July 12, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Claude Arpi

A Solution for Siachen

While I was in France last month, I heard about the proposed meeting between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the then CEO (now President) of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf. At the time, I happened to be working in the diplomatic archives of the French ministry of foreign affairs on the transfer of power of the French settlements to the Indian Union and, particularly, on the possibility of a condominium.

Reading these old dusty files brought to my mind the question of Kashmir and, more specifically, of that of the Siachen glacier. Was it possible that some of the solutions worked out by the French in 1947 could be prove useful during the Vajpayee-Musharraf dialogue? In the first months after Independence, the French, in the case of Pondicherry, thought of a condominium between India and France. According to the dictionary, a condominium is 'a state or a territory jointly owned or ruled or administrated by two (or more) states.'

Though made in a totally different context for a completely different problem, these old proposals are still worth considering today.

In March 1947, the British announced they would leave India by mid-1948. While the news caused great joy and excitement among the people of India, it resulted in headaches and sleepless nights for the diplomats in Paris. Suddenly, France and Portugal were the last colonisers on the subcontinent. A solution had to be found; and it would have to be one which satisfied both the Nehru government's declared policy that no foreign pockets would be tolerated on Indian soil and French commitments vis--vis the cultural aspiration of the population of French settlements in India.

How were they to find an original and face-saving solution? France had to accept the ineluctable, while still preserving a cultural presence in the subcontinent. It was not an easy proposition.

Hence, the idea of a condominium. The concept was first popularised in the 18th century, when hundreds of small principalities were in existence. Very often, they were not self-sufficient and found it difficult to survive so, in some cases, they would appeal to two princes for help and protection. In those days, it was safer to have two protectors instead of one. Things changed in the 20th century with the birth of the League of Nations and, later, the United Nations Organisation. Now, only one ruler could be recognised for a given territory.

The best-known condominium is Andorra which, for centuries, has been jointly administered by the president of the French republic and the archbishop of Urgell, who represents Spain. Another condominium was a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean known as the New Hebrides, which were (by the treaty of October 1906) co-ruled by the French and the British. The islands remained a condominium till they acceded to independence in 1980.

Very often, the condominium was a temporary status; territorial ownership, often, could not be decided immediately. For example, the British and Egyptian governments signed a treaty in 1936 to create a condominium in Sudan, until the issue of suzerainty was solved.

In the case of Pondicherry, the difficulty for French diplomats was that, by adopting such a solution, the problem of the French settlements would not be solved, only postponed.

However, it was still interesting for the French government, as they would have more time to find a permanent solution satisfying all. France was particularly eager to keep Pondicherry as a 'window on French culture in India,' as Nehru himself put it in 1946.

If we think in terms of a solution for the Siachen glacier, the usually short term nature of the condominium status could be a first step to temporarily de-escalate the issue, at least until the larger issues are taken care of.

An aspect of the condominium, which often makes it unsustainable, is the question of contiguity of territory. In the case of the New Hebrides, both states (France and the UK) had no continuity. This is neither the case of Andorra, which has a territorial continuity with Spain and France, nor Siachen.

We can distinguish different types of condominiums. In some cases, there is a joint rule for all subjects. If one takes Pondicherry, one proposal was to have a governor appointed by the Government of India and a commissar of the French republic nominated by Paris. The allocation of portfolios being identical, it would have meant a joint decision on every subject matter. It was clearly not a workable solution, as too many opportunities for friction were created.

Another type is a sharing of responsibilities, where, for example, one State looks after law and order, justice, communication, etc, while the other one takes care of culture, education and health. The sharing has to be decided upon mutually. It is not an easy proposal either, as disputes are bound to occur and have to be referred to an organism jointly nominated to decide on thorny questions.

Usually, the problem is compounded by the presence of a large population which has to be democratically consulted in the decision-making process. Take Andorra. Before becoming a fully independent state in 1993, the condominium was working rather well because the population was given full internal autonomy by a devolution of power through democratic instruments.

Siachen could be a lot easier. First, and perhaps foremost, the glacier is not populated, so there is no question of the will of the population or a plebiscite.

