Indian soldiers beheaded on LoC: Time for hard decisions but Narendra Modi must first set his house in order

Another day. Another outrage. There is a strong sense of déjà vu now in every India-Pakistan conflict. The contours of action and counter-reaction are well known. This is not the first time that Pakistan has committed atrocities on Indian soldiers. It won't be the last.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AFP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AFP

The rogues who don Pakistan army fatigues have no respect for any norms. The Indian Army has obviously not taken kindly to two of our jawans being beheaded. There is no reason to doubt their resolve. Rest assured, appropriate response will follow.

However, due to a unique set of circumstances, Indian retaliation cannot remain limited to just military retribution. It must simultaneously be a public and political message.

This is because of two reasons. First, the BJP, while in opposition, had frequently indulged in invective rhetoric against Pakistan. Recall Sushma Swaraj's demand to bring 10 Pakistani heads if Lance Naik Hemraj's mutilated body part was not returned. It must therefore be held by the same standard while in power.

Second, Narendra Modi's self-projected image as a strong leader restricts considerably his options of carrying out a secretive cross-LoC military operation. With Modi at helm, the stakes are high. It is not enough now for Pakistani heads to roll, it must be a public spectacle.

This is an important reason why some details of the 29 September surgical strike were released to media. In any armed conflict between two nuclear nations, the trickiest thing is to achieve the objective while staying within the nuclear threshold.

In this piece, I will focus on the options available before Modi and the areas that need his immediate attention.

What happened at Krishna Ghati sector?

First the details. By now, it is clear that a Border Action Team (BAT) from Pakistan army crossed into the Indian side of LoC and ambushed an Army JCO and a BSF head constable in the Krishna Ghati sector of Poonch on Monday morning. Another Indian jawan sustained splinter injuries.

In a media briefing on Tuesday, KN Choubey, BSF ADG Western Command said: "Taking advantage of the firing from the Pakistan side, BAT forces attacked our jawans and mutilated their bodies". He added that Constable Rajinder Singh, who was injured, is stable.

The jawans who were killed and suffered mutilation at the hands of Pakistan army have been identified as Naib Subedar Paramjit Singh of 22 Sikh Regiment and Head Constable Prem Sagar of the BSF 200 Battalion.

In a media statement released through Twitter on Monday, the Indian Army Northern Command called it "an unsoldierly act by the Pak Army the bodies of two of our soldiers in the patrol were mutilated" and vowed that "such despicable act of Pakistan Army will be appropriately responded."

Another Northern Command tweet on Tuesday indicated that a DGMO-level contact with the Pakistan army has been established and an unequivocal message has been conveyed that the "dastardly and inhuman act beyond any norms of civility" will receive proper "response."

Who carried out the beheading?

Following the DGMO interaction, Pakistan army's Inter-Services Public Relations said in a statement that it "did not commit any ceasefire violation on the line of control or a BAT action in Buttal sector (Indian Krishna Ghatti Sector). Indian blame of mutilating Indian soldiers' bodies is also false". It added that "Pakistan army is a highly professional force and shall never disrespect a soldier, even Indian."

It also asked for "actionable intelligence" and warned India against taking any action. If we ignore the amusing assertion that Pindi khakis are a 'highly professional force', it seems quite apparent that Pakistan is apprehensive of India's retaliation. The denial, too, is interesting. Beheading is not only a violation of Geneva Convention, it is considered an extremely provocative act.

Pakistan's blatant rebuttal of it despite overwhelming evidence points to some sort of plausible deniability. It might be trying to suggest (as in the past) that the action was carried out by its terrorist proxies.

It is possible that Lashkar operatives were involved because BATs are typically a unit of around 15, consisting of terrorist proxies and Pakistan army's 'Special Forces'. Even if there were terrorist proxies involved in beheading, the final responsibility lies with Pakistan army: A fact of which it is only too aware. The more important point is the timing.

