A view of the Siachen Glacier
Territorial borders and their administration have historically been serious matters for any sovereign nation. Hence, the subject needs to be revisited in the light of the outgoing government’s long, failed record of border management. Understandably, when authentic and credible information is furnished by Sanjaya Baru, one of the key aides (between 2004 and 2008) of the former prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, it calls for careful analysis and debate on the issue of border management by people who have ruled contemporary India.
When Baru tells us that “Pranab and Antony, as successive defence ministers in UPA-1, were... not enthusiastic about a deal on Siachen, though Sonia had blessed the peace formula” it raises serious concerns and questions pertaining to the collective understanding — or misunderstanding — at the highest level of policy making on India’s territorial integrity, security, safety and future.
Baru says that, as the prime minister of India, Singh “had to contend with a declining quality of defence services leadership.” Reportedly, “the first sign of this decline was evident in the manner in which army chief General J.J. Singh dealt with the Siachen issue. In closed-door briefings, the General would say that a deal with Pakistan was doable, but in public he would back Antony....” If this is true, then it compels one to suggest that the new Raisina Hills leadership, both civil and military, should henceforth discard such a confusing and conflicted style of taking policy decisions.
Article 1 of the Constitution says that “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States”; it further clarifies that the “territory of India shall comprise”, amongst others, “such other territories as may be acquired.” Goa, Daman & Diu (1961), and Sikkim (1975) fall under this category. Significantly, the Constitution of India does not appear to give much scope for ceding Indian territory to a foreign country, at least not without an amendment of the Constitution. Hence, it would be in order to revisit the problem of the Siachen region.
To begin with, during the reign of the United Progressive Alliance II, opinions on the tackling of the Siachen issue were broadly divided into two groups. The first had the former prime minister himself and his trusted confidantes, some of whom have had strong emotional bonds with Pakistan — for example, Singh’s birth place, Gah, is part of Pakistan’s territory now — and these people often overlooked ground realities. They were believers in “Aman ki asha”, and their contention was that Siachen, being a high altitude ‘military station’ in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, has resulted in huge, ‘avoidable’ expenditures and human casualties. Hence, it serves little or no ‘strategic’ purpose to maintain troops at such an altitude except to create more bad blood with Pakistan, which wants India to vacate the Siachen to create goodwill and friendship. It appears from the writings of Baru that a fraction of the army’s top brass too had subscribed to this line of emotional thinking.
The second group asks, “Why should India retreat from its own post and vacate its own territory?” The Indian Parliament, on February 22, 1994, passed a resolution that the state of Jammu & Kashmir has been, is and shall be an integral part of India, and any attempts to separate it from the rest of the country will be resisted; the Constitution of India stipulates that Jammu & Kashmir is one of India’s states. What sense does it make, then, to vacate Siachen? India has experienced many major foreign invasions over hundreds of years. Have Indians forgotten Pakistan’s invasion of Kargil? They need to remember the basic laws of international relations — no territory, lying between two competing land powers/States can be left empty or unmanned, on the basis of goodwill, mutual trust or wishful thinking. If this happens, someone is bound to take possession of the land unannounced, especially if it happens to be high terrain. Border or frontier security and a nation’s sovereignty are linked with the ability of that nation’s armed forces to face any eventuality, such as invasions, even at uncomfortable altitudes. Indians never seem to learn from the country’s past mistakes. The line of thinking that Singh subscribed to would want the leadership at Raisina Hills to ‘forget the past and think of the future.’
However, one has to be grateful to Pranab Mukherjee, who was the defence minister between 2004-2006. His deep knowledge and understanding of the Constitution, his political acumen and professional competence kept the UPA II government from succumbing to the the school of thought to which the former prime minister belonged.
Baru’s Siachen ‘story’, therefore, opens doors to a fresh debate. When in doubt, one ought to do what the Constitution says; this was religiously followed by Mukherjee. The Constitution empowers the Parliament to form, increase, diminish and alter the boundaries of states, but in matters concerning territory that shares borders with a foreign country, things are much more complicated and difficult. Although the re-deployment of troops from the higher altitude of Siachen to a lower level does not imply the ceding of territory, the inherent danger — the forced occupation of the vacant land by the Pakistan — remains. This could be construed as the ceding of that territory by critics and observers alike.
Here the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Berubari Union case could be referred to. Assuming that a ‘treaty’ between India and Pakistan takes place on Siachen, what will happen? The first objection will be, how can there be a treaty for one’s own territory? Second, the ruling implies that though the power to cede territory is derived from sovereignty, a thorough examination and possible amendment of the Constitution is necessary to cede territory on the basis of a mere treaty, as it would involve an alteration of the territory of India.
There exist many more intricacies of this nature in the Indian Constitution. Hence, the Siachen issue cannot be treated as a simple problem, as some ambassadors of ‘peace’ have made it out to be. The new government at the Centre must follow the Constitution down to its last letter.