We have to remember that the glacier is 76 km in length with a width of 2 km to 8 km, between two ranges -- Karakoram in the east and Saltora in the west. It is sandwiched by the two parts of Kashmir. The question of the glacier arose in the eighties because there is no defined boundary between India and Pakistan demarcating it..

The cease-fire line of the 1949 Karachi Agreement and the 1972 Simla Agreement specified the northern most point of the Line of Control as the point -- NJ 9842. It was only said that beyond this point the line went 'north to the glaciers.' But as Nehru discovered in the mid-fifties with Aksai Chin, even glaciers with 'not a blade of grass' can have a very strategic position.

Starting from point NJ9842 in the south, the glacier has a more or less triangular shape which runs in a north westerly direction flanking a few towns in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir close to the Saltora range. It extends up to the Karakoram pass, in a north eastern direction.

Though there is prestige involved, nobody can deny the glacier's importance. It is true that if the LoC went north east of the Siachen glacier, the Karakoram Pass would be controlled by the Pakistani army and kept out of sight of Indian-administered Kashmir.

The dispute began in April 1984, when India learnt that Islamabad had given permission to foreign mountaineering expeditions to explore the western parts of the glacier. Around the same time, Pakistani maps began to show the glacier as part of 'Azad' Kashmir. India troops had no option but to launch an operation which brought most of the area under Indian control.

Since then, despite several unsuccessful attempts by Pakistani troops to recover the glacier and dislodge Indian troops, India has occupied the area. But at what cost! Seven rounds of negotiations have not helped to find a solution to the question either.

The difficulty is it is not a matter which can be solved 'technically' by the director general of military operations or army commanders. Each of the two nations has to feel comfortable and confident that the other party will not be a threat to its security.

Another strategic problem is the proximity of the Chinese. Occupation of the glacier by Pakistan would give it a very long common border with China which would, without any doubt, become a great threat for India's security.

Will Vajpayee and Musharraf be bold and innovative enough to find a creative solution to the vexed issue?

A condominium could be a solution until larger questions are solved. The usual headaches could be avoided as the 'shared' subjects under the condominium would be minimal since no population is involved in the area. If goodwill is present, it could be a workable solution.

The glacier could be earmarked as a demilitarised area and a zone of peace. The condominium could be jointly designated as a biosphere reserve; it would remove the usual irritants like public works, investments, development plans, tourism, etc. The condominium could be administrated by two senior scientific advisors acting as co-administrators under the ministries of science and technology (or environment and forests) of India and Pakistan.

A ban on mountaineering expeditions, except those decided upon in common agreement by the two administrators and only for scientific research, could be notified.

The military would have to find a way to monitor the movements of troops on either side of the glacier to make sure that there is no build up of troops. Assuming such a condominium works, it could be of immense benefit for the two nations. For the first time since Independence, it would show the rest of the world that the two nations can solve their problems peacefully without outside help.

It could also be of great scientific benefit for the two nations and the rest of Asia as it would preserve one of the 'cold centres' of the planet, so important to halt the process of global warming. It could become a huge refrigerator which could be used as a cold bank to preserve genes. The administrators could work out, in due time, other scientific uses for the glacier. If even a tenth of the money saved by stopping military operations could be used for scientific research, it would give a tremendous boost to science.

It could, one day, be an example of how to solve other problems of a similar nature the world over. Without doubt, it would be a first step towards building confidence between the two nations through the working of a common task. The great sage Sri Aurobindo had written in August 1947 the 'division (between India and Pakistan) must go.' The dream of a reunited subcontinent, each unit keeping its own particularity, its form of government and its own genius, could become closer.

A few days ago, Indian Home Minister L K Advani, while noticing that the world was going through 'sweeping changes and arch rivals such as the two Germanys had now reunited,' declared, 'I am confident that Vajpayee's initiative will create a conducive atmosphere in the direction of the formation of a confederation of India, Pakistan, Burma, Sri Lanka and Nepal in the days ahead.' To create such a confederation, one has to learn to live and, more importantly, work together. A condominium for Siachen could be such an opportunity.

Design: Dominic Xavier

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