Upping the ante

Print edition : January 05, 2002

The hasty measures India has taken against Pakistan in the aftermath of December 13 have escalated tensions in the subcontinent and alarmed the international community.

DESPITE the rhetoric about a possible military response that emanated from the corridors of power in New Delhi, war clouds seemed distant as the New Year dawned. But the tough diplomatic measures New Delhi took against Islamabad following the terrorist attack on Parliament House have heightened tensions significantly. India's decision in the last week of December to impose new sanctions against Pakistan has virtually added a new dimension to the crisis.

The Indian government started raising the diplomatic stakes with a decision in the third week of December to recall its High Commissioner in Islamabad. Such an action was not taken prior to the 1971 war with Pakistan. Despite requests from countries such as the United States and China asking for restraint on both sides, India went ahead and imposed tougher measures against Pakistan. The Pakistan government has been asking for evidence of its involvement in the December 13 attack on Parliament House. The Government of India has shown the "evidence" to the U.S. and a few other countries, but New Delhi is of the view that media reports would suffice for Islamabad.

The new measures included a reduction in the staff at the High Commission in Pakistan by half and a ban on Pakistani civilian flights from overflying India. In a reciprocal action, Pakistan banned the entry of Indian flights into its air space. Earlier the government announced that it was stopping the Delhi-Lahore bus service and the "Samjhauta" train service between the two countries. These two services were popular with the poor in both the countries. The banning of overflights is likely to have a more serious impact on India as Indian commercial air traffic stands to lose more.

At the Delhi Cantonment railway station on December 27, an armoured personnel carrier bound for the border.-PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

These measures were taken after a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). The government had stated that it was not satisfied with the action taken by the Pakistan government against militant organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). The measures taken by Islamabad included the banning of the two organisations and the purported arrest of Maulana Masood Azhar, head of the JeM.

External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh said in the last week of December that these measures were "inadequate". There have been reports that the two banned organisations had adequate warning about the impending action and had changed their sign boards and shifted their financial assets to secret holdings. Jaswant Singh said that terrorism had to be eradicated fully and that it should not be justified on any grounds or under any name. He described the situation along the western border as tense and said that India was prepared to deal with any eventuality. He, however, described the measures taken by the Indian government as "minimal"; he expressed the hope that Pakistan would take urgent steps to curb the activities of the terrorists.

Before the new measures were taken, in a show of belligerence, Defence Minister George Fernandes spoke about "missiles being positioned" along the border. India's Defence Ministry described the Indian troop movements along the border as a response to large-scale Pakistani troop movements.

The U.S. seems to have made it abundantly clear to New Delhi that it does not want any serious military diversion for the Pakistani Army at this juncture. The focus of the Pakistani and American military is on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan as on the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the remnants of the Al Qaeda.

The Pakistan side claims that all its moves have been of a defensive nature, in response to the Indian military build-up. Indian defence officials allege that Pakistan had moved forward its Hatf-1 and Hatf-11 missiles. Pakistan has, however, denied that it has repositioned its missiles. The talk of missiles being repositioned near the border has alarmed the international community. There is suspicion that both countries have armed at least some of their missiles with nuclear warheads.

The Indian Army has decided to cancel the annual Army Day parade on January 15. This is meant to be a signal to Pakistan that every soldier is being mobilised for possible action. New Delhi has frozen the hotline between the Directors-General of Military Operations (DGMOs) of the two countries.

There are signs that the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies are beating the drums of war in order to whip up jingoism, keeping in mind the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. In Meerut, the BJP mobilised its supporters to cheer the Army units moving to the front. The local administration was utilised to truck in the crowds. Several opposition parties allege that the BJP is trying to whip up a war hysteria, hoping that the surge in patriotic fervour would help it at the polls.

Top Central Ministers and bureaucrats have added their bit too. Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha has said that the Indian economy was strong enough to absorb the cost of a war. Some bureaucrats in his Ministry have gone to the extent of saying that a war could actually help the economy. Home Minister L.K. Advani, speaking on the Raising Day function of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) on December 28, said that India was committed to winning the war against terrorism. "We want to win this on our own. If the world supports us, it is good. If not, we will not bother."

