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PM picks Army chief who will accept Siachen pact

Bikram Singh will help the Prime Minister reverse India’s position on Siachen to ensure that Dr Singh can leave his ‘peace mark’ on Indo-Pak relations.


Siachen, the conflicted area between India and Pakistan.AFP

rime Minister Manmohan Singh has put in place the full set of officials who will to support his desire to settle the Siachen dispute with Pakistan in a "Big Bang" visit across the border in a few months. The other dispute on the brink of resolution is Sir Creek. While the two nations have found a solution to Sir Creek, Siachen remains a problem because Indian Army chiefs starting from General A.S. Vaidya and continuing to General V.K. Singh have refused to support what they perceive will be a major concession to Pakistan, as it is India which will have to withdraw.

India occupied the disputed Siachen heights in 1984. Since then Pakistan has been trying to push India back through military force, and has failed. During the last five years, Pakistan has decided that what it could not win by war it can achieve through diplomacy as long as Dr Singh is PM. The Pakistan Army also sees the wisdom of forcing India back from its present line without the cost of conflict. Lt. Gen. Bikram Singh, the new Army chief, is expected to lead the reversal of the Army's position in order to help Dr Singh achieve his dream of leaving a "peace mark" on Indo-Pak relations.

Other key officials such as Principal Secretary Pulok Chatterjee and Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai are already on board, and willing. The PM also has the support of Home Minister P. Chidambaram. Defence Minister A.K. Antony is the only holdout, but could be pacified if Sonia Gandhi agrees to support Dr Singh on his Pak initiative.

Siachen remains a problem because Indian Army chiefs have refused to support what they perceive will be a major concession to Pakistan, as it is India which will have to withdraw.

Since his assumption of office in 2004, "Manmohan Siqungh has looked towards a Pakistan settlement as one of the two cornerstones of his international legacy, the other being a close relationship with the United States," an official privy to the PM's thinking disclosed, adding that "he knows that time is running out for him, and that by next year, the country will be in election mode, so that bold initiatives would come afoul of politics". Those close to the PM hope that the BJP would support the PM's initiative and "follow the Vajpayee line, especially when L.K. Advani and Arun Jaitley are themselves in favour of a peace settlement with Pakistan, with only M.M. Joshi the odd man out".

The demilitarisation of Siachen on the basis of ironclad legal commitments by Pakistan, concurrent with an agreed settlement of the Sir Creek issue, is at the core of the PM's peace strategy, according to officials. They claim that the PM is in favour of "both a Siachen as well as a Sir Creek agreement", and that "these are doable in 2012 itself".

Teams of officials have been put to work on the contours of a possible settlement of these issues in advance of Manmohan Singh's suggested visit to Pakistan late this year. Interestingly, these officials say that "incoming Chief of Army Staff General-designate Bikramjit Singh is expected to take a holistic view of the situation" rather than "the narrow tactical view of some of his predecessors". It is pointed out that the incoming COAS is a protégé of former COAS General V.P. Malik, "who was fully on board Prime Minister Vajpayee's Lahore peace strategy". On Kashmir itself, "the Prime Minister favours soft borders" that would "provide easy access to Kashmiris from each side to the other". He is also "backing Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah's push for allowing reformed militants to return from their Pakistan Occupied Kashmir camps to their homes in the Kashmir valley," a strategy that "has the consent of Home Minister Chidambaram".

Sceptics, however, point out that retaining the Siachen base is important in the context of the China-Pakistan axis, a point that is disputed by the "peace" camp. An official's response was, "If Siachen were truly of military use in dealing with China, would the US be as insistent as it is in asking India to withdraw from the glacier? After all, the US' focus is on China." He claimed that "the international benefits of a withdrawal from Siachen would be immense, in that India would be shown to be willing to walk the extra mile for peace". This, he said, "would put the onus of reciprocity on the Pakistan Army, in a situation where its Kargil betrayal of 1999 proved to be short-sighted". Pakistan COAS Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has gone public in favour of a Siachen settlement based on demilitarisation of the glacier.

Other steps would include easier grant of visas, cultural and educational agreements and more business to business interaction between India and Pakistan. The PM's expectation is that "a multiplication of positive linkages, in business, media, sports, tourism and culture would create constituencies for peace that cannot be ignored", according to a senior official conversant with Dr Singh's peace strategy.

The expectation in Delhi is that a peace settlement between India and Pakistan would strengthen the civilian leadership vis-à-vis the military, thereby promoting a "culture of peace" in Pakistan. In the weeks ahead, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be devoting increasing attention towards fulfilling his "legacy of peace" with Pakistan, with his proposed Pakistan visit as the "crowning glory" of his legacy, said an official.

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