April 05, 2020
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Raising The Pitch

India goes on offensive as hopes of an early peace diminish

Raising The Pitch

Barbarism will invite a strengthening of resolve. That was the clear message sent out by the Indian government last week. The debate over who mutilated the bodies of the six Indian soldiers, who knew (or did not know) about it, is irrelevant. But what is crucial is to understand what it represents in the tactical game surrounding Kargil and to put into action a studied, deliberate response.

Against this backdrop, the government is being inundated with advice. From those who believe 'enough is enough; now teach them a lesson', to others who feel that 'even in this moment of national indignation, the provocation by a reckless enemy calls even more for a firm, reasoned and shrewd response; not merely an emotional one'.

In the span of a few days early last week, the government has attempted to take on board criticism of the confused manner of its functioning, and responded accordingly. This response may be media-driven, but that doesn't neccesarily make it facile. The media's position, after all, at a level also reflects public opinion.

However, the first ominous signs that there is a potential for this 'course correction' sliding into an elaborate exercise in knee-jerkism, are appearing on the horizon. And with it, due to a sense of outrage at Pakistan's savagery in dealing with the captured Indian soldiers, there is a growing danger of the pendulum swinging to the other extreme. The Prime Minister is probably more aware than most for the need to find the right balance. He could, in a way, be said to have spent a lifetime doing a balancing act in a party that has held extreme views. There can be no doubt that the firmness India is showing is neccesary in view of Pakistan's brutality. It is also crucial that the cowboys don't take over. For, winning this war requires equal degrees of courage, resolve and sagacity.

Dead men tell no tales. But these six were different, they had a devastating one to tell. Despatched on a patrol in the inhospitable higher reaches of the Kargil sector,one of the first with a brief to investigate the reported Pakistani infiltration,they had vanished off the map on May 14. After a full three weeks, which a tensed nation spent progressively discovering ever darker shades of meaning in the phrase 'war-like situation', the Pakistani army handed over their bodies at a post in Kargil. The Indians were horrified. The soldiers' bodies were horribly mutilated and disfigured,they bore the same tortured look that now threatened to mark subcontinental relations.

By June 11, the flow of events seemed to prefigure further escalation of hostilities. As the hiss and crackle of the battle-front went behind an iron curtain, the stage shifted to the thrust and feint of diplomacy. A day before Pakistan foreign minister Sartaj Aziz was to arrive in New Delhi on a 'peace' visit nobody lent any credence to, his counterpart Jaswant Singh dug in his heels. Upping the ante, he lashed out at Pakistan's military and government, saying New Delhi had 'incontrovertible' proof of their involvement in Kargil.

As a clincher, he released the transcript of two damning conversations between Pakistan's army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf, and chief of general staff Lt Gen Mohammed Aziz.The tape showed the Pakistan army, having launched the operation, was in no mood to back off. After this, de-escalation seemed only a faint possibility, highly placed Indian sources conceded. One of them cited the statement issued after the National Security Council meeting on June 8,'India must be prepared for all eventualities in the fluid situation',and said it might become the defining tone.

Responsive to the degree of provocation, even the public mood, the release of these transcripts seemed part of a well-calibrated strategy to dispel any presumed softness towards Pakistan. It was diplomatic brinkmanship, conveying to Islamabad that India was losing patience. That Aziz, who made no secret of his desire to bring up a redefining of the LoC, should not expect any mealy-mouthed approach in New Delhi.

To the charge of torture, Pakistan initially responded with a deafening silence. But a day later its military spokesman dismissed the accusation, saying 'It's a crude attempt to malign Pakistan and its armed forces'. The Pakistan media too ignored the accusation. The only story they carried on Friday was about the dignified ceremony in which these bodies were handed over! There was no hint of an Indian protest about anything. The news had been blacked out.

The Indian government and public was furious with the vicious treatment meted out to the soldiers. Jaswant Singh called it 'perversion and barbaric medievalism'. First with Sq Ldr Ajay Ahuja, now the six soldiers, including Lt Saurav Kalia, it was a clear violation of the Geneva Convention and all basic humanitarian values, something Pakistan talks about ad nauseam in the context of Kashmir.

As if mounting the daring but deceitful operation in Kargil wasn't taunting enough, torture and mutilation was heavily loaded symbolism. These two actions by Pakistan are going to leave a deep and lasting impression on the way the Indian state approaches Pakistan in future. In the short term, it will destroy all meaningful interaction with Pakistan,the hard Indian position will be further fortified.

Yet, the handing over of the bodies just a couple of days before Aziz's visit raises many questions. The primary one being: just who is in control in Pakistan? Did its army deliberately hand over the bodies at this juncture to scuttle the talks? Pakistanis themselves have no clear answer. Said one observer: 'The army and the civilian leadership have always differed on relations with India. I don't think anything has changed overnight. But this time I'm not certain if they are trying to scuttle the talks'.

