Indo-Pak: Thawing frozen divide

Karl F Inderfurth

Imagine waging a mini war at 21,000 feet, where temperatures touch minus 40 degrees, and where altitude sickness and frostbite have caused as many casualties as bullets and artillery rounds. That’s what India and Pakistan have been doing for the past two decades in a remote area of disputed Kashmir known as the Siachen Glacier. Few contend Siachen has any strategic value, but it has been important as a symbol of the unremitting hostility that has existed between India and Pakistan. But the dispute across the glacier’s 47-mile-long frozen divide on the western end of the Himalayan chain may be thawing, as part of a wider, more comprehensive peace process that has been unfolding between India and Pakistan for the past two years. The defence ministers of the two countries are scheduled to meet Thursday and Friday in Islamabad. Their instructions, contained in the joint statement issued at the end of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s recent visit to India, are to find a “mutually acceptable solution” to Siachen and to do so “expeditiously.”

Three factors augur well for accomplishing that objective. First, India and Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire across the Line of Control in November 2003. Second, the two sides nearly reached an agreement to resolve the dispute over a decade ago. As a former Indian foreign secretary puts it, all that’s needed now is “to dust off the old ideas and take them forward.”

But the most important factor pointing toward a possible breakthrough on Siachen is the fact that the two countries are now in the midst of their longest-running — and most hopeful — effort to normalise relations in their history. At their mid-April meeting in New Delhi, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Musharraf watched their national teams play a long-anticipated cricket match. Pakistan won but “cricket diplomacy” is proving to be a winner for both countries.

The joint statement issued at the end of their discussions said the two leaders have

“determined that the peace process was now irreversible.” They agreed to pursue further measures - like the bus service that began April 7 connecting the two capitals of divided Kashmir - “to enhance interaction and cooperation.” Most important, Singh and Musharraf pledged they “would not allow terrorism to impede the peace process.” This pledge, in short, gives the current peace process a real chance to succeed. Unfortunately, that pledge is being tested. In recent days, a car bomb in a business district in Srinigar, the capital of Indian-held Kashmir, and a grenade explosion at a school there killed several people and injured nearly 100.

But if the unfolding peace process between India and Pakistan is able to withstand such challenges, what is to become of the Siachen Glacier? A creative solution has been offered by South Asian conservationists. Concerned by environmental degradation and loss of life, they have proposed that the glacier — source of the Indus River, a key resource for both India and Pakistan — be converted into an ecological peace park, jointly maintained by both nations without reference to territorial boundaries. Perhaps the time has arrived for the world’s highest battlefield - the Siachen, which means “place of roses” - to be added to that list. — The Christian Science Monitor