December 11, 2019
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These Backward Glances

Another LoC incident exacts a grisly price. Its possible causes, and ways we can stanch the blood.

These Backward Glances
These Backward Glances
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Cloak And Dagger In Indo-Pak Wars

  • 1947 Pakistan uses regular army personnel with Pathan tribesmen to infiltrate Kashmir, leading India to deploy its own armed forces to throw out the intruders
  • 1965 Pakistan launches Operation Gibraltar to push in its army regulars dressed as mujahideen into Kashmir. An all-out war breaks out when India retaliates and expands it into other theatres.
  • 1971 Attack by Pakistan starts in Kashmir and the western sector before the focus shifts to the eastern sector with the Indian army and the Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini fight and defeat Pakistan, finally leading to the birth of Bangladesh
  • 1999 Pakistan sends in its soldiers dressed as shepherds in Kargil before the Indian army throws out intruders. Evidence of bank passbooks, other documents establish identities of civilian intruders as army regulars.

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Weeks after India and Pakistan emerged as two independent nations in August 1947, amidst the bloodletting of Partition, striving to come to terms with their new identities, they fought their first war over Kashmir. More than six decades later, as they prepare to celebrate the 66th anniversary of their independence, the focus is still dourly set on Kashmir, with heightened tension along the Line of Control (LoC) following the death of five Indian soldiers in an ambush by Pakistani intruders on August 5.

The Indian government naturally finds itself in a tough spot when its soldiers are killed at the LoC, particularly if the Pakistani army is suspected to have a direct hand. It’s always difficult to satisfy domestic hawks looking for retaliatory responses to such attacks on the one hand and assuring the outside world that India does not plan to escalate tension with Pakistan, on the other. This double manoeuvre gets doubly hard when the country is getting into parliamentary election mode. But the latest controversy in India following the ambush was sparked off by a tactless statement of Union defence minister A.K. Antony. On Tuesday, a day after the soldiers’ deaths along the LoC, he told Parliament that those involved were militants dressed in Pakistani army uniform. Not only did the minister’s statement contradict that of the defence ministry, which  unambiguously said Pakistani army regulars were involved, but it also smacked of a guileful attempt on his part not to squarely blame Pakistan.

Red-faced South Block officials were left a little confused on how to approach Pakistan in the wake of the two contradictory statements from the Indian defence establishment, indicating yet again that key players were perhaps not on the same page. Since it was in stark contrast to what the MOD was saying, many wondered if Antony’s statement was vetted by the defence secretary and other senior officials in the ministry—as was expected—before he read it out in Parliament.

Under the circumstances, the MEA felt it was best to play safe: lodge a protest with Pakistan but do nothing to escalate the tension. Subsequently, the deputy high commissioner of Pakistan in New Delhi, Mansoor Ahmed Khan, was summoned to South Block to convey India’s displeasure.

A truculent Opposition, true to form, was in no mood to allow this opportunity to go by, and several non-Congress parties joined the BJP to demand from the government a clarification on what really happened at the LoC. “The defence minister has given a clean chit to Pakistan. He has let the country down,” roared BJP leader, Sushma Swaraj, giving voice to the rising anger among people both within and outside Parliament. The demand for an apology from Antony grew as the bodies of the slain soldiers arrived in their home states of Bihar and Maharashtra. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s attempt to defuse the situation by calling a meeting with the BJP leaders the next day failed to silence the railing from the Opposition benches.

The simmering public anger over the latest round of tensions along the LoC and the BJP’s attempt to capitalise on it forced Antony to make a fresh statement in Parliament on August 8—this time he clearly blamed the Pakistani army for its complicity in the ambush leading to the death of the Indian soldiers.


Hindu Sena activists protest outside the Pakistan high commissioner’s residence in Delhi. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)

Observers agree that despite incidents along the LoC, the 2003 ceasefire agreement has mostly kept down violence.

The new statement by the defence minister may have helped the government to avert a major controversy, but serious doubts have now arisen over the meeting that Manmohan Singh was to have with Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York next month. However, MEA officials point out that there was still over a month left for the proposed meeting between the two prime ministers and therefore such a possibility could not be totally ruled out. Many felt that Antony’s attempt at distinguishing between the Pakistan army and militants dressed in its uniform was perhaps an attempt to leave the door open for the first-ever meeting between Manmohan and Sharif next month.

Vivek Katju, a former secretary in the MEA, argues that while firing along the LoC was not unusual, the death of five Indian soldiers in a Pakistani army ambush inside Indian territory was a serious matter. “The defence minister’s statement, trying to give the Pakistani army the benefit of doubt, should be seen in the larger framework of the PM’s desire to meet his Pakistani counterpart in New York next month,” says Katju. Others in the Indian foreign policy establishment also support this view while agreeing that it was important for India to remain engaged with Pakistan to ensure that India-Pakistan relations do not deteriorate further.

