Flag meeting between Pakistan and Indian army at LOC

Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal

First two weeks of the New Year saw the worst spike of violence in the Kashmir region since Pakistan declared a unilateral cease fire in 2003. Recent report by “The Hindu” indicates that: ‘an Indian army unit had started building observation bunkers along the LoC; ceasefire agreement of 2003 bars such construction, but Indian commanders argued that the bunkers face out towards and posed no threat to Pakistan, Indians refused to stop the work; as the construction continued, Pakistani troops started shelling across the LoC, Indian troops fired in retaliation. Such tit-for-tat exchanges persisted for weeks slowly degenerating into death of soldiers on both sides’.

Pakistan says three of its soldiers have been killed in firing by Indian troops since January 6. India in turn has accused Pakistani troops of killing two of its soldiers on January 8, and blamed that one dead body was mutilated. Pakistan has denied the responsibility for the attack as well as the allegation of mutilation, and has proposed an inquiry by a third party.

In this backdrop, various tiers of Indian leadership resorted to increasingly harsh tone towards Pakistan. In his first public reaction to the flare-up, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warned that there “cannot be business as usual” with Pakistan. Speaking to reporters at a ceremony to mark India’s Army Day, he termed the killings, on January 8, a “barbaric act”. He said, “What has happened is unacceptable…Those responsible for this crime will have to be brought to book.” Indian army chief, General Bikram Singh, threatened to retaliate. He said that he had directed his military commanders to be “aggressive” in the face of provocations. India’s chief military commander in Kashmir also cranked up pressure on Pakistan, saying that flag officers meeting aimed at calming tensions was fruitless. Indian Air Force chief NAK Browne threatened “to look for some other options” to secure Pakistan’s compliance with the ceasefire. Defence Minister AK Antony described Pakistan’s conduct as a ‘turning point’.

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Pakistan sought to lower the temperature by opting not to react to some of the hostile statements made by Indian leaders, including their army chief. India must be apportioned much of the share of the blame for deteriorating bilateral relations. However, there were saner voices as well which cautioned against “jingoism.” Indian Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari said: “professional armies’ respect rules of engagement … transgressions are surmounted through tactical responses and not driven by jingoism”. He added that the mappings of tactical responses were best left to ‘professionals’ in an apparent disapproval of the Indian opposition’s strong military advice on the issue. Some commentators have accused Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his government of “caving in” to hardliners: “Over the past few days, as an increasingly jingoistic clamour has been worked up in television studios and outside, the government has passed up every opportunity to underline the imperative of keeping the bilateral dialogue process separate,” opined an editorial in  ‘Indian Express’.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar rightly warned against “upping the ante” between the two countries. “We see warmongering,” Khar said at the Asia Society session in New York. “It is deeply disturbing to hear statements which are upping the ante, where one politician is competing with the other to give a more hostile statement…The doors to dialogue are open…We need to meet at any level, I think we need to call each other, we need to become mature countries which know how to handle their truth.” Khar denied Indian accusations that Pakistani forces had beheaded one of two soldiers that India says were killed. She said an inquiry had found “no evidence” of the deaths. Pakistan’s foreign minister proposed a meeting with her Indian counterpart to recommit to the cease-fire. Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said, “We will await the prime minister’s direction in this regard…India was hopeful that Pakistan had understood the “strong message” of the prime minister….Talks have not frozen between India and Pakistan.”

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Meanwhile, at the professional level, the two Armies have successfully defused the tensions following the talks between the Director General Military Operations (DGMOs) from the both sides. Spokesperson for the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said: “Both sides agreed on the need to reduce tension on the LoC.” Indian Army also confirmed the development. “An understanding has been arrived at between the two DGMOs to de-escalate the situation along the LoC,” Indian Army spokesperson Jagdeep Dahiya said. He added that Pakistan’s DGMO Major General Ashfaq Nadeem said strict instructions had been passed not to violate the ceasefire. Dahiya pledged that Indian troops stationed along the LoC would also not breach the ceasefire forged between the two countries in 2003. “No fresh incidents of firing or violation of the ceasefire agreement have been reported from the Line of Control,” Rajesh Kalia, the spokesman for the Indian army’s Northern Command, told the media.

Reaction to the event indicates how fragile the peace overtures between Pakistan and India are; it has also demonstrated the relevance of resolution of Kashmir dispute to the maintenance of durable peace between the two countries. Experience has it that though bilateral initiatives could lead to substantial progress; these processes are often liable to instant unravelling. India and Pakistan have recently made significant progress in engaging each other on important issues such as the Siachen glacier and Sir Creek, improving trade and economic relations, developing energy-sector cooperation, and greatly liberalising visa regimes. Sports and cultural exchanges had just begun to create confidence in the viability of peaceful co-existence. In this context the LoC clashes couldn’t have come at a worse time.

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The facts surrounding the deaths of Indian soldiers are still disputed and the initial Indian claim that one of them was beheaded now seems to be incorrect. Yet, elements in the Indian government and media exhilarated anti-Pakistan sentiment to such an extent that a souring in relations was inevitable. Hockey boys and artists visiting India were sent back packing in a hurry as if war had started. Operationalization of much touted visa regime for the senior citizens has been withheld on flimsy grounds and Pakistan Women cricketers visit to play for the World Cup in India is in doldrums.

This is a moment for sobriety, leadership, prudence and statesmanship, not frenzied responses and beating of war drums. Indian response to this trivial incident has indeed been erratic. India should muster the political will to settle the Kashmir dispute in line with the aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. In the presence of this tipping point, practicability of all efforts towards durable peace between the two countries would remain questionable.

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