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India, Pakistan Back to Ground Zero?

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Paper No. 5364                                       Dated 15-Jan-2013

Guest Column by Rajeev Sharma

Familiar arch-rivals India and Pakistan are back with their familiar hate game. The trigger point is also familiar – the volatile Line of Control (LoC). What has happened between the two nuclear-armed adversaries is that on January 8 the Pakistani soldiers made a deep incursion into the Indian side of the LoC, according to New Delhi, and killed two Indian Army personnel and injured as many more.

The Indians also alleged that the Pakistani soldiers badly mutilated bodies of the two killed Indian army men and left behind a decapitated body of one of the killed, imputing that the alleged marauding Pakistanis had decamped with the head of the Indian soldier.

The incident has triggered headlines in the Indian print and electronic media and evoked jingoistic sentiments at this kind of scale for the first time since the November 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai.

This is the most serious flash point in India-Pakistan bilateral relations since the terror carnage in Mumbai in November 2008 which has since been proved to be choreographed by elements in Pakistan – something which Pakistan denied initially but has since accepted.

The obvious implication of the incident is that the India-Pakistan bilateral relations are virtually back into the deep freeze. The Indian responses to the Pakistani act are worth examining.

The most immediate response came from the Indian Army . Within hours of the incident, the Indian Army issued the following statement:

“In a significant escalation to the continuing series of Cease Fire Violations and infiltration attempts supported by Pak Army, a group of their regular soldiers intruded across the Line of Control in the Mendhar Sect on 08 Jan 2013. Pak army troops, having taken advantage of thick fog & mist in the forested area, were moving towards own posts when an alert area domination patrol spotted and engaged the intruders. The fire-fight between Pak and own troops continued for approximately half an hour after which the intruders retreated back towards their side of Line of Control. Two soldiers Lance Naik Hemraj and Lance Naik Sudhakar Singh laid down their lives while fighting the Pak troops. This is yet another grave provocation by Pak Army which is being taken up sternly through official channels.”

The next day on January 9, Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid remarked that the Indian response will have to be “proportionate” and said: “We need answers from the Pakistani side. We may have to go beyond the procedures.”

One should look at the timing of the incident which came soon after the Indo-Pakistan cricket series in India ended. Islamabad also ignored India’s good gesture of proving visa to Pakistani cricket icon Javed Miandad, despite the fact that Miandad is a close relative of “global terrorist” Dawood Ibrahim. Miandad’s son is married to Dawood’s daughter. Miandad, however, cancelled his India visit after getting the visa.

It is too early to determine as to from where the orders to Pakistani troops to indulge in this barbaric act came from – the military establishment or the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari which is set to make an unprecedented record of becoming the first civilian government in the history of Pakistan to complete its full tenure in next two months. General elections are due in Pakistan in March 2013, though no dates have yet been announced. It is difficult to ignore this factor because Pakistani rulers are known to go berserk and whip up anti-India sentiments to garner votes whenever elections are round the corner.

Greater clarity on this point will emerge in the coming days and weeks and it will be worth watching whether Zardari uses this incident to bolster the sagging political fortunes of his ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will inevitably be under acute pressure, particularly from the BJP, to take tough action against Pakistan and this may help Zardari to use his emergency powers and elongate his stay in power by one more year. Manmohan Singh will find it hard to maintain his usual reticence on this sensitive issue.

Also, pursuing a soft approach towards Pakistan would hardly be acceptable to the man on the street who wants not only an exemplary retaliatory action against Pakistan but also an action that is effective. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had acted very tough in the wake of terror attack on Indian parliament in 2001 and mobilized its troops on the Indo-Pak border, though it had ordered the military back to barracks after months of offensive deployment along the Pakistan border.

The Indian government will not only have to do something but also seen to be doing something effective which would constitute a befitting response. While a military response may well be seen as a knee-jerk reaction by the international community, India’s Pakistan policy makers are definitely faced with a test-by-fire kind of situation in the coming days. Whatever response the UPA government comes up with, the people’s anger would be hard to be ignored.

It will be an interesting exercise to deconstruct how and why the new year has begun on a disastrous note for Indo-Pak bilateral ties and who among the Pakistani establishment is responsible for triggering this avalanche that threatens to bury the peace process between South Asia’s nuclear armed neighbors.

Pakistan’s response has added fuel to the fire as far as the Indians are concerned. Islamabad has accused New Delhi of distorting the facts and offered a third-party mediation or the United Nations-led inquiry into the incident, though the Indian stand has consistently been opposed to such formulations and arrangements. India has promptly rejected the Pakistani suggestion and union finance minister P Chidambaram has announced it publicly.

The damages are quite clear as of now. It would be difficult for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh government to pretend that it is business as usual. Pakistan can de-escalate the situation by apologizing for the incident and assuring that such an unacceptable conduct will not be repeated again. However, Chidambaram, union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon have given enough indications that there is going to be no drastic rethink in India's Pakistan policy.

The LoC is simmering and there is nothing to suggest that Pakistan is in a reconciliatory mood. In New Delhi, the over-riding feeling is that to expect the Pakistanis to display mature diplomacy at this juncture would not be any different from hoping that snowflakes can survive in an oven.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst who can be reached at bhootnath004@yahoo.com)

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