WHAT is one to make of the recent incidents along the Line of Control (LoC), the extensive and distorted media coverage they received and the consequent rise in tension in India-Pakistan relations?
Did they flow from unauthorised aggressive actions by a local commander that then triggered the jingoistic media coverage that was perhaps inevitable in a world dominated by the visual media and the intense battle for ratings that TV news channels have to wage?
Were they the result of a deliberate effort by some groups to disrupt the relatively slow but steady progress being made to place these relations on an even keel while even slower progress was being made to resolve outstanding issues through the renewed composite dialogue?
I found it interesting to try and seek answers to these questions through a selective perusal of the Indian media. The first was Praveen Swami’s piece, ‘Runaway grandmother sparked savage skirmish on LoC’ in the Hindu issue of Jan 9. The second was ‘National interest: On the LoC, in fact’ by Shekhar Gupta in the Indian Express of Jan 19. The third was a blog dated Jan 16 on the website Kafila entitled ‘Dear Barkha Dutt: The buck stops where?’ which provides a critique of a TV show hosted by Barkha on Jan 15.
These deserve to be read in full by all those interested in understanding what happened and why but I will try and sum up in the following paragraphs what I was able to gather from these reports.
First, the incidents were triggered by the commencement of construction of bunkers by the Indians within metres of the LoC. This construction was undertaken last September after an elderly lady from a village that lay between the LoC and the three-layer fencing erected on the Indian side crossed over to the Pakistan side to join her children in Azad Kashmir. The Indians agreed that this was a contravention of the ceasefire agreement of 2003 which forbade such construction but felt that Pakistan should have accepted this because the bunkers pointed inwards and were designed to allow monitoring of villages on the Indian side.
They, therefore, ignored the calls by the Pakistanis on loudspeakers to stop construction and the local commander then secured approval to respond aggressively to the subsequent firing by Pakistani soldiers. While the Indians denied that any of their troops had crossed the LoC to attack the Pakistani post where one soldier had been killed and another wounded, some Indian officials said that such things happened in the heat of battle.
Second, the beheading of enemy soldiers, which became the basis for the outrage expressed, was not a new phenomenon in the skirmishes along the LoC and both Pakistanis and Indians had been guilty of this. Praveen was told this by an army officer and on Barkha Dutt’s programme this was baldly stated by Admiral Ramdas, a retired chief of the Indian Navy.
Barkha herself had written in an account of the Kargil conflict that she had been shown the head of a Pakistani soldier, which her Indian army guide had told her was the “gift the boys got for the brigade”. She did not mention this in her own comments but chose to change the subject.
Moreover there are oblique references in these reports that beheadings and mutilation could have been the handiwork of civilian infiltrators rather than Pakistani soldiers.
Third, by and large the ceasefire has held over the last decade. India lost only two soldiers all over Indian-held Kashmir in 2012, while before the ceasefire each side lost 400-600 soldiers every year. Moreover, some 100,000 Pakistani troops had been moved from the eastern border and while only some may have been moved from the LoC it certainly was to India’s advantage that these troops were not facing India. What emerges from this summary of the reports is that had the Indian media focused on the facts rather than letting jingoism prevail, these incidents would not have triggered such things as the expulsion of the Pakistan hockey players from the Indian Hockey League or the cancellation of the implementation of the newly agreed visa regime at Wagah. It would not have led to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying that there could not be business as usual with Pakistan, etc. So why did it happen?
Part of the Indian media coverage and even official reaction was no doubt prompted by the position taken by the opposition parties led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Some Indians believe that it was prompted by the scars of Mumbai and the feeling that Pakistan was still stonewalling on what was a matter of enormous significance to Indian public opinion. Others suggest that despite the recent thaw distrust is still high and this has not been helped by the regional situation.
There is chagrin that Pakistan is being required to play a key role in Afghan reconciliation while India can only watch from a distance. Indians view sceptically Pakistan’s claim that its help in reconciliation is prompted by concern that it too would be destabilised if there were continued turbulence in Afghanistan after 2014.
All these factors may have played a part but, to my mind, the most important factor is that highlighting a problem on the LoC creates a justification for maintaining a large Indian army presence in Kashmir. After all if the situation is such that only two Indian soldiers have been killed in Kashmir during 2012 and if the LoC is peaceful there is no rationale for turning down the demand of the Kashmiri people — put forward through peaceful, non-violent protest — for withdrawing these forces and rescinding the special powers the army enjoys in Kashmir. Now, however, the army will argue, and few Indian political leaders will resist, that the situation on the LoC and by extension in India-held Kashmir is too volatile to permit such a withdrawal.
It would be a pity in terms of moving ahead on the normalisation of India-Pakistan relations if this happens since Kashmiri leaders may not then be able to ensure that protests in Kashmir remain non-violent. Pakistan will of course then be held responsible for any deterioration of the situation in Kashmir.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.