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The Great Rann of Kutch and International Law

Updated: Nov 26, 2022

The Little Rann of Kutch and its larger counterpart, the Great Rann of Kutch, to the north-northwest consist of extensive low-relief plains on the southeastern flank of Pakistan's Indus River delta. Hills of pre-Quaternary rocks separate these plains. The Great Rann of Kutch is on the Pakistan/India border just east of the India distributary mouths. The Little Rann of Kutch is located between the mainland of Kutch, forming the northern border for the Gulf of Kutch and Kathiawar to the south. The Ranns of Kutch is believed to have a structural origin controlling their location. Faults that influenced the alignment of the pre-Quaternary rock outcrops trend west-northwest. Another family of faults, which the Gulf of Kutch may be an expression, trends north-northeast. The outcrops mentioned above are thought to be horst blocks cut into segments by the north-northeast faults, while the Ranns probably represent grabens. These tectonic depressions were once shallow marine gulfs after the last postglacial rise in sea level. Changes in nearby river courses (Indus, Nara, and other rivers of the western part of the Indo-Gangetic plain) caused the Ranns to become infilled with deltaic sediment. They are now broad salt-covered supratidal areas (sabkhas) that are inundated only for part of the year.

The area in dispute, extending out from the old fort of Kanjarkot, lies on the northern edge of the Rann of Kutch, a desolate area in Western India on the Arabian Sea. It is alternately salt flats and tidal basins. Both sides admitted the area to be in dispute at the time of the Indo-Pakistani border negotiations of 1960. At that time, further discussions would be held to explore the validity of the conflicting claims. The two Governments agreed that, pending further consideration of this dispute, neither side would disturb the status quo. India and Pakistan became engaged in a short but sharp conflict in the Pakistani claimed area in the Rann of Kutch in April 1965. After partition, Pakistan contested the southern boundary of Sindh, and a succession of border incidents resulted. However, they were less dangerous and widespread than the conflict that erupted in Kashmir in the Indo-Pakistani War of August 1965. Both armies had fully mobilized. Pakistan eventually proposed a ceasefire, which India accepted; an agreement was signed, and the forces disengaged.

The Award by the Arbitration Tribunal vindicated Pakistan's position. India then shifted the centre of gravity of operations to the Northern Areas. Pakistan claimed that the northern part of Rann had been part of the province of Sindh, which had become part of Pakistan in 1947. India asserted that the whole of Rann had been subject to the sovereignty of Kutch, which became part of India in 1947. On June 30, 1965, India and Pakistan signed an agreement that ended the fighting in the Rann of Kutch. The agreement, facilitated through the good offices of the United Kingdom, was signed separately in Karachi and New Delhi. President Ayub of Pakistan stated on June 30, welcoming not only the agreement relating to the Rann of Kutch but also a second agreement signed by India and Pakistan, which called for the withdrawal of troops from both sides of the entire border between India and Pakistan. See here:

President Johnson sent a personal message to British Prime Minister Wilson on June 30, congratulating him on his success in bringing the conflict to a peaceful solution. The agreement signed by India and Pakistan called for the dispute to be settled based on binding arbitration by an arbitral tribunal to be established with the cooperation of the Secretary-General of the United Nations. India subsequently appointed a Yugoslav arbitrator to the tribunal, Pakistan appointed an Iranian arbitrator, and UN Secretary-General U Thant chose a Swede as the chairman. The tribunal did not agree on a final award until February 1968. The award gave approximately 10 per cent of the disputed territory to Pakistan, including much of the high ground where the heaviest fighting occurred. Pakistan reluctantly accepted the award but bitterly resented India, where it was generally felt that India had a strong case for sovereignty over the entire Rann of Kutch.

During the 1960s Pakistan's relations with the United States and the West had grown stronger. Pakistan joined two formal military alliances - the Baghdad Pact (later known as CENTO), which included Iran, Iraq, and Turkey to defend the Middle East and the Persian Gulf against the Soviet Union. However, the United States adopted a policy of denying military aid to India and Pakistan after the War of 1965 over the Rann of Kutch. Since most Pak military equipment was MAP-supplied, while India was not dependent to any comparable extent on US sources, Pakistan was more heavily penalized by US withholding from both sides. India could be emboldened if the Paks were relatively disadvantaged. Under the circumstances in Rann of Kutch, Pakistan would be forced to withdraw all its forces one-sidedly since they were mainly MAP-supplied, while India was not thus handicapped.

