When artillery guns are booming across the Line of Control, it's hard to hear what is said sotto voce in far-off Delhi. But one of the more tantalising revelations made almost in passing by Army chief Gen Bikram Singh at his press conference on Monday to address the current round of ceasefire violations and cross-border transgressions by Pakistan makes for very disquieting reading.
Gen Singh disclosed that the beheading of Lance Naik Hemraj Singh by elements in the Pakistani Army, which has ratcheted up the tension rather more than the firing across the Line of Control, wasn't the first such incident in recent years. There had, he conceded, been at least two similar incidents in recent years. Both those episodes were deliberately played down, even by the Army brass, evidently under political pressure from the Manmohan Singh government, which was working overtime to restore bilateral relations with Pakistan - and didn't want the sordid story of Indian soldiers' martyrdom to disturb the mystical trance of the peacenik brigade.
That an elected government would literally sweep the beheaded bodies of Indian soldiers under the red carpet it rolls out for Pakistani leaders says much about the perils of India's peace-at-any-cost strategy vis-a-vis its accursed neighbour to the northwest. If an elected Indian government would dishonour the lives of Indian soldiers in this fashion, it isn't surprising at all that Pakistan's jihad-crazed Army (and its proxy army of terrorists) subject our soldiers to ritual sacrifice whenever they are overcome by blood-lust.
As I'd noted earlier (here), in the context of the savage torture and mutilation of Capt Saurabh Kalia during the Kargil war, the Pakistani Army castrated an entire nation when it sent back his mangled body - and claimed, as Pakistan's Interior Minister did fatuously on Indian soil recently, that Capt Kalia may have been a victim of inclement weather in the high Himalayas.
A yearning for peace isn't, of course, folly in itself. But what the incorrigible peaceniks and the candle-light brigade in India overlook routinely is the geostrategic and regional context in which such savage transgressions occur, and the unrepentant hate-filled mindset that still bestirs the jihadists in Pakistan and their handlers in khaki.
The latest incidents have come about at a time of great political churn within Pakistan, where the Army is looking to re-establish its foothold in politics by using the "million-man march" by Canadian-Pakistani Sufi cleric Tahir ul-Qadri as a Trojan horse. They also coincide with the timing of the US announcement of a drawdown of its troops in Afghanistan, where the Pakistani Army and the ISI are looking to establish a beachhead for the Taliban, with whom they share a symbiotic relationship that targets India. The exit of the US Army from the region will also free up Pakistan-sponsored jihadists, who are now on active duty on the Pak-Afghan border, who can then be redeployed in Kashmir, which Pakistan still covets. The Great Game is in full play again.
The latest violations of the ceasefire along the Line of Control and the beheading also point to the fact that Pakistan's efforts to internationalise the Kashmir dispute (such as it is), which had received a setback in recent years, are back on course. To ignore the very real threat of a revival of Pakistan-sponsored jihadi terrorism in Kashmir is the height of folly.
Much has been made of the fact that the response to the latest tensions along the Line of Control has been rather more measured in Pakistan than in India. Indian commentators routinely point to the shrillness of the debate on Indian television airwaves as compared to the sobriety that marks the discussion in Pakistan. Quite apart from the fact that the outrage is naturally louder on the Indian side since the brutal beheading was visited upon an Indian soldier, it isn't necessarily true that the discourse on the Pakistani side is particularly more measured.
As former RAW secretary Vikram Sood points out (here), on a recent panel discussion, the sentiments of Pakistani commentators (who included a former diplomat, a retired Admiral and a lawyer) reflected hubris and bravado of a high order. Their message, channelled in bellicose tones: don't forget that Pakistan is a nuclear nation; and, unless Kashmir is handed over to Pakistan, such incidents as beheadings and jihadi violence will only continue. If that isn't a threat, one doesn't know what is.
"This is the mindset we are up against," notes Sood. "If this is the mindset of an educated ruling class, then what peace dividends are we looking for? Our great desire to periodically sue for peace and exhibit our magnanimity is surely misplaced."
It is in this context that Gen Bikram Singh's revelation about earlier instances of beheading of Indian soldiers by the Pakistani Army acquires significance. If our yearning for peace blinds us to the repeated ritual abuse of Indian soldiers, such bilateral bonhomie comes at too high a price - and reduces us to sitting ducks for the next such transgression.
As former diplomat Kanwal Sibal observes (here), India has publicly acknowledged its helplessness by stating many times at the highest levels that it has no option but to continue the dialogue with Pakistan. "We have shown to Pakistan in recent years that we can absorb serious provocations without retaliating." And since we did not break diplomatic relations even after the November 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai, it may seem a bit of an overreaction to do so now.
In other words, in order for the government not to conceded to a failure of its Pakistan policy, it will feel constrained to go further down the road in search of peace, with no reciprocal commitments from the other side. Yet, reasons Sibal, it is still not too late to retrieve some of the ground that India has lost.
"We should cease saying that we have no option but to negotiate with Pakistan; we should change our discourse that both countries are victims of terrorism, as we are not responsible for terrorism in Pakistan. We must forbid visits by Hurriyat leaders to Pakistan and insist that Pakistani leaders will not meet Hurriyat leaders in Delhi. We should postpone for the present any exchange of visits and delay the convening of the next round of the composite dialogue. We should not encourage sporting exchanges."
These policy recommendations come not from a right-wing nut, but from a diplomat who has an inside-out view of the tortuous course of diplomacy vis-a-vis Pakistan. For that reason, they are somewhat harder for the government to dismiss out of hand. Yet, as the Manmohan Singh government has exemplified repeatedly over the years, there are none so deaf as those that will not hear.