Among the major political parties, only the Left parties have openly criticised the moves of the BJP-led government against Pakistan. They had hoped that the government would take the opposition into confidence before taking important decisions. The Left parties have characterised many of the recent actions of the government, starting from the recall of the High Commissioner in Islamabad, as inopportune. They have warned that hastily implemented moves would only push India into a diplomatic corner.

The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in a statement, said that the Indian government should place all the evidence it has against the perpetrators of the December 13 attack before the United Nations and the international community. This would provide the necessary backing to the demand that organisations like the Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Toiba, which operated from Pakistan, be proceeded against, it said. The Pakistan President will then be called to act on his statement that if evidence is produced, action will be taken against those responsible, the statement said.

International sympathy was with New Delhi immediately after the attack on Parliament House. But the talk of "hot pursuit" across the borders by top Indian government functionaries and BJP leaders has alarmed the international community. Given the volatile history of the Indian subcontinent, there are fears that any "hot pursuit" could end up in a full blown war. The fact that both countries are nuclear powers has made the situation even more alarming. Influential Western newspapers have already started speculating about a conventional war between India and Pakistan escalating into a nuclear confrontation.

MANY analysts fear that the full-scale military mobilisation and the tough rhetoric may make it difficult for the Indian government to make diplomatic concessions and start serious negotiations. The U.S. administration, which appeared sympathetic to Indian concerns immediately after the December 13 attack, now seems to have tilted yet again in Pakistan's favour. President George W. Bush told the media on December 28 that President Pervez Musharraf was doing his bit to crack down on terrorism and that therefore New Delhi and Islamabad should resume their dialogue at the earliest. He said his administration was trying to stop the "escalation of force by India and Pakistan".

U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on the same day that American troops were stationed in Pakistan and they should not come in harm's way. In a message obviously directed at New Delhi, he said that Pakistani forces had not been redeployed from the Afghanistan border in spite of the rising tensions. He said that Pakistani forces were doing a fine job, policing the border with Afghanistan. American troops are said to have virtually taken over the Pakistani military base in Jacobabad. For all practical purposes, the two countries are now firm military allies, as they were until the late 1980s. During the 1971 war, India at least had a defence treaty with the former Soviet Union to fall back on.

Today, though there is widespread support for India as a victim of terrorism, there are very few takers for India's recipe for a military solution to the problem of terrorism. Even Russia has called for a speedy resumption of dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad to defuse the spiralling tensions. It was at Russia's initiative that the Group of Eight Foreign Ministers issued a statement condemning the attack on Parliament House. The G-8 called on Pakistan to crack down on the terrorist outfits operating from its soil.

THE G-8 Foreign Ministers at the same time voiced "serious concern" over the build-up of tension between India and Pakistan and expressed the hope that the two countries would "avoid escalation, resume political dialogue in the spirit of the Lahore Declaration, and join their efforts in combating the global threat of terrorism". There have been calls from important capitals almost on a daily basis to the Indian External Affairs Minister counselling restraint and resumption of dialogue. But it will be difficult for New Delhi now to tone down the rhetoric suddenly.

However, all doors have not been shut. There are strong indications that Jaswant Singh and Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar will meet on the sidelines during the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Kathmandu in the first week of January. Musharraf has repeatedly emphasised that he wants to talk to Prime Minister Vajpayee during the summit.

On December 29, the Indian government formally rejected Musharraf's offer. Foreign Ministry sources said that though India was always for a dialogue with Pakistan, talks would be possible only after Pakistan "creates a climate conducive to acting meaningfully against terrorism". President Bush, whom both the BJP-led government and Musharraf seem to be willing to accept as an arbiter, has said that he may talk personally to Vajpayee and Musharraf to help in deescalating the tension.

Meanwhile, New Delhi continues to talk tough. It has ignored Bush's suggestion that India carefully assess the steps taken by the Pakistani government after December 13. Bush had said that Musharraf had taken strong action by arresting more than a hundred hardcore terrorists. The Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that India would make an "independent assessment" of the reports and then decide on its future course of action.

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