(Senior Fellow, VIF)
The flag meeting between the local Indian commander and his Pakistani counterpart has concluded in an utterly predictable fashion: India has protested the repeated violation of the LoC ceasefire by Pakistani troops and strongly took up the issue of barbarity displayed by Pakistani soldiers who crossed the LoC, killed two Indian soldiers and mutilated their bodies, carrying away the head of one soldier as a trophy; Pakistan has brazenly denied all the Indian charges and hurled counter-accusations at the Indians.
Despite this talking at each other, the flag meeting could possibly have achieved the limited purpose for which it was being held viz. cooling down things so that hostilities don’t spiral out of control. Of course, how long the temperature remains lowered is another matter altogether. Sooner or later, efforts will be made from the Indian side to even the scores – the morale of the troops who are seething with rage over the savage actions of Pakistani soldiers depends on this. As far as the Pakistanis are concerned, they could well violate the ceasefire again, either to push in infiltrators and terrorists or in response to an Indian retaliation, or even in pursuit of some larger strategic game-plan which could very well have been the reason why tensions were ratcheted up in the first place.
Basically, there are two possible explanations for the cross-LoC adventurism by the Pakistani forces at this stage. The benign explanation is that it was a routine ceasefire violation which spiralled out of control. In other words, it wasn’t part of any premeditated plan. Once the firing started, the two sides went up the escalation ladder with no easy way of defusing the situation because of political compulsions of all the main players. The civilian government in Pakistan is already coming under pressure of the Islamists and the military establishment for going soft on India and opening up trade and relaxing travel between the two countries. With general elections round the corner, the civilian government in Islamabad doesn’t want to appear as having backed down from giving a muscular response to an alleged Indian provocation along the LoC.
The military leadership in Rawalpindi is also facing dissension within its rank and file for re-engaging with the Americans and opening up NATO supply lines post the Salala incident in which 26 Pakistan Army soldiers were killed in bombing by US aircraft in November 2011. For the Pakistan Army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani to now appear as adopting a pusillanimous approach towards India will be quite disastrous. What is more, the Pakistan Army probably feels that it needs to send out a signal to India to not think that it is on its knees because of the myriad problems within Pakistan. In other words, the Pakistan Army wants to convey that it still has a lot of fight left in it and India shouldn’t think it can trifle with Pakistan just because it is in a tight spot on both the western front and internally.
The predicament of the Indian political leadership is no less. Already seen as a weak, vacillating and extremely corrupt and incompetent government which is also seen as bending over backwards to appease Pakistan, the UPA-II finds itself in an unenviable position. It doesn’t want hostilities along the LoC to spread and would like to cool things down but without being seen as having thrown in the towel. Adding to its problems is the seething rage in the armed forces which cannot tolerate the thought of letting the extreme provocation by the Pakistan Army go unanswered. The manner in which the Indian government is trying to resolve the matter is by playing good cop – the political leadership playing down the incident and taking a soft approach – and the military leadership talking tough to cool down the soldiery – the air chief talking about ‘other options’ and the army chief warning of an ‘aggressive’ response to future violations of ceasefire and assuring his troops that India will respond to the outrage of mutilation of its soldiers at a time and place of its own choosing.
The bottom-line as far as the benign explanation goes is that neither side wants things to go out of control and the ceasefire to collapse. Despite India taking the issue of the treatment meted out to its soldiers extremely seriously, it doesn’t consider the matter to be of a level over which it is willing to either suspend the dialogue with Pakistan or start a general shooting match along the LoC. Of course, the incident has once again laid bare Pakistan’s treacherous conduct – talking peace and cooing sweet nothings on the one hand and displaying barbarity and indulging in unprovoked firing on Indian soldiers on the other hand. But India has somehow come to expect this sort of treachery from Pakistan and at least the current dispensation is more than happy to live with it.
