Resolution of Sir Creek: A Distant Hope
Last two years have earned quite significance with regards to initiations of many confidence building measures by both Pakistan and India to bring normalcy in their bilateral relationship. These CBMs and talks are indeed the most needed steps for bringing together the nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours on all contentious issues including Kahmir, Siachin, and Sir Creek etc. The most recent example of this continued cooperation is the Indo-Pak agreement on new visa regime, operationalized during the three day visit of Interior Minister Rehman Malik to New Delhi from 14-16 December 2012. However on the sidelines of the efforts to normalize bilateral relations between the two countries; Indian side continued their attempts to derail or hamper the peace talks ensuring not a single of above mentioned issues could be settled. To quote a few such nasty attempts, on 2 December 2012, Hindustan Times reported that India will erect a floating fence on Sir Creek followed by publication of a letter from Narendra Modi to Prime Minister of Manmohan Singh on 12 December 2012 warning latter of giving away sir creek to Pakistan would be a strategic blunder.
As per 02 December report, India will soon erect a 'floating fence', anchored by submerged metallic meshes, along the disputed Sir Creek border area with Pakistan. After mulling over various options, the Union Home Ministry entrusted the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and National Buildings Construction Corporation (NBCC) to install an all-weather 'gabion box' fence along the stretch. A 'gabion box' is a meshed metallic box-like structure with hexagonal wire nettings and it is lowered down the bed of the water body after big stones are filled inside it. While the NBCC will erect the fence on about 75 km of the watery strip, the CPWD has already started work in the rest of the area. The fence would be erected on the 'gabion boxes' which will have the usual all-weather concertina wires and poles. The 'gabion box' is a regular technology used for flood water control and prevention of rock breaking along coasts by the impact of the saline ocean water.
It must be understood that any such attempt at a time when Pakistan and India are continuously in talks with regard to the maritime boundary dispute in this area would prove counter-productive. It will negate the spirit of confidence building measures making the conflict resolution part futile.
Now with regards to letter written by Chief Minister of Gujarat to PM stating, “I would earnestly request you to stop this dialogue with Pakistan at once and [sic] Sir Creek should not be handed over to Pakistan. I am writing to you at this juncture as I was told that a decision is being taken on [the] Sir Creek issue on December 15.” It is worth noting that Modi's letter comes at a time when Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik was on a three-day visit to India. Evidently, Narendra Modi’s letter is a political gimmick and spurred by his national ambitions as it was written a day before first phase of polling in Gujarat. It serves well to place the UPA government on notice. Even the Prime Minister's Office replied the same day describing Modi’s letter as baseless and mischievous. Later on, Congress President Sonia Gandhi has accused Chief Minister Narendra Modi of “inciting” people by using Sir Creek issue as a “new tool” for political interest and pledged no one will be allowed to play with the unity of the country.
It goes without saying that of all bilateral disputes between Pakistan and India, Sir Creek has the simplest solution. Also the issue like many others is a legacy of the undemarcated tracts at the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 and could be a first step in resolution of other contentious issues like Kashmir and Siachen. Already the two navies have conducted surveys on Sir Creek including a joint survey and all that is needed is the political will to endorse the findings on the ground.
Pakistan believed it had inherited the solution provided in the Bombay Resolution of 1914 when Sindh was a part of the Bombay Presidency of British India and Kutch was ruled by Rao Maharaj. The 1914 Resolution map shows a green line running along on the eastern bank of Sir Creek on the Kutch side of the river as the boundary between Sind and Kutch. Therefore, Pakistan argues that the Sir Creek boundary delimitation was not only meant to be on the eastern bank of the river, but was also meant to be permanently fixed under the 1914 Resolution. Hence, Sir Creek is not a disputed area and belongs to Pakistan.
Contrary to this, India favours adoption of the Thalweg Doctrine in International Law. Under it, river boundaries between two nations may be divided by the mid-channel. Pakistan argues that the Doctrine is applicable to bodies of water that are navigable, and it holds that Sir Creek is not navigable. India claims it to be navigable, while in reality, the creek itself is located in the uninhabited marshlands that get flooded during the monsoon season, making it partially navigable then. Also Maritime and international boundaries once fixed cannot be repositioned on the basis of shifting ground positions of water bodies. On this basis, India’s insistence that the maritime boundary be determined first stands illogical until the Sir Creek issue is resolved.
India also needs to consider an important factor that the position of the water body is shifting and hydrographers by both sides confirmed that the latest position favoured Pakistan. It is time for international community to also play its role and urge India to accept the readymade solution on the basis of the Bombay Resolution of 1914 or seek third party arbitration, as it did in the case of Indus Water Treaty of 1960 or the 1968 Rann of Kutch Commission.
The dialogue on Sir Creek opened in 1969; so far nine rounds of talks took place without a breakthrough. Frankly, India's dialogue with Pakistan is fast becoming a proforma exercise. Talks for the sake of talks will never succeed. The negotiators need a clear brief but that is possible only if there is a paradigm shift in New Delhi’s policy.