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INDIA & PAKISTAN

Border flare-up

JOHN CHERIAN

Shooting across the Line of Control in Kashmir and bellicose statements threaten to derail the peace talks between India and Pakistan. But better sense seems to have prevailed after a week.

PTI

At the last Indian post near the Line of Control in Silikot, Jammu and Kashmir.

Relations between India and Pakistan, which had reached their lowest ebb following the terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, had shown signs of improvement in the past couple of years. Bilateral talks had resumed early last year. There has been an exchange of high-level visits since then, and bilateral trade was rising.

However a skirmish on the Line of Control (LoC), which started on January 6 and left two Indian and three Pakistani soldiers dead, threatened to derail the process yet again. But better sense seems to have prevailed after a week of sabre-rattling on both sides. On January 16, after the third Pakistani soldier was killed in a firing across the LoC, the Directors General of Military Operations (DGMOs) of the two countries finally decided to talk on their hotline. An announcement on the same day stated that the two armies had decided to “de-escalate” the situation along the LoC. Both sides also pledged not to violate the 2003 ceasefire agreement.

The agreement to cool things down came after more than a week of bellicose statements and threats of escalation of violence. Indian Army chief General Bikram Singh, speaking in the second week of January, said that he had asked his ground commanders to be aggressive in the face of provocation. “What the Pakistani side did was unpardonable and gruesome,” he said. Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshall N.A.K. Browne, who is also the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, threatened to use “other options” to ensure the sanctity of the LoC and the ceasefire along it. In comparison, the reaction from across the border was muted. Even hard-line Islamist parties known to be close to the Pakistan Army headquarters were relatively circumspect in their reactions.

The role of the Indian media and the right-wing opposition parties in raking up jingoistic passions seems to have forced the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to toughen its stance. Initially, senior Indian officials, including External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, while criticising the actions of the Pakistani military, expressed the hope that the incidents along the LoC should not be allowed to impact bilateral relations negatively. “Whoever has tried to derail a wholesome peace process should not be allowed to succeed,” Khurshid said. Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, too, expressed similar sentiments and said that she wanted to continue the task of “trust building” and “normalising the region”.

‘Beheading issue’

To mollify public opinion and sections of the opposition, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has devoted a lot of his time to the improvement of relations between the two countries, had to make a strong statement demanding immediate remedial action from Islamabad. The Indian Army had alleged that one of the dead soldiers, Lance Naik Hemraj Singh, had been beheaded by the Pakistani forces. Pakistani officials have denied all the accusations, including the charge that their forces were responsible for the recent upsurge in violence along the LoC. The Indian Army says that the Pakistani side resorted to unprovoked firing. The first casualty, however, was a Pakistani soldier. The killing of the two Indian soldiers could have been a retaliatory move.

The LoC was relatively quiet since both sides agreed to a ceasefire in November 2003, even though there were periodic violations of a relatively minor nature. The recent incidents have been the most serious in the last decade along the tense de facto border separating the two Kashmirs. Even the terror attacks in Mumbai did not lead to any escalation of military tension along the LoC.

Islamabad has said that it is open to an inquiry by the United Nations into the latest incidents. The Indian government has not accepted the offer. New Delhi wants to avoid “internationalising” the Kashmir issue in any way. For the same reason, the Indian government does not want to raise the issue in other international forums. Some Indian opposition leaders wanted the government to bring up the “beheading” issue with the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, arguing that Pakistan had violated the Geneva Conventions.

The “beheading issue” has become a very emotive one in India. Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj went to the extent of issuing a blood-curdling statement that if the head of the dead soldier was not returned, then the Indian armed forces should be given the go-ahead to behead 10 Pakistani soldiers in retaliation. Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav called for immediate military retaliation. A retired senior military officer, who had served extensively along the LoC in his illustrious career, told this correspondent that there had been similar incidents involving both sides on several earlier occasions. There have been reports of decapitation of enemy soldiers in recent wars, including by American soldiers in Afghanistan. Indian media reports during the Kargil War mentioned stories about Pakistani soldiers being decapitated. This time, the electronic media in India were tipped off soon after the headless body of the soldier was returned. The media succeeded in whipping up emotions.

The Pakistan High Commissioner to India was duly summoned by the Indian Foreign Office for an explanation. A few days later, after another round of firing across the LoC which resulted in the killing of the second Pakistani soldier, it was the turn of the Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad to be summoned by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry. The United States, now a close ally of both the countries, called for restraint. The U.S. State Department spokesperson “urged both sides to take steps to end exchanges of fire and to resume normal trade and travel across the LoC”. By mid-January, trucks and buses had started plying again between the two parts of Kashmir divided by the LoC.

Talking tough

Manmohan Singh, speaking on the occasion of the Army Day on January 15, said that after the “barbaric act” committed by the Pakistani forces “it cannot be business as usual” with Islamabad. “What has happened is unacceptable. Those responsible for the crime should be brought to book,” he told the media on the sidelines of the Army Day function.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was quick to appreciate the Prime Minister’s tough talk. On the same day, the government announced that it was putting on hold the policy of “visa on arrival” to Pakistani citizens over the age of 65. The scheme was to be put in practice from January 15. No new date has been fixed for operationalising the facility. National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon, speaking after the January 6 incident, said that ceasefire violations by Pakistani forces and attempts at infiltration across the LoC had registered an increase in 2012 as compared with the previous year.

Khurshid, speaking on the same day, also adopted a noticeably tougher posture. “It should not be felt that the brazen denial and lack of a proper response from the government of Pakistan to our repeated demarches on the incident will be ignored and that bilateral relations could be unaffected or that there will be business as usual.” There are reports that the talks between the two sides on expanding trade ties have been suspended. The Indian side has postponed technical-level talks relating to trade in petroleum and power. The Indian government seems to be abandoning its policy of delinking trade issues from sensitive ones such as Kashmir. Hina Rabbani Khar, speaking in New York on January 16, accused India of “warmongering”.

Lt. Gen. K.T. Parnaik, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Northern Command, said that the flag meeting at the level of brigadiers between the two sides to defuse tensions was not successful. “We accused them of carrying out the barbaric attack, we insisted that the head [of Lance Naik Hemraj] be returned,” he told the media in Akhnoor. He said there had been repeated ceasefire violations by the Pakistani side even after the flag meeting on January 14. There was a high-level meeting between Indian and Pakistani officials in December to discuss conventional confidence building measures (CBMs) but no progress was made in the talks.

The LoC has been described as the world’s most dangerous border for a long time now. With both the countries having nuclear arsenals, keeping the peace along the 740-km LoC is even more crucial. Already three wars and a few major battles have been fought by the two sides over Kashmir.

Conspiracy theories

There are conspiracy theorists on both sides of the border attributing geopolitical motives to the latest flare-up. Experts in Indian think tanks close to the government suggest that the Pakistani military’s actions are linked to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Pakistan, they say, now wants the “jehadis” it controls to be diverted back into Kashmir to rekindle the insurgency there.

Some India-watchers, on the other hand, speculate that the latest incident is part of a strategic ploy by New Delhi to get the bulk of the Pakistan Army redeployed from the Afghan front. Indian policymakers do harbour the fear that a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan will lead to a void that will inevitably be filled by the resurgent Taliban. India fears that Pakistan will once again regain its “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. New Delhi, according to reports, is seeking assurances from Washington that “Indian interests” in Afghanistan will not be jeopardised in the wake of American troop withdrawal.