Before we touch upon the second and more plausible, if also more sinister, explanation of the entire LoC affair, it is important to disabuse ourselves of the nonsense that the Pakistan army is a professional and modern army which doesn’t engage in the mutilation of corpses of its adversaries. The fact of the matter is that despite all the trappings and traditions of the old British Indian army, the mindset of the Pakistan army is that of a medieval Islamist or Jihadist army. The only difference between the Pakistan army and its illegitimate offspring, the Taliban, is that the former is a uniformed force while the latter is not. None other than the former leader of opposition in Pakistan, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, has revealed that the Pakistan army would hurl living Taliban fighters out of helicopters flying from a height of a 1000 feet and more to instil fear and terror among the Taliban ranks. During the 1990’s, Pakistani Urdu press were full of stories and pictures of beheaded Indian soldiers which were displayed as trophies by the jihadist proxies of the Pakistan army.
Apart from the mutilation of Limit Saurav Kalia and his men during the Kargil conflict, there is also the incident of Gen Pervez Musharraf felicitating the terrorist commander Ilyas Kashmiri after the latter presented him with the severed head of an Indian soldier. A former Indian general has revealed that during the 1965 operations in Chammb, the Pakistan Army severed the ears and noses and even genitals of dead Indian soldiers. And for anyone to suggest that in this latest incident, it was perhaps some jihadist force which carried out the mutilation is nothing but an apology, if not an alibi, for the Pakistan Army. The simple fact is that given the saturation presence of the Pakistan Army along the LoC, it is inconceivable for a jihadist force to operate without the permission and assistance of the Pakistan army. Therefore, there is no way that the Pakistan Army can be absolved of this dastardly and barbaric act which was carried out as part of a larger game-plan to deliberately increase tension along the LoC and the Eastern front.
This is where the second and more sinister explanation comes in. Ever since 9/11 and the subsequent US-led NATO occupation and operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been trying hard to convince the Western bloc and the international community that the road to Kabul goes through Kashmir. But until now, this ploy hasn’t received much traction, partly because India reacted very emphatically against drawing any such linkage and partly because Pakistan’s own double-speak and double-game in Afghanistan lost it all support and sympathy of the West. Now however, with the Afghan endgame unfolding – ISAF troop withdrawals from Afghanistan moving into a high gear, reconciliation moves with the Taliban gathering pace and the US desperate to leave behind some semblance of order before it quits Afghanistan – Pakistan senses another opportunity to draw the attention of the West to solve the Kashmir issue in accordance with Pakistan's wishes and holding out the threat that unless this is done Pakistan would be forced to divert its focus on the eastern front with India leaving the Western forces in the lurch in Afghanistan. The perceptible US tilt in favour of Pakistan is also emboldening the Pakistanis to indulge in some sabre-rattling and indeed adventurism on the eastern front under the belief that if things get heated up on the Indian front, the US and its other Western allies will be left with no choice but to intercede on Pakistan's behalf against India.
The timing of the latest provocation along the LoC also makes sense because Pakistan is holding the presidency of the UN Security Council in January and tensions in Kashmir allow Pakistan to try and internationalise the Kashmir issue at the UN. The alacrity with which the Pakistani officials proposed involving the UNMOGIP to investigate the entire incident suggests premeditation behind the cross-LoC raid. Not only has the Pakistan foreign office been trying hard to get the UN involved, it has also launched a diplomatic offensive with the American and EU ambassadors to internationalise the issue.
As far as India is concerned, it needs to operate at two levels to scotch this Pakistani move. India must react strongly to any provocation along the LoC, something that the Army Chief Gen. Bikram Singh has indicated in his press conference. At the diplomatic level, it is important that India convey to the US that while we understand their compulsions in Afghanistan and the fact that the Americans will want to protect their interests in the Af-Pak region by reaching out to Pakistan, India has also its own vital interests to protect and there are certain red-lines the breach of which India will never allow. The US cannot expect India to surrender its vital interests for the sake of the Americans. Once India makes clear to the international community where it gets off, the so-called pressure that is likely to be brought on India will disappear.
India needs to keep in mind the lesson of Kargil. Once hostilities started, the international community tried to pressure India against responding forcefully to Pakistani aggression, holding out assurances that they will try and resolve the matter. Had India agreed, the Pakistanis would have been still sitting on the heights they occupied with the international community twiddling its thumbs. But once India responded with force and refused to listen to the self-serving advice of the international community, the boot was suddenly on the other foot and Pakistan was seen as the aggressor and all the international pressure was then on Pakistan to vacate its aggression. This then is the reality of international politics and soft-peddling on issues of vital interest will only lead to surrender of these interests.