By Kamran Yousaf –
The sabre-rattling before a quiet return to damage-control was manifest in variables from bunkers set up by India to wagging the dog to deflect attention from domestic issues
It was undoubtedly the worst crisis between Pakistan and India since the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. The recent skirmishes between the armies of nuclear-armed neighbours at the Line of Control (LoC), a de facto border that divides Kashmir, had almost threatened to unravel the fragile peace process.
The hostilities erupted on January 6 when Pakistan accused Indian Army of a cross border raid, killing one of its solider at Haji Peer Sector in the LoC in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir.
Initially, it was thought to be one of those incidents that occasionally do happen in the highly militarized zone despite the ceasefire. Perhaps, that was the reason the response from the Pakistan’s foreign ministry and the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) was mild.
The Foreign Office called India’s Deputy High Commissioner to remind him of the importance of both sides abiding by the ceasefire agreement of November 2003.
But it became obvious on January 8 that the latest ceasefire violation was not an ordinary event when India leveled counter-allegations claiming that Pakistani troops attacked its post and killed two Indian soldiers.
At a news conference, Indian Army Chief General Bikram Singh termed as ‘unpardonable’ the alleged beheading of a soldier by Pakistan on the LoC. “The Indian Army reserves the right to retaliate at the place and time of our own choosing in case they recur,” Singh said upping the ante.
But Pakistan strongly rejected allegations that it had carried out any cross border raid or it was involved in the beheading of Indian solider. In an attempt to defuse the situation, Islamabad suggested third-party investigations into the ceasefire violations. But India turned down the involvement of United Nations Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan, which monitors the ceasefire along the LoC.
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar even pointed out contradictions within the Indian ranks over the issue of beheading. In fact, the commander of Indian Army’s northern command denied any of the Indian troops was beheaded.
The ceasefire at the LoC was one of the key Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) the two South Asian neighbours agreed in November 2003. Though, there had been sporadic incidents of exchange of fire between the two armies, the situation had never spiraled out of control.
It has been one of those accords that both sides adhered to even in the post-Mumbai attacks scenario when New Delhi pulled out of the composite dialogue with Islamabad. That is why many observers from both sides were surprised over the sudden escalation of tensions.
Initially, even Pakistani media — both print and electronic — did not give much importance to the story as few could have predicted at the time that tensions would escalate to the extent where from the Indian prime minister to its army chief ‘provocative’ statements would be issued.
But the mood across the border was in total contrast. In a clear departure from diplomatic norms, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs summoned Pakistan’s envoy before a plethora of ‘hostile’ TV channels.
“It was against protocol,” said a Pakistani Foreign Ministry official. “But this shows how Indian government was swayed by its media and opposition parties,” the official added.
Pakistani diplomatic and military authorities have been trying to figure out as to why India really raised the heat. “It could be several factors,” said a senior military official. Requesting anonymity, the official claimed that it was India, which should be blamed for the exchange of fire claiming the lives of three Pakistani and two Indian solider.
Giving details, the official revealed that there had been tensions ever since the Indian troops started building new ‘concrete bunkers.’ Asked as to why construction of new ‘bunkers’ was a source of tensions, he maintained that there was an understanding between the two armies that no new structure would be built along the de facto border other than the existing ones.
Therefore, the Indian move, he explained, could not be overlooked as it indicated that the Indian troops were planning something. One of the most respected Indian dailies, The Hindu also pointed to the development.
The newspaper disclosed that Indian bunker construction on the northern reaches of the LoC — initiated after a grandmother crossed into Pakistan-administered Kashmir to be with her sons — sparked off a spiral of violence which culminated in the recent tensions.
But that was at the tactical level.
On the strategic front, Pakistani security establishment suspects that the Indian ‘provocation’ at LoC might have even bigger designs.
One official said the Indian authorities appear to be upset over the recent acknowledgement by key western capitals, including the United States, of Pakistan Army’s ‘positive role’ in furthering the peace process in neighbouring Afghanistan.
New Delhi has long been aspiring for a role in the future political dispensation of Afghanistan, added the official.
But recent steps by Pakistan to free key Taliban detainees from its custody helped in dispelling impressions that Islamabad was involved in a ‘double play’ in Afghanistan.
“The LoC tensions might be an attempt by the Indians to undermine Pakistan Army,” the official claimed. “This also shows their frustration that they (Indians) may not get the kind of role they have been looking for in Afghanistan.”
Director General Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa said had Pakistan wanted any escalation in tensions, it would not have changed its ‘doctrine’ that is now primarily focused on homegrown militancy. “We are committed to the sanctity of the ceasefire agreement. However, any Indian aggression will be given a befitting response,” General Bajwa cautioned.
But some Pakistani policymakers are of the view that the Indian government’s ‘aggressive posture’ could be attributed to divert public attentions from some of the domestic issues. “It seems that India used tensions with Pakistan to pacify people’s anger on issues such as the gang-rape of a girl in New Delhi,” said a Foreign Ministry official.
Senior Indian journalist Raza Lashkar said the flared-up tensions at the LoC seemed to be a ‘localized affair.’ “I have been to LoC several times and my assessment is that the recent tensions erupted as a result of some tussle between the local commanders of Pakistan and India,” opined Lashkar, who reports for Press Trust of India (PTI) from Pakistan. “I don’t think it had any institutional approved from either side,” he said.
Many observers agree that the situation blew out of proportions thanks to India’s electronic media, which went berserk and even talked of a war.
The hype appeared to go through the roof forcing even Pakistani hockey players, who were to take part in Indian Hockey League, to return because of security concerns.
Indian authorities even barred Pakistani artists from performing in India. “The Indian electronic media let out so much steam that it compelled the government to talk tough on Pakistan,” said another Indian journalist while requesting anonymity.
But of late, the two countries have been engaged in a quiet diplomacy to defuse the tension. The two countries already agreed to de-escalate tensions along the LoC following the intervention of the United States. “Both countries have stakes so high in the ongoing peace that they cannot afford any breakdown in ties, Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani pointed out in a clincher.
“Indians are aware of the fact that any tensions with Pakistan will have negative implications for their economy particularly, the foreign investment,” Jilani concluded.
The writer is a diplomatic correspondent based in Islamabad