THE firing by the Indian Army across the Line of Control (LoC) in the Akhnoor and Mendar sectors on October 14, the day United States Secretary of State Colin Powell reached Islamabad, appears to have been intended as a message for Washington. The artillery barrage against Pakistani posts forced President George W. Bush, preoccupied as he is with more pressing issues, to tell both Pakistan and India to "stand down" and avoid further military escalation. "It is very important that India and Pakistan stand down during our activities in Afghanistan, for that matter for ever," he said.
Since mid-October, both India and Pakistan have been accusing each other of unprovoked shelling. The intensity of Pakistani firing across the LoC, Army officials concede, had come down considerably, especially in the months preceding the visit of President Pervez Musharraf to India in August.
A senior Indian Army official announced in Jammu that the Indian artillery shelling had destroyed 11 Pakistani posts. An Army spokesman said that the Indian forces used rockets, mortars, flame-throwers, grenade-launchers and machine guns during the operations. He added that the Army had started "punitive action" against Pakistan. "This follows a conscious decision. This is part of the proactive approach adopted by the Indian Army". Another military spokesman, however, told journalists in New Delhi that the firing was part of "normal action" along the LoC. Firing of this nature from both sides, he said, was a routine feature. (New Delhi had threatened unspecified action following the suicide attack on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly building in the first week of October which claimed more than 40 lives.)
George Fernandes soon after his reappointment as Defence Minister stressed that "punitive action" would be taken to protect India's borders against infiltrators and terrorists. "Retaliatory action will always be taken. There will be no holding back", he told mediapersons.
Fernandes also said that 30 infiltrators were killed in the October 14 firing by the Army, which lasted for 50 minutes from 5-30 p.m. Fernandes and Home Minister L.K. Advani have apparently decided to don the garb of tough-talking hardliners in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government. The tone adopted by Fernandes is his interaction with the media was part of the exercise. He said that India would pursue its own agenda regardless of the Bush administration's opinion on Kashmir and related issues. Advani has also been reiterating that India will continue with its proactive policy against terrorism.
Meanwhile, tension is building up along the LoC. Now it is the turn of the Indian side to complain about unrestrained firing from the Pakistani side on "unarmed civilians". On October 17, Pakistan put its troops on "high alert'', alleging Indian troop movement along the border. The Defence Ministry has denied any enhanced exchange of fire.
But the spokesman for the Army's 16 Corps said in Jammu that Pakistani troops had used heavy calibre weapons for the first time in this area at a time when there were no open hostilities. The Directors-General of Military Operations (DGMOs) from the two countries were in touch with each other in the third week of October. New Delhi assured Islamabad that it had no intention to take advantage of the "complex situation" prevailing in the region. The Indian DGMO, Lt. Gen. S.M. Chahal, also refuted Pakistan's allegations that the Indian Air Force was deployed for offensive action.
Given the current geo-strategic equations, it may suit Islamabad to cry wolf. As a frontline state in the war against terrorism, it is more important than India in Washington's current blueprint for the region. The Bush administration has not taken kindly even to trusted allies like Israel taking a tough proactive military line against terrorism. Washington does not want the focus to be diverted from the war in Afghanistan.