India & Pakistan

Hurdles to peace

Print edition : September 06, 2013

Chief of the Army Staff General Bikram Singh (centre), Lt General Sanjiv Chachra (left) and Lt General D.S. Hooda (right) in Jammu on August 7, saluting the coffins of the soldiers killed on the LoC. Photo: By SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Activists of the Indian Youth Congress protesting outside the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi on August 7. Photo: RAVEENDRAN/AFP

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He says the tension has to be defused. Photo: FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP

Defence Minister A.K. Antony came under pressure for stating that the killings were carried out by Paksitani non-state actors. Photo: Vivek Bendre

The recent killing of Indian soldiers on the LoC and the strong reaction to this from India’s government and media, which see the hand of the Pakistan Army in the incident, make the resumption of bilateral peace talks difficult.

EVEN as positive signs were emerging on the resumption of official-level talks between India and Pakistan, trouble once again erupted on the Line of Control (LoC) following the killing of five Indian soldiers on August 6. The Indian Army was quick to blame its Pakistani counterpart for the killings, and the charge was denied strenuously by both the Pakistan Army and the government in Islamabad.

The flare-up came right on the heels of statements made by the newly elected Pakistani political leadership for a quick resumption of the dialogue process at the highest levels. The Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif, are scheduled to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session in September.

Sharif was quick to express his condolences for the loss of five “precious lives” and once again emphasised his desire for an improvement in the ties between the two countries. Since returning to power, Sharif has been saying that the two countries should give priority to increasing their trade and economic ties. Currently, India accounts for just 1.2 per cent of Pakistan’s exports, and only 0.9 per cent of India’s exports go to Pakistan. Sharif holds the overall charge of the Defence and Foreign Ministries. He reiterated that the two countries “need more dialogue” to address the frequent flare-ups along the LoC. “Both countries need more robust rules of engagement to build on and to ensure adherence to the 2003 ceasefire agreement,” he said.

Indian reaction

India’s Defence Minister A.K. Antony had suggested initially that the killing of the soldiers was the handiwork of non-military actors. But he was forced to backtrack on his statement on the floor of Parliament under pressure from the opposition and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), and he stated that Pakistani forces were indeed complicit in the killings. It was claimed that the Minister had not originally reflected the Army’s view that the regular Pakistan Army forces deployed along the LoC were responsible for the intrusion and the killings. The Directors General of Military Operations (DGMOs) of both the armies spoke on the hotline the day after the incident and no breaches of the ceasefire agreement were reported.

The Indian electronic and print media had by that time gone on an overdrive, claiming that there was sufficient proof of the Pakistan Army’s involvement, and demanded an immediate military riposte from the Indian side to avenge the killings. With the country’s politics already gripped by election fever, all the parties, including the Congress, which heads the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government at the Centre, jumped onto the “revenge” bandwagon. The “Youth Congress” tried to outdo the activists of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in their exhibition of patriotic fervour. Noisy demonstrations were held in front of the Pakistan High Commission, and the Pakistan International Airlines’ office in New Delhi was vandalised.

The August 6 incident could have been triggered by an event that went largely unreported in the Indian media. The Pakistani media reported that five villagers from the Pakistani side of the LoC were kidnapped by Indian soldiers on July 28. There was also speculation that the ambush of the five Indian soldiers was a response to the killing of five militants in Kupwara in Kashmir by the Indian security forces in late July. Militant groups in Kashmir and those supporting them in Pakistan had sworn revenge.

Firing from the Indian side has resulted in the death of a few Pakistani soldiers in the last couple of months. In June this year, one Indian soldier was killed on the LoC, just after Sharif rode back to power. The Indian Army said that he had fallen victim to unprovoked firing from the other side. But the incident was played down by both the Indian government and the media. Sadly, this time New Delhi chose to succumb to jingoistic pressures and electoral compulsions.

The Afghanistan factor

The incident in the first week of August was preceded by an attempted attack on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, reportedly by militants owing allegiance to the Haqqani faction of the Taliban, which has a strong base in Pakistan. Many in the Indian intelligence community believe that the attack may have been orchestrated by elements in Pakistan’s security agencies. Islamabad has made no secret of its objections to the setting up of Indian diplomatic missions along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. At the 2009 Sharm el-Sheikh Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, New Delhi had virtually acknowledged that it was involved in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which is experiencing a long-simmering insurgency.

