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Was Siachen to be handed over to the Americans?

Arjun Singh (left), the man who saved Siachen; Pranab Mukherjee (right) was initially opposed to withdrawal of troops from Siachen

PRIME Minister Manmohan Singh’s former Media Adviser Sanjaya Baru’s book, The Accidental Prime Minister—The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh, has created a lot of controversies, not only about the timing of the release of the book but also certain important facts. When Baru was with Singh, he did enjoy the confidence of the Prime Minister. But he was known as a loudmouth, who used to make derogatory remarks about journalists and politicians whom he did not like. While talking to some journalists and other friends, he did not spare even the Congress President. This reached 10 Janpath, which later blocked his entry into the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and Harish Khare, a nominee of Ahmad Patel and Jairam Ramesh, replaced Baru in the PMO.

What Baru has written in his book about Siachen is absolutely incorrect. This shows that many other things which he has written might also be factually wrong. I know about the developments on the Siachen issue as I was writing, almost on a daily basis, on this issue–about the sentiments of the Army top brass and how they were resentful about the move to withdraw from Siachen. The former Indian ambassador to Pakistan, G Parthasarthy, used to discuss this issue with me every morning and he was fully aware of the role played by Arjun Singh and AK Antony in the matter. In fact, many top army commanders were in touch with Parthasarthy and were conveying their resentment on the move to vacate Siachen.

People are not aware, not even the political leadership, that if Arjun Singh had not moved fast, Indian forces would have withdrawn from Siachen much before the Lok Sabha polls in 2009. The Prime Minister, under American pressure for back-door talks with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, had agreed to withdraw Indian forces from Siachen, giving a major concession to Pakistan.

MANMOHAN Singh had announced that he wanted to see Siachen as a zone of peace. He was preparing the ground to vacate the area and allow Americans to set up an important research centre there. It would have provided Americans a foothold in the Siachen region for the first time. Singh and Musharraf had almost agreed on this settlement. Manmohan was to announce a date for his visit to Pakistan when an agreement between the two countries would have been signed.

The Indian Army was anguished over this and was repeatedly pleading with the government not to enter into any such agreement as this would enable the Pakistani Army to re-capture the area and the strategic peaks. The Indian Army then would not be able to evict the Pakistani Army. Some years earlier, Musharraf, as a Brigadier of the Pakistan Army, had launched two attacks to push the Indian Army back from Siachen. But both the attacks were repulsed by Indian forces.

When Antony took over as Defence Minister, Arjun Singh invited him for a cup of tea and pleaded with him to listen to the point of view of the Army Commanders.

Pranab Mukherjee, before being shifted to the External Affairs Ministry, was, as Defence Minister, opposed to the withdrawal. But when Manmohan promised to persuade Congress president Sonia Gandhi to promote him as Deputy Prime Minister, he also fell in line.

Manmohan Singh was ready to sign an agreement with Pakistan on Siachen

When Antony took over as Defence Minister, Arjun Singh invited him for a cup of tea and pleaded with him to listen to the point of view of the Army Commanders in Siachen in the national interest and convey their views to the authority that mattered (Sonia). Antony did exactly that.

At the next core group meeting of the Congress, there was a one-to-one 45-minute meeting between Sonia and Manmohan. Usually, such meetings used to be only for eight to 10 minutes. When both came out of the room, the rest of the Congress leaders were watching their body language. It was obvious to them that Antony’s briefing of the Congress president had had the desired effect.

At the meeting, it was decided that Manmohan would not make any statement on Siachen and instead Pranab would announce that since Pakistan was not prepared to sign the maps depicting the positions the two forces were occupying. India was not prepared to agree to any withdrawal. Thus Arjun Singh achieved his goal, though indirectly, through Antony. This was his greatest contribution. Otherwise, Manmohan would have fulfilled his desire to visit Pakistan and his home village and signed an agreement with Musharraf on Siachen.

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