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Hope on the wane

Tragic as the recent loss of soldiers on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) is, the other significant casualty has been plummeting public confidence in the ability of both India and Pakistan to adequately handle border incidents – essentially a subtext of geographical frontiers. It is a sombre thought that any other two nuclear powers would have adopted a far more sagacious approach as soon as the crisis erupted.

India brazenly justified its ‘controlled response’ and its military establishment’s notables hyped up the overbearing talk. General Bikram’s call to his commanders to be aggressive is a familiar trait, where upon reaching higher positions, soldiers of lesser credentials, over pitch to show up for past shortcomings. The US called the death of two Indian soldiers ‘brutal’ but couldn’t find any suitable adjective for the dead Pakistani soldiers whose check posts were attacked in blatant violation of the ceasefire accord. It has also opposed a third party investigation, knowing well that bilateralism has been a cul-de-sac for a long time now.

The US has droned Pakistan several times, and the CIA’s new rule book for drone strikes exempts Pakistan during 2013 and quite possibly 2014. Pakistan is thus faced with a situation of complete convergence of interest between merchants of war material in the west and the Indian self-assumed notions of regional primacy.

The hawkish Indian external affairs minister hastily added to the tension and demanded a ‘proper investigation’ of the incident by Pakistan – in other words as per ‘Indian narrative’. It was arrogance at its worst when neutral investigation by the UN Military Observer Group on India and Pakistan (Unmogip) was rejected and Pakistan’s evidence was contemptuously brushed aside.

India’s demand for investigations in accordance with its narrative was more like the Persian fable ‘The hawk and the partridge’, where the hawk accuses the partridge of taking all the shade thus leaving the hawk in the scorching sun. When the partridge points out that it was midnight, the hawk says midnight only if he thought so.

Not that Pakistan is some partridge or India a hawk, but the warmongering was unmistakeable and Hina Rabbani Khar was spot on by saying so. It was only after her proposal for foreign minister level talks to lower tension, and the UN’s rejection of India calling for termination of Unmogip, that nudged Indian President Parnab Mukherjee to issue a conciliatory statement on India’s Republic Day.

Bowing to the hard line stance of the security establishment and whipped up public emotions by the media, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s knee-jerk reaction in pronouncing that there “cannot be business as usual with Pakistan” put paid to all efforts of normalisation of bilateral relations.

To turn Manmohan Singh’s words around, indeed, how can there be business as usual with a country which, after dismembering Pakistan, has continued to nibble away our territory from Siachen to Sir Creek?

A country that permits extremists’ training camps to promote terror, resulting in incidents like Samjhota Express killing Pakistanis and procrastinates in investigations but expects progress on fast track from others. A country, which agrees at Sharm-el-Sheikh to break the impasse by de-linking composite dialogue from terrorism and include Balochistan in the bilateral agenda, but reneges as soon as its prime minister lands back in New Delhi.

The list can go on but will serve little purpose as India is determined to limit its strategic vision only to commercial access to Pakistani markets and some vague pronouncements on people-to-people contact and an open-ended timeline on confidence building measures (CBMs). India cannot, or is unwilling to, associate itself beyond that for a better collective future and long-term stability, which can only be achieved through gradual progress on resolution of all outstanding issues with sincerity of purpose.

The mainstream Indian media has been in its usual venomous overdrive during the crisis and linked the LoC beheading claim with efforts by the family of late Captain Saurabh Kalia to agitate allegations of his torture during Kargil in Indian courts and in the UN to internationally blemish the image of Pakistan’s military. Pakistan needs to use its recently acquired membership of the UN Security Council to its advantage.

Pakistan has done well to ask Unmogip for a neutral inquiry since only that can expose India’s propaganda. An impartial inquiry has also become critical, especially since India has introduced the macabre allegation of the beheading of one of its soldiers by Pakistan’s regular forces and ignored investigative reports by respected journalists like Barkha Dutt, Sankarshan Thakur, Harinder Baweja and Praveen Swami – who have all noted on different occasions that both sides have indulged in this despicable practice of ‘head-hunting’ during Kargil and later along the LoC for years.

Obviously there is a method in the madness now being followed by the Indian government and its media. The recently held expert level talks in New Delhi between India and Pakistan on peace and security have further added to disenchantment about regional stability and show how bizarre the Indo-Pak relationship has become over time. We have reached a stage of mutual distrust where almost any proposal tabled by one side is instantly seen with utmost suspicion by the other. The hate sprouting from India, where people have called for the heads of ten Pakistani soldiers for every Indian soldier beheaded, hasn’t helped public sentiments in Pakistan.

Soldiers would not be soldiers if they didn’t get angry sometimes, but the level of hostility towards each other along the LoC at a time when the two countries are not formally at war is extraordinary. It is in our mutual interest to move away from the prevailing testosterone-soaked environment along the LoC and raise the threshold of mutual tolerance because now even die-hard optimists are beginning to lose hope in the peace process. The Indian military and political leadership need to understand the mutual benefits of long-term stability in the region and shape their approach accordingly.

Unlike the much-publicised disgusting conduct of occupation forces in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan have historically been generous in their praise of individuals who acquitted themselves with honour during combat against the time-honoured bar of courage in the face of death. It would be ideal to live in peace but if that is proving difficult, it should still be desirable to adhere to established principles of soldiering.

All this has come at a time when Pakistan is gripped in intense uncertainty in the wake of fast moving events in domestic politics because of which it hasn’t been able to shape an appropriate response to Indian belligerence. This, as well as the heat on the LoC, is giving reason to extremists to rejoice as they have always believed that the 2005 accord has only served Indian interests of gaining time on Pakistan and not much else.

The evolving and institutionally aggressive Indian design should, therefore, serve as an eye-opener for armchair strategists who took a few calm summers on the eastern front as ‘peace in our lifetime’. For an effective response however, we need to put our house in order as soon as possible, close our ranks and show greater resolve.

India’s new line in the aftermath of the recent LoC skirmishes apparently is to tell Pakistan that it will call the shots and Pakistan has no alternative but to toe the line. India probably feels that cutting off sporting, cultural and trade links will hurt us. It plans to launch aggressive global diplomacy to damage our image and wants talks and wants any future roadmap on its terms. If these doubts prove well founded, we are headed for more turbulent times ahead as clearly it is an unacceptable path.

Recent events have dramatically changed the dynamics of the Indo-Pak peace process and it will be sometime before we return. Meanwhile, the ranks of converts who believe that the normalisation process with India has been an exercise of diminishing returns are swelling by the day. This sadly may be the unintended and larger collateral damage from the simmering tensions along the LoC.

The writer is a retired vice admiral. Email:tajkhattak@ymail.com

Taj M. Khattak, "Hope on the wane," The News. 2013-02-06.