By Rajeev Sharma
India-Pakistan bilateral relations have suddenly hit a major road bump. Pakistan Army capped its continued string of gross violations of the decade-old ceasefire with a highly provocative and unacceptable act when its troops crossed the Line of Control in the Mendhar sector of Jammu and Kashmir on Tuesday and killed two jawans of the Indian Army after a half-an-hour gun battle. Before retreating to their side of the LoC, the Pakistani troops mutilated the body of one of the two killed Indian Army men.
This is the most serious provocation by Pakistan since the 26/11 Mumbai carnage of November 2008 and has the potential of putting Indo-Pak ties back into the deep freeze. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is understood to have taken a grim note of the incident and has sought individual reports from Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh, National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon and External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid.
The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the highest decision-making body of the Government of India on all issues pertaining to national security, is likely to be convened by the Prime Minister to consider these three reports as well as inputs from various Indian intelligence agencies. The CCS may meet under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister as early as Wednesday, formally or informally. The Prime Minister was in Kerala earlier today for inaugurating the 11th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Kochi.
An indication of the upcoming tough response from India was thrown by the Indian Army which released a strongly-worded statement on Tuesday as follows:
“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 timing of the latest Pakistani provocation is both queer and significant. It has come soon after the Indo-Pakistan cricket series in India has ended. Clearly, the Pakistani military establishment has cared two hoots about the Indian gesture of giving visa to Pakistani former cricketer Javed Miandad, the ‘samdhi’ of "global terrorist" Dawood Ibrahim. Miandad, however, cancelled his India visit after getting the visa.
Significantly, Tuesday’s incident at the LoC has come at a time when Pakistan’s civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari 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. Pakistan is scheduled to have general elections in March 2013, though no dates have yet been announced.
There seems to be a method behind the Pakistani madness. Zardari’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party is facing an acute credibility crisis and if elections are held today, the PPP’s return to power seems highly unlikely. Ratcheting up the anti-Indian sentiments and playing the India card are familiar political tools employed by the Pakistani rulers, more so when the elections are round the corner.
Moreover, Zardari has emergency powers of increasing the National Assembly lifespan by one year if there is a credible threat to Pakistan’s national security. In case India decides to up its ante and retaliate by taking some tough measures against Pakistan in response to the Mendhar incident, the stage will be set for Zardari to use his emergency powers and elongate his stay in power by one more year.
The UPA government will find it extremely tough to continue to pursue a benign foreign policy with Pakistan. The Opposition, particularly the BJP, will inevitably add to the pressures on the Manmohan Singh government. The UPA government can ill afford to remain passive at this juncture. At the same time, it will have to adopt a calibrated strategy to deal with a recalcitrant neighbor like Pakistan and come up with a response that puts Pakistan in the dock in the eyes of the international community.
This is easier said than done. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had acted very tough in the wake of terror attack on Indian parliament in 2001 and mobilised its troops on the Indo-Pak border. After months of military deployment along the Pakistan border at the cost of hundreds of crores of rupees, nothing much was achieved and the Vajpayee government ordered troops back to the barracks. The UPA government will be mindful of the 2002 humdinger.
Having said that, the Indian government will not only have to do something but also do 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 ignore. If nothing else, the Indian government will be expected to convey a tough message to Pakistan diplomatically. Indian diplomats would have to do a lot of explaining before foreign dignitaries in this busy diplomatic season. Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister is already here and is scheduled to meet Salman Khurshid on Wednesday morning. Also, the National Security Advisors of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are going to converge in New Delhi on Wednesday for their first-ever stand-alone meeting on Thursday, 10 January. The rapidly increasing Indo-Pak tensions will inevitably come up during their talks, formally or informally.
The new year has begun on a very tense note for Indo-Pak bilateral ties. Tuesday’s Mendhar incident has shaken the very roots of the most important Confidence Building Measure (CBM) between the two neighbours: the ceasefire agreement. Pakistan needs to show some maturity and offer unconditional apology. However, going by the past track record of Pakistani rulers, this seems highly unlikely.
The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst who can be reached at email@example.com.