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CLEANING THE GLACIER OF BLOOD TOGETHER

From Asoka the Great in third century BC to Sher Shah Suri in the sixteenth century, the idea of linking the great Indian landmass across time and space has always obsessed some people. After the Kalinga war, Buddhism established itself as a crucial ingredient in the melting pot of the north-west frontier lands with Taxila as its fountainhead Similarly, for Sher Shah, the Grand Trunk road was the equivalent of building an Indo-Gangetic artery of the mind. Where men went and goods travelled, a hundred diverse ideas bloomed.

The partition of India resulted in turning the country into a state of catatonic schizophrenia. Ever since the bloodbaths in Punjab, Bengal, Kashmir, Siachen and Kargil, India and Pakistan have been on a mindless roller-coaster ride for much of their 60 years of coexistence.

Clearly, though, the stakes for peace are so high for a few people in New Delhi and Islamabad that they cannot stomach the idea of losing control over their stamp-sized bureaucratic kingdoms.

One such rebellion by South Block two years ago over the issuing of “travel documents”, and not “passports”, to passengers on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus across the line of control, was temporarily put down by the late J.N. Dixit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s redoubtable national security advisor, who wielded the strategic whip with courage.

The passengers got their travel documents on April 7, 2005, in open admission that “Kashmiris” had special privileges within the Indian union. Two years later, though, South Block seems to have won that battle hands down, with the majority of cross-LoC buses going almost empty. Turns out that the procedure for filling up that “travel document” is so tough that most of the people who apply can hardly pass the bureaucratic test.

Something similar seems to be happening with the Siachen story these days. Each time India and Pakistan talk Siachen, army officials —located in the other half of South Block— break out in a nervous sweat. Thereby begins the not-so-subtle attempt to influence the flow of information.

Last time around, on the eve of the defence secretary-level talks between the two countries in August 2006, the army flew journalists to the Siachen base camp. There, amidst spectacularly icy landscapes, army officials issued the dreaded warning that if India did a deal on Siachen, and if something like Kargil happened in the near future, they could not be called upon to perform ungodly acts of heroism as they did in 1999.

Small wonder then that at the end of the first day of the defence secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan, the then defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee, announced that the talks had failed.

Six months later, Mukherjee has become the external affairs minister. Recently, he was on a visit to Pakistan for the very first time. There, Mukherjee is believed to have submitted an unusual proposal on Siachen. Even as the two sides debated on the pros and cons of authenticating the ground positions of Indian troops on the Saltoro ridge and a schedule of troop disengagement and redeployment to their respective base camps, Mukherjee came up with the idea that the two countries could begin to build trust by jointly cleaning up the Siachen glacier.

We don’t know what Pervez Musharraf said to Mukherjee in reply, but within 48 hours, J.J. Singh, the Indian army chief, was heard issuing indirect warnings to the government. Singh told journalists that he had conveyed the army’s views to the political leadership on Siachen, and he hoped that “these would be taken into account.”

The army chief’s message was crystal clear. Also clear was the fact that the Indian army — so far subservient to its political masters — was now intended to expand its command and control. Perhaps, the Indian army is not quite like the Pakistani army next door, which is quite used to being the master of all it surveys. But it is clear that the army is not very happy with its limited role and influence.

So much so that in Islamabad and in Lahore, the Pakistani intelligentsia is already commenting on the Indian army’s extraordinary energies these days. “India was always proud of the political control over the army,” one wag was heard saying in Islamabad a few days back. “But it seems that you are beginning to get more and more like us”, he added.

During the bilateral talks last November, Islamabad had given New Delhi a detailed “package” on Siachen. It said that Pakistan was ready to authenticate the ground positions of Indian troops if New Delhi did not “claim” the territory it was withdrawing from.

Under the circumstances, it cannot be denied that the army is entitled to its own point of view. After all, wasn’t it called upon to defend Indian territory during the war in Kargil under extraordinary circumstances' Moreover, Indian troops had taken the strategic heights at the Saltoro ridge in May 1984, not because they wanted to go on a picnic on the mountains, but because they were ordered to do so by none other than their political masters. So, a little over two decades later, has the strategic reasoning behind that decision changed' And if so, what is the reason behind the change'

On the other South Block flank, where Pranab Mukherjee and foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon sit — the latter recently returned from Pakistan as high commissioner — they are already beginning to think beyond antediluvian matters such as war and conflict. Instead, they have been focussing on what Manmohan Singh has been saying these days: Clean the glacier of blood and tonnes of toxic waste. Siachen is the highest battlefield in the world. Let India and Pakistan, jointly convert it into a mountain of peace.

Clearly, when nations sign deals, they must take the wishes of the people and their armies into serious consideration. Similarly, Pranab Mukherjee and Manmohan Singh must hear what the army chief has to say on this matter. After that, they can proceed to do what they believe is politically correct under the given circumstances.

If the prime minister and the foreign minister fail to do this, they may as well give General Musharraf the right to involve his own army in the country’s affairs. At least, he does not make any excuses about the fact that it is soldiers like him that run the country.

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