With the United States Army withdrawing from Afghanistan, there is bound to be a scramble for influence in the country. The current Afghan government’s warm ties with India have not gone down well with Islamabad. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai’s request for heavy weaponry from India during his last visit to the country has further alarmed the security establishment in Islamabad, which until the other day was looking at Afghanistan for “strategic depth”.

Pakistani military officials claim that India has already started sending heavy weaponry to the Afghan Army. The Indian government, however, insists that it has said a polite no to the request for weaponry from Afghanistan. The Taliban, particularly the Pakistani branch, has strong links with the militant groups operating in Kashmir. Many military and counter-insurgency experts are predicting a spurt in militancy in Kashmir once the American forces withdraw from Afghanistan.

Incidents similar to the recent one could become more frequent along the LoC. The 2003 ceasefire agreement between the two sides has been generally adhered to but both the armies routinely engage in small arms firing. There have been hundreds of minor violations every year. The Pakistani side though is fearful that things can go out of hand if the bellicose statements emanating from the Indian Army headquarters are actually acted upon. Pakistani officials say that if the Indian Army resorts to shelling with heavy weapons, then it will be a different ball game altogether. They said that they would respond by targeting the fences the Indian Army has built along the LoC and the bunkers that dot them. The electronic fences have been quite successful in checking infiltration from across the LoC.

The daily exchanges of light arms fire across the LoC between the armies of the two nuclear-weapon states since early August have worried the international community. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was in Islamabad on a previously scheduled visit, called on the Pakistani government to settle the disputes and emphasised the need for “reaching out and building bridges with one’s neighbours”.

A U.S. State Department spokesman said in the second week of August that the American ambassadors in Islamabad and New Delhi had spoken to the governments there “to convey our hopes that they will take steps to build trust and work together”. The State Department official acknowledged the fact that that both the states were “nuclear armed” was a factor for concern. The spokesperson also indirectly indicated that the Kashmir issue was an important one but hastened to add that the Barack Obama administration was not thinking about appointing a “special envoy” to mediate between the two countries on the particular subject. The Obama administration’s earlier attempt to involve the late Richard Holbrooke in the Kashmir dispute had raised hackles in New Delhi. During the few visits he made to Delhi, Holbrooke was given a frosty welcome. “We can encourage dialogue, but we do not have necessarily to do so with an envoy,” the U.S. State Department spokesman commented.

India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesman said on August 13 that New Delhi welcomed the offer of talks from the Pakistani Prime Minister but avoided giving specifics about the schedule for the talks. He said that India remained committed to the goal of ensuring peace with its neighbour and the sanctity of the LoC. The spokesman said India wanted all bilateral issues with Pakistan resolved through the dialogue process in an “environment free from violence and terror”. He emphasised that New Delhi considered the “sanctity of the LoC” as a “vital confidence-building measure”, adding that “unprovoked incidents along the LoC naturally have consequences for bilateral relations”.

The Pakistan foreign office spokesman blamed Indian forces “for the continuous ceasefire violations”. “Pakistan calls upon India to uphold the ceasefire over the LoC and reiterates its commitment to Ceasefire Agreement of 2003, which should be respected in letter and spirit,” he said. The Pakistani Prime Minster, however, chose to take a more statesmanlike position and again urged a speedy resumption of talks. Sharif told a Pakistani television channel in the second week of August that the two countries should become “good friends, hold each others’ hands. We must sit together with open and clean hearts.”

India is still taking time to reciprocate in a similar tone. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said in the second week of August that there was a sense of “shock” at the continued violation of the ceasefire by Pakistani forces across the LoC. He told Parliament that things had to get back to normal before talks could be resumed.

The External Affairs Ministry spokesman pointed out that there was in any case “no timeline” for the resumption of bilateral talks. Pakistan had suggested the last week of August for the resumption of talks relating to the Wullar Barrage and the middle of September to discuss the Sir Creek issue.

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