By Premvir Das
A recent op-ed in a national newspaper by a member of a Track II team dialoguing with counterparts in Pakistan under the aegis of a foreign organisation seemed to suggest that withdrawing from the Siachen Glacier could be a viable proposition for India. It further implied that this could result in lessening of tensions between the two countries to the advantage of both. The column has understandably aroused acrimonious response on the internet from Army veterans, and the issues merit examination.
The Atlantic Council in Ottawa has sponsored and funded a Track II dialogue between delegates from India and Pakistan with the purpose of improving relations between the two countries. Three meetings have been held thus far in Dubai, Bangkok and Lahore. On the Indian side, the group is led by a former head of the air force, and includes former high-ranking civil and military officials and a representative of the media. Prior to these dialogues the Indian team sought and received briefings from the foreign ministry and the army.
Yet some have questioned the antecedents of the talks’ organisers, the Atlantic Council — a well-known think tank, in existence since the early 1960s. Others have argued that that by advocating or even suggesting that a withdrawal is desirable, the Indian group has played as the “other side” would have it play. The editor of a well known defence journal has also jumped into the fray, stating that he posed questions to the leader of the group with no satisfactory response. Some veterans have asked what a naval man was doing in the Siachen talks; others have cast aspersions on the role of the media member of the team. And a great deal has, of course, been written about the strategic importance of Siachen to India.
Dialogues at important Track II levels essentially involve persons who have held high positions in government and have a good idea of the policies of their own countries and, depending on the importance of the interaction, receive some briefings. There are dialogues in which members meet with the National Security Adviser or the foreign secretary; there are others where a joint secretary or a lower functionary will suffice. The military rarely enters the picture and it is surprising that this team received a briefing from the army. Most of these discussions are funded by local Indian institutions with some sort of mutual adjustment with the other side. For example, for dialogues outside the country, travel expenses would generally be borne by the visiting side and staying arrangements by the host and vice versa; in another case, each side would meet all its own expenses. In some cases, the sponsor would meet all expenses and such interactions should be gone into with due diligence. Most Track II dialogues are with well-known groups, e.g., Brookings and Council of Strategic and International Relations in the USA, Institutes of South Asian and South East Asian Studies in Singapore, Japan Institute for International Relations in Japan, China Reform Forum and so on. It is obvious that both sides will select members who have been in the ‘business’ or are reputed strategic analysts, not just anyone walking down the road.
By the same token, the expectation is that dialogue members would convey their country’s position in an informal setting, influencing the other side to the extent possible — the people sitting on the other side are no spring chickens — and to convey assessments to their respective governments, for whatever they are worth. The important thing is that even as individual members of such dialogues are free to air their views, it would be improper for them to take positions far different to what they, themselves, have espoused whilst in service or those that are substantially inconsistent with the views of their governments.
The purpose is not to bring forth some earth-shattering ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions but to help, to the extent that this is possible, in creating greater understanding. Because team compositions generally remain the same, members on either side get to know one another and this facilitates free and frank discussion. Useful Track II dialogues are, therefore, supplemental to Track I and do not seek to chart a course of their own. The suggestion for withdrawal from Siachen does not pass these tests; indeed, it is quite simplistic.
The subject has been discussed threadbare not just in successive governments but by several National Security Advisory Boards (NSAB) which have had access to detailed briefings by the highest Army authorities. They have consistently felt that any decision on Siachen must be taken with the greatest care and recognising all strategic aspects involved. They have also suggested that all outstanding issues between the two countries should be viewed holistically and be part of an overall settlement, including in Jammu and Kashmir. To this should be added state-sponsored terrorism in India and Pakistan’s unwillingness to take any action against those who planned and controlled the attacks in Mumbai on November 26, 2008. It should also not be forgotten that the Siachen Glacier issue is not just about Pakistan but must also be seen in the context of China.
It cannot be anyone’s case that India’s relations with Pakistan should not improve. It is strategically important to have friendly neighbours and benign borders. At the same time, to argue that we must recognise that Pakistan will not go away and therefore, make unilateral or ill-considered concessions is to gloss over the fact that for them too India is here to stay. The stark fact is that Pakistan’s military establishment continues to remain hostile to India and is convinced that it can keep us on the defensive through sponsorship of terrorism with little fear of retaliation. So, we must not let emotions take charge. Those Indian dignitaries who take part in Track II dialogues of any consequence must not get carried away by their own personal desires; that is the surest way to run aground.
The writer, a former Navy chief, served in the National Security Advisory Board. He is a member of Track II Strategic Dialogues with several countries