If that was the intention, New Delhi wasn't going to fall in the trap. Having been fooled by the hopes and bonhomie generated in Lahore, the bjp government is in no mood to be taken in by anything the Pakistanis spring on them. Indian officials see the return of the bodies as a clever act. 'India can allege that Pakistan has tortured the soldiers. Pakistan will argue they wouldn't return the disfigured bodies and implicate themselves. They would figure that India is unlikely to get a third party involved,' said an Indian official.

Pakistan's military spokesman said exactly this: 'No army would mutilate the bodies first and then return it to the enemy. Their propaganda has reached ridiculous proportions'. He asserted the incident happened three weeks ago during a fire-fight in which the Indians retreated leaving behind the six bodies in a ravine. In this time, according to him, a deterioration in the condition of the bodies couldn't be ruled out. Responded another Pakistani observer: 'Why should we kill your soldiers in captivity? A living Indian soldier is more useful to us than a dead one. We can at least extract information from them if they are alive'.

Sources say Kargil has more or less precluded any meaningful dialogue in the future. Said a senior official here: 'There are some standard elements in inter-state relations. Peace and tranquility on the LoC requires that you don't steal across our land. (If you do so), the cost you pay will be heavy,a long-term destabilising effect on bilateral relationship'. He accused Islamabad of being 'brazen and shameless' in interrupting this relationship even while going through the Lahore process. 'This has to be set right. The only parameter for this is that we have to restore the status quo ante in totality, they have to clear out of the area they have taken deceitfully'.

In the circumstances, the Jaswant-Aziz parleys can be written off, agree observers on both sides. India was hardly interested in the talks, but the assessment in New Delhi hinged on necessary caution,why reject it and send out a negative signal. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Jaswant Singh and others have repeatedly stressed that the only subject for the talks is to get the infiltrators out. The torture of the six soldiers too has been added on now.

'If they want to come even after this, why should we say no,' reasoned officials here. For Pakistan, the agenda is the larger question of Kashmir's status. In the best of times, that would have run into some prickly sensitivity on India's part. What with Kargil, the Saturday parleys can be treated as the dialogue of the deaf. What can surely be expected is a lot of posturing and name-calling.

Though Sartaj Aziz's sudden visit to Beijing betrayed an interest in how other nations shape their response to Kargil, Islamabad does not seem overly worried about its international isolation on this issue. Its public projection of the issue has also completely underplayed this aspect. The normal reaction is, 'If we could withstand the sanctions after the nuclear tests, what is this pressure?'. Specifically on this issue, the Pakistan foreign office spokesman told Outlook: 'We are not at all upset by what the Americans or others are saying. Those urging us to respect the LoC should remind the Indians of their aggression in Siachen in violation of the LoC'. Still the pressure on Pakistan to vacate the area is intense. A senior European Union diplomat in Islamabad said: 'There is an overriding unanimity that the LoC as agreed upon in 1972 must be respected. We don't expect India to accept the loss of territory as fait accompli. Neither should the Pakistanis be so naive to think the militants will be able to retain their posts. Retreat for the militants is the only way out.'

In fact, in Pakistan, there is a sense that Kargil is an achievement of sorts. Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the Amir of Jamaat-i-Islami and a fierce detractor of Nawaz Sharif, has urged the latter to act determinedly. Hardly anyone views this operation as a 'misadventure', as Indian leaders describe it. Former army chief, Gen Mirza Aslam Beg, argues that all those who think Kargil is a misadventure 'are cowards. The mujahideen have acted in a calculated way. Now it'll be difficult for the international community and India to push Kashmir under the carpet'. Another defence analyst, Shireen Mazari, censured Sharif for failing to 'adequately project the cause of the Kashmiri mujahideen in Kargil'. Mazari asserted that as far as internationalising of Kashmir is concerned, 'it's already an international issue'.

However, Moonis Ahmar of the Karachi University differs: 'You need to have a positive situation to internationalise the issue. Afghanistan was different. The whole West was in favour of the mujahids fighting the Soviets. In Kashmir, the militants have a stamp of Islamic fundamentalism on them.' Pervez Hoodbhoy of Quaid-e-Azam University agrees: 'On the one hand, it is an open secret that militants are being trained here. It isn't even denied. On the other, when the officials face western officials, they deny it. I don't think anyone will believe Aziz.'

There is also the state of Pakistan's economy. Kargil has hurt the stock market, which has lost 350 points. Due to the tensions, no one is willing to take long-term positions, says a Karachi stockbroker. Time's running out on other fronts too. Public opinion is beginning to act on the government, which faces elections in three months. The snows too start in Kargil around the same time. The longer the campaign lasts, the greater the pressure to do something even more drastic. It will not be surprising if things spiral out of control, despite the remarkable restraint shown by India.

With Imtiaz Gul in Islamabad, Azhar Abbas in Karachi and Ramananda Sengupta in New Delhi

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