot afford to keep this conflict going at the cost of its people,” Mr. Jahangir said.

While environmentalists are keen on bringing in the climate change aspect of glacier melt and also the human presence and waste that is damaging the glacier, the lone voice from Kashmir at the meeting in the form of journalist Bashir Manzar had a different take. Editor-in-chief of Kashmir Images , Mr. Manzar felt that Siachen cannot be looked at in isolation.

“We have failed to move an inch on Kashmir (issue) but could these small steps (like an agreement on Siachen) steer the governments in a direction to resolve Kashmir (issue)?” he wondered. He added: “We don’t discuss Siachen in Kashmir and we are not impacted by it. But if the Kashmir issue was not there, there would be no need to militarise Siachen in the first place.”

Strong arguments for an agreement came from Mr. Kutty and Admiral Ramdas who said that the two countries were close to signing a deal three times in the past. Demilitarising the Siachen area, cutting down on the troops and instituting an inspection and monitoring system to remove the mistrust was possible now. For the first time in the history of Pakistan a general has suggested peaceful coexistence between the two countries, he remarks.

There is general optimism about an agreement to demilitarise Siachen and it could be, as Mr. Manzar puts it, one step towards the resolution of a prolonged and unresolved war over Kashmir.

Strong arguments were raised at a discussion in favour of demilitarising Siachen glacier and looking into the effect of climate change on glacier melt