In neighbouring Islamabad, Sharif took corrective measures (read box) and expressed his sadness at the loss of “precious lives” along the LoC and emphasised his desire to improve relations with India.

So how should one see the latest flare-up at the LoC?

There are a number of elements at play in this game and much of what is happening along the LoC has a direct link with developments unfolding in Pakistan, particularly the fast evolving balance of power following Sharif’s coming to office.

Pakistan has traditionally used milita­nts, or personnel from its regular army in civvies, in attacks against India. They had used this ruse during the 1947-48 war with India over Kashmir, when it sent in army regulars with Pashtoon tri­besmen into Indian territory. The tactic was followed again in 1965, when they launched Operation Gibraltar that began in Kashmir, but led to a full-fle­dged war when India decided to expand it to the other sectors as well. Again, during the 1999 Kargil operation, Pak­is­tan sent its army personnel dressed as shepherds and mujahideen across the LoC. However, it was only during Kargil that India managed to establish the pre­­sence of Pakistani army regulars in the garb of civilians when it got hold of bank passbooks, identity cards and other documents from dead Pakistani soldiers.

In Pakistan, allegations were made on August 7 that Indian troops in Pandu opened fire, in which two Pakistani soldiers were seriously wounded. Media reports in Pakistan also accused the Indian army of ‘kidnapping’ five innocent Kashmiri villagers from the Neelam valley on the Pakistani side of the LoC on July 28. Many think the ambush was in retaliation to an operation by the Indian army in Kupwara last week, in which five terrorists were killed.

But most objective observers agree that despite incidents of violence and firing across the LoC, the 2003 ceasefire agreement between the two sides has mostly held. “The LoC is a very active line where firing between rival troops had mostly been a normal feature,” says Srinath Raghavan of Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. “But it must be said to the credit of both sides that since 2003 the ceasefire agreement has definitely brought down such incidents.”

Why then are attempts being made by Pakistan to break the ceasefire?

Some say that part of this could be in response to similar action against Pakistani posts by Indian soldiers—something mostly unreported in the Indian media. Others see a sinister pattern in the escalation from the other side that could well be the result of a turf war between rival power centres in Pakistan.

With the army nervous about losing power, it might as well have used its jehadi allies to scuttle Sharif’s plans of peace.

In the run-up to the Pakistani parliamentary elections held earlier this year, Sharif had reportedly entered into a number of deals with Punjab-based militant groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and others to ensure they did not resort to violence and scuttle his chances. But after coming to power, Sharif has been talking of peace with India and normalising bilateral ties. As a businessman, Sharif is also keen that the existing hurdles between the nations are removed to give trade and economic ties a boost. If that does happen, increased trade and investment from India would help Pakistan revive its moribund economy. But enhanced trade and economic ties could also dilute the other contentious issues between the two sides—particularly that of Kashmir, which many Punjabi militants had turned into their violent raison d’etre for years.

In addition, Sharif has also put former Pakistan army chief and bete noire Gen Musharraf on trial—an unprecedented step in the country’s history. Tho­ugh Mus­harraf has lost much of his earlier support in the army, the implications of the trial are not lost on many key players in the army HQ in Rawalpindi.

The army has traditionally enjoyed pride of place in Pakistan and used its clout to be the last word on its security and foreign policy, especially its policy on India. But its image has taken a beating over recent years. On the one hand, it has been under attack by the Pakistani Taliban, which had been tar­geting its personnel and assets at will. On the other, it has observed the growing support among Pakistanis for a civilian-led democratic government. The PPP-led coalition that preceded Sharif was the first government in Pakistan to complete its full five-year term. Despite the threat of large-scale violence (and actual bombings), large numbers participated in this year’s parliamentary elections.

All these are signs that could well make the army establishment nervous about losing its traditional power. This could lead to a renewed alliance bet­ween the army and the jehadis to ratchet up the Kashmir issue yet again by creating disturbances along the LoC and putting the existing ceasefire to serious test. “The escalated tension along the LoC that we notice of late could well be an attempt by these assorted groups to unsettle Nawaz Sharif and deter him from pushing peace with India,” says a senior South Block official.

What choices does India have then?

The reflex instinct will be to refrain from any meaningful dialogue with Pak­istan to ensure the BJP and other det­ractors of the ruling UPA are denied any handle to accuse the government of going soft on its recalcitrant neighbour. The other option is for India to start engaging with Sharif with trade ties and hard talk to ensure that the new government not only addresses Indian concerns with seriousness (starting with the trial of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack acc­used), but also manages to strengthen its own position and isolate the jehadi-army clique that has always acted as the spoiler in normalising India-Pakistan ties.

But with Lok Sabha elections round the corner, will the Congress-led UPA government reopen substantive negotiations and run the risk of being labelled a ‘softie’ in dealing with Pakistan? In an atmosphere where sabre-rattling rings positively at the hustings and is a constant temptation, it needs character and resolve.

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