The timing of Pakistan army's provocative act

The move comes at a time when there are two simultaneous churnings under way in Pakistan.  One, a familiar power tussle between Pakistan's civilian government and its security establishment. On Saturday, under severe pressure from the Rawalpindi khakis, Nawaz Sharif was forced to sack two of his top officials — Syed Tariq Fatemi and Rao Tehseen Ali Khan — as part of a power battle over leaks to Pakistan media of a meeting "at which civilian leaders confronted the military over its alleged reluctance to halt Islamist groups in the country," according to a report in the New York Times.

Most damagingly for Pakistan, which has been ruled by the army for 33 years of its 70-year-old existence, the Pindi khakis rejected Sharif's move and in a tweet exposed once again who is the real boss.

Two, Nawaz Sharif's hosting of Indian businessman Sajjan Jindal, who is rumoured to be close to both Sharif and Modi. The visit has been widely interpreted in Pakistan as some sort of a back-channel communication mechanism to break the deadlock over Kulbhushan Jadhav.

Both these incidents provide the background in which the beheading of Indian soldier took place. It implies that Pakistan army is desperate to raise the temperature to undermine Sharif's authority and preempt any communication between the two nations over any issue. Why so?

Because it feels that a decades-old effort in instigating home-grown insurgency in Kashmir is paying handsome dividends. A close economic-strategic partnership with China centered around China-Pakistan Economic Corridor may have also convinced it that India's tradition military advantage over Pakistan now stands neutralised.

How might India respond?

India's traditional response to Pakistan's provocation has been 'strategic patience', which some say is less of a strategy and more of a forced patience because in reality, India has few options. Nuclear weapons have neutralised traditional military advantage.

Whatever was left of 'cold start' doctrine has been put paid by Chinese proximity arising out of its strategic investments in Pakistan. India is well aware that it might have to open two fronts instead of one should it seek to initiate a full-fledged military operation against Pakistan.

Does this mean we must try to reopen the talks process?

The short is answer is: No.

A section of Indian commentariat and strategic circles advocate "talks" as an effective method of de-escalation of tension. This is self-defeating. To begin with, talks can be only be held with an elected, civilian government which unfortunately is not the real custodian of power. Nawaz Sharif has no agency.

Pakistan Army, a bunch of rent-seeking savages who impoverish the State to further its influence and dream of engaging India in a 1000-year war, understands only the language of force.

The first thing is to comprehend is this: India needs a multi-layered Pakistan policy, provided it is interested in investing in such a policy beyond short-term measures to control the narrative. All options, including military and diplomatic, must be on table along with a clear understanding that none of these come without a cost.

India's aim should be to escalate Pakistan's cost-benefit ratio while controlling collateral damage. No one wants a nuclear war but Pakistan's hot-headed generals must be made aware that if such an eventuality takes place, India will emerge with a deep wound but Pakistan will cease to exist.

The surgical strikes — and owning of it — has proved the lie of Pakistan's low nuclear threshold. It may indulge in a bluff but it wants war much less than it is ready to admit. Therefore, a limited military strike must definitely be an option.

The second must be using of all diplomatic tools at India's command, including but not limited to, abrogation of Indus Waters Treaty. This is not an easy game to play, what with India's record of upholding the sanctity of international treaties and obligations but water will be ultimately the final frontier of India-Pakistan conflict.

The way Islamabad reacted to a mere mention of reworking the water-sharing pact points to its deep insecurity over this issue.

Tragically, India's interest in providing diplomatic and moral support to Balochistan insurgency struggle has been wavering and intermittent.

The Modi government is yet to approve Baloch leader Brahamdagh Bugti's asylum request and is going deliberately slow with it. A lack of coherent policy on Balochistan in visible beyond rhetorical posturing.

All these point to the conclusion that the Modi government lacks long-term vision and is lax in focusing on India's external and internal security apparatus.

Needed: A full-time defence minister

Nothing exemplifies this more than the fact that the PM still hasn't thought it fit to appoint a full-time defence minister. This is not to suggest that the Poonch beheadings could have been avoided were it not so. It is also not a question of whether Arun Jaitley can manage two important portfolios.

Delays on matters of such importance contributes to the impression that India is a soft nation. It may not be reality but perception shapes much of world politics. Modi is too seasoned a politician to not understand that.

Updated Date: May 02, 2017 20:54 PM

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