The Pakistani assessment was that India was demoralized after being defeated by China in 1962; after Nehru's death, the Indian political system was subject to significant uncertainties; the people of Jammu and Kashmir had been alienated from India; the international community would not oppose Pakistani military intervention, as India showed unwillingness to change its stand on Kashmir during the 1962-63 talks; and Pakistan's marginal success in the Rann of Kutch confirmed its assessment of Indian Army's vulnerability. When Pakistan launched 'Operation Gibraltar' later in 1965, the expectations were that India would respond militarily only in areas where Pakistan had launched military operations. The 1965 war, in purely operational and military terms, was a draw with no decisive military victory for either side. It was in politico-strategic terms and policy objectives that Pakistan was defeated.

These southern hostilities were ended by British mediation, and both sides agreed to refer the case to binding international arbitration in order to limit tensions and remove nuisance to relations. Consequently, the Rann of Kutch Tribunal Award was concluded.

On February 19, 1968, the Indo-Pakistan Western Boundary case tribunal award bolstered India's claim over 90 per cent of the Rann while conceding the remaining 10 per cent area to Pakistan. Both sides accepted the award of the Indo-Pakistan Western Boundary Case Tribunal designated by the UN secretary-general. The tribunal made its award on February 19, 1968, delimiting a line of 403 kilometres that was later demarcated by joint survey teams. Of its original claim of some 9,100 square kilometres, Pakistan was awarded only about 780 square kilometres. Beyond the western terminus of the tribunal's award, the final stretch of Pakistan's border with India is about 80 kilometres long, running west and southwest to an inlet of the Arabian Sea. In August 1999, a Pakistani surveillance aircraft was shot down by the Indian Air Force in the Rann of Katch.

Unfortunately, there was no ruling on the demarcation of Sir Creek, a disputed area that remains a source of irritation. The Indo-Pak boundary finally runs through the low-lying, tabletop, salty wastelands called the Rann. A variety of creeks jut out like fingers from the body of the Indian Ocean into the marshy flatlands of the Rann. The alignment of the international border here is also disputed and is commonly referred to as the Sir Creek issue. The Sir Creek dispute involves defining the international boundary along Sir Creek, a 100-km-long estuary in the saline wetlands of the Rann of Kutch between the state of Gujurat in India and the province of Sind in Pakistan.

The dispute predates the creation of India and Pakistan and stems from a dispute between the British Indian State of Bombay and the Princely State of Kutch in the first decade of the 20th century. The princely state of Kutch and Sindh had their first falling out about the creek back in the 1910s. Though they reached an agreement, the devil lies in detail was hard at work even then. By 1925, the dispute was back again, this time in the form of a gap between the agreement's text and its implementation on the ground. Like everything else that characterizes their bilateral ties, in 1947, India and Pakistan inherited the dispute from the pre-partition days. Because of a rich delta, Gujarat has the best fishing, and the Gulf of Kutch has the best fish known in India. The waters of the Indus delta at the Arabian Sea are considered suitable for fish breeding. This lures the Indian fishermen to enter Pakistan's territorial water for a better catch. Sir Creek is the scene of numerous arrests of fishermen after they stumble into either the disputed areas or the territory on the side of the border other than their own. After they are caught, these fishermen's woes are very well known. The two countries do not treat them as they should according to international laws. They are kept in confinement with no charge and offered no legal assistance. Complications ensued when it was noticed that Sir Creek had started to shift its course northwards towards Pakistan. The shifting of the courses of shallow creeks is a normal geographical phenomenon.

Sir Creek is one of eight significant issues on the Pak-India composite dialogue agenda devised by the archrival South Asian nations for the peace process they launched in 2004. The UN Convention on Law of the Sea required that all maritime boundary conflicts be resolved by 2009, failing which the UN may declare disputed areas as international waters. The talks on Sir Creek under the fifth round of Pakistan-India Composite Dialogue were scheduled to be held on 2-3 December 2008 in New Delhi. However, in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, India put a "pause" on the Composite Dialogue.


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