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Quelling border clashes with Pakistan

by Praful Bidwai, 21 January 2013

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The Daily Star, January 21, 2013

Praful Bidwai Column

Skirmishes at the India-Pakistan Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu have spilled blood. The crisis could snowball into a destructive conflict unless resolved through skilful diplomacy. India and Pakistan will pay an exorbitant price if they don’t reject calls for avenging what’s regarded as one side’s humiliation by the other and quickly end the shooting war.

This is a moment for sobriety and statesmanship, not frenzied beating of war drums. Defusing tensions shouldn’t be left to the military, but must be driven by the civilian leadership.

The border clashes couldn’t have come at a worse time. India and Pakistan have recently made significant progress in engaging each other on issues like Siachen and Sir Creek, improving economic relations, developing energy-sector cooperation, and liberalising visa regimes.

Civil society has breathed energy into the dialogue. Sports, media and cultural exchanges — including joint music performances — have lent credibility to idea of peaceful, mutually enriching, co-existence. Pakistan’s civilian government is about to complete its full term, for the first time. Last fortnight, the reconciliation prospect looked hopeful.

These positive changes came about because of a shift of stance in Pakistan’s "deep state," or the Army, which approved the most-favoured nation trade status to India. Pakistan has moved from its insistence on resolving the "central" issue of Kashmir first, to a gradualist settling of other disputes.

Equally important is Army chief Pervez Ashfaq Kayani’s acknowledgment that the greatest threat to Pakistan’s security comes not from India, but internally. Jehadi militancy has emboldened the Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan to grievously attack the military, fed a Balochistan insurgency led by anti-Shia extremists, and fomented mayhem and crime, accelerating Pakistan’s economic downturn.

A reordering of Pakistan’s civilian-military balance seems under way. Tension escalation at the LoC will disrupt democratisation and improved relations with India.

As for the LoC clashes, it’s necessary to sift facts and credible reports from rhetoric, itself inflamed by public outrage at the reported beheading of an Indian soldier. Trouble started brewing around Charonda village near Uri on September 11, when a 70-year old grandmother crossed over to Pakistan-administered Kashmir, setting off alarm.

To counter this "vulnerability," reports The Hindu (January 10), an Indian Army unit started building observation bunkers. The India-Pakistan ceasefire agreement of 2003 bars such construction, but Indian commanders argued that the bunkers face Charonda and pose no threat to Pakistan.

As their construction continued, Pakistani troops started shelling the LoC, killing no soldiers, but three villagers. Indian troops retaliated. Tit-for-tat exchanges persisted for weeks, with no remedial action by either army’s top brass or civilian leaders.

On January 6, an Indian officer launched aggressive action, apparently without top-level permission, killing a Pakistani soldier. It’s not clear if Indian troops crossed the LoC. The point is such actions are unfortunately "routine[d]." This one spun out of control.

Two days later, Pakistani troops killed two Indian soldiers and reportedly beheaded one and mutilated the body of the other. In retaliation, Indian troops killed another Pakistani soldier. India’s electronic media went into overdrive demanding a "fitting reply" to Pakistan.

Both Indian Air Force and Army chiefs used belligerent language and threatened retaliation. India’s Defence Minister AK Antony described Pakistan’s conduct as a "turning point." Since then, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid has cautioned against "revenge." There was a flag meeting between local commanders too.

However, there has been no focused India-Pakistan diplomatic engagement. An early diplomatic initiative could have tried to convince Pakistan that the Charonda bunker wasn’t offensive; Pakistan could also build one on its side facing internally. However, India wouldn’t act unilaterally.

Had this failed, Indian and Pakistani diplomats could have worked out a non-military way of reducing "vulnerability" while maintaining the ceasefire’s sanctity. Indian civilian leaders should have reasserted their authority over the military, and told it that the ceasefire is an essential precondition for India’s security.

Regrettably, India’s civilian leadership has increasingly ceded policy-making ground and allowed military commanders to speak out of turn on Siachen and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

This trend must be reversed. The defence ministry cannot function autonomously, but must be brought under the control of the Cabinet and the Prime Minister’s Office.

It’s in India’s own interest that peace and tranquillity are maintained at the LoC. The decade-old ceasefire has helped India avert external mediation and improve relations with Pakistan.

India and Pakistan haven’t displayed maturity in dealing with ceasefire violations. Scores of violations occur routinely. India claims there were 117 last year and 61 in 2011. Weekly "hot-line" calls between the Directors-General of Military Operations haven’t worked. We need higher-level engagement between our diplomatic and security establishments.

Even more unacceptable is routine tit-for-tat shelling which treats soldiers as if their life had no value. And absolutely impermissible and illegal under the Geneva Conventions are torture, and mutilation of soldiers’ bodies, which reportedly happened not just in 1999, but also last year.

However just a war’s cause, it must be conducted justly. Cruel, inhuman and degrading methods are unacceptable.

Indian and Pakistani militaries must be compelled to behave in a responsible, restrained and civilised fashion across what’s admittedly a difficult, rough-terrain border with huge troop concentration. There’s no place here for actions which seek to inflict maximal pain upon adversaries.

The guns must fall silent. Or else, small clashes could escalate into major conflicts, as happened at Kargil, when both adversaries recklessly brandished their nuclear swords.

Such restraint is achievable. The US and the USSR were mortal Cold War enemies, armed to the teeth. Yet, despite systemic hostility and countless provocations, they never exchanged a shot; leave alone beat up each other’s diplomats or soldiers.

Put simply, India and Pakistan must quit the habit of regarding their Hot-Cold War as normal and inevitable, and move towards completely demilitarising their borders.

Transition from suspicion and hostility to a culture of peaceful conflict resolution is a great challenge not just for our militaries, but our diplomats, policy-shapers and ordinary citizens too. On that depends our survival.


The above article from The Daily Star is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use